In South Africa, one of the world’s most carbon-intense economies and a society marked by gross social inequality, climate change is not a popular topic. As of 2018, more than half of the population had never heard of climate change and only one in five South Africans believed that human activities lead to global warming. The communication of climate change in South Africa is influenced by the notorious inequality that the country still suffers decades after the apartheid regime has ended. Few South Africans are able to live a life in prosperity and security on par with life in industrialized nations, more than half of the population are considered poor, almost a third of the population are chronically unemployed, and many work for carbon-intense industries. The country’s prevalent inequality and its economic dependency on coal influence the way climate change is communicated and interpreted. Environmental NGOs, journalists, and scientists frequently set communication cues on climate change. However, their messages are largely circulated in newspapers catering to an urban and educated readership and resonate less with people living in rural areas or those who rely on employment in the coal and mining sector. In South Africa, most people hear about climate change in mass media, but journalists frequently lack the resources and training necessary to investigate climate change stories or to interact with local scientists. Environmental NGOs, in contrast, provide easily comprehendible communication cues for unspecialized journalists and often share similar worldviews and demographic backgrounds with dedicated environmental reporters. However, because Black South Africans are underrepresented among environmental journalists and because many affordable local newspapers cannot afford to hire specialized reporters, climate change is covered mostly in high-quality English-language outlets to which most people have no access. Moreover, environmental NGOs are frequently accused of prioritizing abstract ecological concerns, like climate change, over the interests of the South Africans workers, a sentiment that is informed by the country’s history of racial injustice. Counterintuitively, living in a coal area is associated with higher climate change awareness and belief, likely because coal companies and trade unions conduct awareness-raising programs among their workers and because many residents experience the adverse impact of coal mining and combustion firsthand.
Across many parts of the globe the relationship between journalists and news sources has been transformed by digital technologies, increased reliance on public relations practitioners, and the rise of citizen journalism. With fewer gatekeepers, and the growing influence of digital and social media, identifying whose voices are authoritative in making sense of complex climate science proves an increasing challenge. An increasing array of news sources are vying for their particular perspective to be established including scientists, government, industry, environmental NGOs, individual citizens and, more recently, celebrities. The boundaries between audience, consumer and producer are less defined and the distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘opinion-based’ reporting has become more blurred. All these developments suggest the need for a more complex account of the myriad influences on journalistic decisions. More research needs to examine behind-the-scenes relations between sources and journalists, and the efforts of news sources to frame the issues or seek to silence news media attention. Also although we now know a great deal more about marginalized sources and their communication strategies we know relatively little about those of powerful multinational corporate organizations, governments and lobby groups. The shifting media environment and the networked nature of information demand a major rethinking of early media-centric approaches to examining journalist/source relations as applied to climate change. The metaphors of ‘network’ and field’ capture the diverse linkages across different spheres better than the Hierarchy of Influences model.
John Wihbey and Bud Ward
The relationship between scientific experts and news media producers around issues of climate change has been a complicated and often contentious one, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, speed, and narrative compression. Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over communications addressing those risks have increased. Scientists increasingly have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. Professional science and environment journalists—whose ranks have been thinned steadily by media industry financial pressures—have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding; accuracy; and, at times, perceived bias. A number of important organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and journalists to be more effective at communicating about the complexities of climate science and about the societal and economic impacts of a warming climate. For example, organizations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has continued to focus on the communication of climate science. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island sponsor programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as “Dot Earth,” hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, and Climate Progress have fostered professional dialogue, greater awareness of science, and called attention to reporting and communications issues. Journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and professional conferences and events bring the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty. Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics including how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports. Professional dialogue has also revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story at the level of global importance. Still, with issues of climate change communication on display for more than two decades now, certain tensions and dynamics persist. Notably, journalists seek clarity from scientists, while climate change experts and advocates for and against taking climate action often continue to demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest empirical findings, while at the same time urging that journalists do not underestimate potential climate risks.
Research in the field of journalistic decisions, advocacy strategies, and communication practices is very heterogeneous, comprising diverse groups of actors and research questions. Not surprisingly, various methods have been applied to assess actors’ motives, strategies, intentions, and communication behaviors. This article provides an overview of the most common methods applied—i.e., qualitative and quantitative approaches to textual analyses, interviewing techniques, observational and experimental research. After discussing the major strengths and weaknesses of each method, an outlook on future research is given. One challenge of the future study of climate change communication will be to account for its dynamics, with various actors reacting to one another in their public communication. To better approximate such dynamics in the future, more longitudinal research will be needed.