The Medias role in the acknowledgment of the problematic of the environmental crisis

“Climate change is one of the most serious challenges to society (Höijer, 2010, p. 717)”. Ten years ago, the IPCC of the United Nations declared, that in the last ten decades, the increase of temperature on earth is at 0,74° (Höijer, 2010, p. 717). Risks that are identified by world-wide scientific communities include “heavy rains, floods and storms, rising sea-water level, forest fires, fatal heat waves, noxious insects, microbial and fungal diseases, and effects on vegetation and animal life (Höijer, 2010, p. 717).” During the last decade, climate change came into the focus of society through the rising media coverage (Höijer cited Boykoff, 2010, p.717). However, the coverage of climate change varies in different countries (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, p. 1034). “The environment beat is a relatively new journalistic field, having emerged in the 1960s, when growing awareness of social and environmental issues spurred the start of the environment movement (Bourassa, et al., 2013).” 

This Document is about how the environmental crisis is covered by the media around the world, takes a look at how the topic is convicted and which role a countries status plays in the way the climate change is handled in their news media. Additionally, it takes a short look at the influence of sceptical voices. It also handles the stylistic patterns used in reporting, and the role of social media concerning the topic climate change. The main statement is that Media plays a crucial role in the acknowledgement of the problematic of the environmental crisis. 

Reporting on the environmental crisis in different countries 

When observing the reporting on climate change in various countries, it is possible to see that “climate change has become headline news in some countries but has received comparatively little coverage in others (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, p. 1029)” which has an influence on the public’s awareness of the topic. 

It appears, that climate change moved beyond being an issue only to rich countries (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, p. 1029). A Study by Barkemeyer, Figge, Hoepner, Holt, Kraak and Yu has shown, that the 

“quality of a country’s regulatory regime is positively related to levels of media coverage of climate change” and that the “Country-specific unemployment trends are negatively related to levels of media attention to climate change (2017, pp. 1044-1045).” This means, that if the regulatory regime of a country is of higher quality, the climate change is more likely to be a topic in their news and being reported on more frequently. Also, higher unemployment rates are a negative factor. This factor seems to crowd out climate change as a top-class issue in newspapers (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, p. 1037). However, neither the degree of how high the risk of climate change related threats is in a country, nor the policy efficacy concerning climate change, are related to the degree of media attention to it. Also, the religious denominations seem to have small but no significant influence on the coverage the environmental crisis (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, p. 1046).  Based on the findings of a study by McCombs and Shaw, Mass media influences the publics opinion but also matches it to its audience’s interest (1972, pp. 186-187). The study also showed that that if a topic is covered in the media more frequently, the public regards it as more important which in this case means, that climate change appears as a more important topic to those societies, in which countries news report on the issue more often. 

The attention on climate change in different countries varied during decades (Holt & Backemeyer, 2012, pp. 14-15). Downs theorizes an issue-attention cycle, that influences public attitude and behaviour (Holt & Barkemeyer cited Downs, 2012, p.6-7). Downs explains, that a problem, that is covered by the media, goes through five stages based on the public’s interest and concern. The first stage is the Pre-problem, in which the undesirable condition is without a lot of public attention. Stage two is the alarmed discovery or the euphoric enthusiasm, which is the result of dramatic events of which the public becomes aware. The third stage is the realization of the costs that are acquired to solve the problem. This includes financial costs as well as personal sacrifices. In stage four, the intense interest of the public gradually declines though the wide spreading acceptance of difficulty and costs. The last stage is the post-problem phase in which the interest in the topic falls to a low stage again (Holt & Barkemeyer cited Downs, 2012, p.6-7). This cycle has been considered as applicable to the  

coverage of the environmental crisis in news media (Holt & Barkemeyer cited Dunlap, McComas and Shanahan, 2012, p.6). However, Reiner Grundmann and Mike Scott (2012, p. 232) argue, that the real rise of the climate discourse only began after 2005. This is because of the abrupt growth of attention the topic experienced in the very same year, which is claimed by Grundmann and Scott “attributed to several high-profile interventions from advocates of ambitious climate policies (2012, p. 227)” in 2005. “When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed.  

When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators (…) to make up their minds (Grundmann & Scott cited Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins 2010, p. 233)”. If a certain topic is addressed by the countries elites, the public regards it as important and the topic becomes mainstream. If elites disagree on that certain topic, society gets polarized and the citizens rely on other sources like political parties or the credibility of the sources to make their opinion. The news media contributes as one of these sources to the public sphere. The phenomenon especially seems to apply to the coverage of the climate change in the USA and is a possible explanation for the low salience on US`s political agenda (Grundmann & Scott, 2012, p. 226). Additionally, in the United States sceptical voices have an additional influence (Grundmann & Scott, 2012, p. 226). 

Influence of sceptical voices 

Grundmann and Scott point out, that in general, in news reporting concerning the climate change, advocates dominate over sceptical voices (2012, p. 226). This is, based on their study, at least the case in the United States of America, in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. However, the “US press gives nine times more attention to sceptical voices compared to Germany, and four times more than the UK (Grundmann & Scott, 2012, p. 226)”. Anyhow, the scepticism on climate change in the United States has a long tradition (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 498). In comparison to before though,  

the “manner in which the scepticism is expressed in US print media has changed (…) (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 508)”. While former coverage was dominated by the denial of the existence of global  

warming and its causes, todays claims focus on needed or unneeded actions to fight climate change (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 508). This form of scepticism is dangerous since it is not easily identifiable as such at first sight (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 509). To stop climate change, action needs to be taken immediately and the media giving sceptics a platform to legitimate their claims, could “contribute to the failure to ratify international agreements and hinder the implementation of a national climate change policy in the United States” (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 509)”.  

