Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its landmark climate crisis report. The IPCC declared that the planet is on track for a 3-4°C temperature rise, and that even a global temperature rise of 1.5°C would see humans facing unprecedented climate-related risks and weather events. Yet, despite the dramatic nature of the report, only 28 of the 50 biggest US newspapers covered the findings.
It is statistics such as these that prompted Hong Tien Vu, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, to investigate the ways in which media across the globe portrays the climate crisis and to analyse which national traits most influence the coverage.
The analysis looked at more than 37,000 articles, hailing from 85 news sources and 45 countries across every continent. In doing so, he and his team attempted to select a representative sample of media outlets, covering the full range of political ideologies. From there, they overlaid the article data with country data, such as economic development, weather and energy consumption.
The study revealed that while all countries cover the climate crisis differently, clear themes do emerge. Across the board, a sense of immediacy and an analysis of concrete policy solutions was missing. More specifically, the most reliable predictor of the way a nation portrayed the climate crisis turned out to be gross domestic product per capita. In general, richer countries framed the issue as a domestic, political one, while poorer countries framed it as an international issue that the world at large needs to tackle. Richer countries also focused more on the actual climate science.
Though the results don’t particularly surprise Vu, he finds them disheartening. ‘It confirmed something that I didn’t really want to hear,’ he says. ‘I think we need to increase the coverage of climate change in richer countries. This is where the conversation should begin, because richer countries are where we have most resources to fight [the effects of the climate crisis].’ The issue is important because Vu says that ‘not only can framing have an impact on how an issue is perceived but on whether and how policy is made on the issue.’
While increasing coverage may be possible, changing the way the climate crisis is discussed could be more difficult, in part because of one of journalism’s central tenets. ‘The news media in general tends to like conflict,’ Vu says. ‘That makes climate change an attractive topic to talk about when it is portrayed in light of a conflict.’ It is this approach that encourages the sort of politicised content Vu has seen plenty of, too often focusing on or giving equal weight to those who doubt climate science or on debates around the correct allocation of resources.
‘If they’re still debating whether it exists, or whether we should allocate more resources to it, then that means that we’re not taking action,’ says Vu. ‘In the US, people are still talking about the existence of climate change. If you’re still debating that, it means a very limited amount of action has been taken.’