In comparison to the United States and India and Australia, however, an analysis study by Metag, Füchslin and Schäfer, showed that “the German population has the biggest group of Alarmed people (…) (Metag, et al., 2015, p. 446)”. The alarmed public seeks for clues in the mass media and speaks about climate change more generally, while doubtful members of the society seek for less information on this issue (Metag, et al., 2015, p. 446). 

Beside mainstream media, Climate change denial books as a source for information on the topic, influence opinions on climate change. The books make scientifically inaccurate claims which are “amplified in conservative media and the blogsphere, potentially reaching significant segments of the general public (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013, p. 713).” Regardless of the medium however, the disproportionate coverage of sceptical claims in mass media can lead to the questioning of taking actions against climate change (Boykoff, 2013, p. 811).  

Stylistics in the coverage of climate change 

As Metag, Füchslin and Schäfers claim in their study, informed, concerned and cautious groups of the society have to be addressed differently than doubtful, disengaged or dismissive groups (2015, p. 448).  

Science communication in general is expressed with certain stylistic patterns which serve to enhance the newsworthiness of for example the topic climate change (Molek-Kozakowska, 2017, p. 69).  

To engage readers in general, most news outlets try to present the topic as unheard of or surprising with for example new discoveries (Molek-Kozakowska, 2017, p. 76).  

Another stylistic pattern are the superlative, comparatives or quantifiers (Molek-Kozakowska, 2017, p. 77). The third most found pattern is the factor of lacking time to solve a problem and the impact the problem, for example climate change, has (Molek-Kozakowska, 2017, p. 78). Problematic in this context is that “climate change (…) as a phenomenon (…) lacks the required immediacy, and thus salience, for promoting action (Hanson-Easey, et al., 2015, p. 233). The last stylistic pattern Molek-Kosakowska found was the evaluation of positivity and negativity that is used instead of neutrality to engage the readers (2017, p. 79). 

One other possibility to comment on climate change while entertaining the audience is satire (Kalviknes Bore & Reid, 2014, p. 454). The benefit of the usage of satire on the topic of climate change is, that it can promote engagement and give a positive side to climate change instead of just work with shocking representations (Kalviknes Bore & Reid, 2014, pp. 463-468). This means that through satire in the media, the problematic of climate change and the active and positive engagement with it, can communicated. 

The Role of the Internet and Social media  

Additionally, to the traditional forms of print media and the television format, Social media platforms and the Internet in general are important new ways to change politics and the political economy concerning the conversation about nature (Bücher, 2014, p. 726) and to engage the public in a discussion about climate change. An analysis by Veltri and Atanasova showed that the four thematic arrays concerning climate change in posts on the social media platform twitter are “calls for action and awareness of climate change, its consequences and causes, and the policy debate about climate change and energy (2015, p. 732).” People’s attention towards pro-environmental messages is linked  

with their perception of others attention and believing in similar messages (Liao, et al., 2015, p. 55), which means that the connection to others through social media is a possibility to spread to knowledge  

about the problematic concerning climate change.  

As Kalviknes Bore & Reid already determine, satire can help to create a positive engagement with climate change. “Conflict in online discussions of science has the potential to polarize individuals’ perceptions of science (Anderson & Huntington, 2017, p. 598)”. The discussions about climate change, may be susceptible to the use of sarcasm (Anderson & Huntington, 2017, p. 600). On twitter for example, concerning climate change, sarcasm is often used to express a negative thing in a positive term (Anderson & Huntington cited Kunneman et al., 2014; Riloff et al., 2013, p.602). This means, that not only print media or shows can use sarcasm to engange their audience in the topic of climate change, but also it can also made use of this stylistic in online media channels to engage the audience.  


While climate change moved beyond being an issue to rich countries (Holt & Backemeyer, 2012, p. 1029), with higher quality of a regulatory regime in a country, and lower unemployment rates, it is more likely to find climate change as a topic that is frequently covered in their news (Barkemeyer, et al., 2017, pp. 1044-1045). Based on the findings of the study by McCombs and Shaw, Mass media influence the publics opinion but also matches it to their audience’s interest (1972, pp. 186-187). In this case their findings show, that climate change appears as a more important topic to those societies, in which countries news report on the issue more often. 

Climate change scepticism is handled different in different countries. Giving the sceptics a platform to engage with the audience however, could “contribute to the failure to ratify international agreements and hinder the implementation of a national climate  

change policy (…) (Schmid-Perti, et al., 2015, p. 509)”. The alarmed public seeks for clues in the mass media and speaks about climate change more generally, while doubtful members of the society seek for less information on this issue (Metag, et al., 2015, p. 446). Therefore, the media has to find a way to engage especially these group of the society in the topic og climate change. This could, for example be done through satire, through which the problematic of climate change and the active and positive engagement with it, can be communicated. “Fair, precise, and accurate media coverage of climate science and politics will not be the panacea for challenges associated with anthropogenic climate change (Boykoff, 2013, p. 811)”. However, the media plays an important role in “framing the scientific, economic, social and political dimensions through giving voice to some viewpoints while suppressing others, and legitimating certain truth-claims as reasonable and credible (Anderson, 2009, p. 166).” 

Unfortunately, media firms seek to expand profits in the expanding ecosystem which is why Journalists are challenged with covering climate change in a profitable context to bring it in front of the audience (Gibson, et al., 2015, p. 429). It was failed to connect on a personal level with the audience (Happer & Philo, 2015). Nonetheless, the public’s recognition of a problem is the first step in creating a policy to address it (Saphiro & Park, 2014). 


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