Research/Study Research/Study

ANALYSIS: How The Media Covered The U.N. Climate Reports In Three Charts

The final installment of the U.N.'s top climate report, which calls for prompt, extensive action to avoid calamitous impacts from climate change, garnered relatively little attention from the major print, cable and broadcast media outlets compared to the first installment. However, coverage of the third report rightfully gave far less space to those who cast doubt on the science.

  • U.N. Climate Report Outlining Solutions Received Relatively Little Coverage

    United Nations Report Calls For Immediate Action To Stave Off Worst Of Climate Change. The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third and final installment of its fifth assessment report on the state of scientific knowledge on climate change on April 13. The third assessment from Working Group 3 (WG3), titled “Mitigation of Climate Change,” stated that carbon emissions need to be drastically reduced in order to prevent global temperatures from rising over two degrees Celsius -- the threshold to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of manmade global warming. [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 4/13/14]

    But Media Gave Far Less Coverage To The Solutions Report Than To The Previous Reports. A Media Matters analysis found that the major print and television outlets devoted far less coverage to the most recent installment of the IPCC report than the first two reports by Working Group 1 (WG1) and Working Group 2 (WG2), which outlined the evidence that manmade climate change is happening and having largely negative impacts, respectively. The third report received only about a quarter (28 percent) of the amount of coverage given to the first report:

    Coverage Decline

    Studies Show Providing Dire Messages Without Solutions Could Be Ineffective. Covering the first U.N. reports warning of the dire impacts of climate change, while giving relatively little coverage to the report outlining the solutions, may be counterproductive. A 2009 review of studies on climate messaging, published in Science Communication, found that “fear-inducing representations” of the threat of global warming without providing solutions could “trigger barriers to engagement”:

    Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people's attention and concern, they do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.


    A consistent message that does arise from the fear appeals literature appears to be that both an individual's perceived sense of action effectiveness and the individual's perceived sense of self-efficacy are imperative for a fear appeal to be successful. [Science Communication, March 2009]

    Another study by University of California, Berkeley researchers also suggested that focusing on potential solutions can foster “greater belief in science's ability to find solutions to global warming,” while focusing only on “dire messages” could increase skepticism:

    [D]ire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals' deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just. In addition, we found evidence that this dire messaging led to reduced intentions among participants to reduce their carbon footprint - an effect driven by their increased global warming skepticism. Our results imply that because dire messaging regarding global warming is at odds with the strongly established cognition that the world is fair and stable, people may dismiss the factual content of messages that emphasize global warming's dire consequences. But if the same messages are delivered coupled with a potential solution, it allows the information to be communicated without creating substantial threat to these individuals' deeply held beliefs. [Psychological Science, 2010]

    Study: Broadcast News Often Decouples Solutions From Threat Of Climate Change, Reducing Efficacy. An analysis of broadcast news coverage published in the journal Science Communication found that climate “impacts” and “actions” were only rarely discussed in the same report on a majority of networks:

    While impacts and actions are discussed independently in a majority of broadcasts, they are rarely discussed in the same broadcast. Moreover, while news coverage frequently conveys the threat of climate change, it provides an inconsistent efficacy message, often including both positive and negative efficacy cues. [Science Communication, 2/7/14]

    However, Media Coverage Provided Less Misinformation Than In Previous Reports

    Media Sowed Doubt In Coverage Of First U.N. Climate Report. The first installment of the U.N.'s climate assessment reported with 95 percent certainty that humans are the “dominant cause” of global warming, a statement with which 97 percent of climate science is in agreement. However, some media outlets provided false balance in their coverage of the report, giving attention to the minority of climate “skeptics” and doubters, including fossil fuel-funded Marc Morano and the Heartland Institute. [IPCC, 9/27/13; Media Matters, 10/10/13]

    Doubters Were Not Given As Much Airtime In Final Installment As In Previous Reports. Although media coverage declined for each installment of the IPCC report, it improved in one measure of quality -- the rate of climate “skeptics” and doubters quoted also declined with each. In the third report, the only coverage that quoted someone classified as a climate doubter for our study was a Washington Post article, which quoted Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) without rebutting his attempt to cast doubt on climate science. In covering the second report, the Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY published op-eds by climate doubters, and the Associated Press quoted David Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation who has cast doubt on the climate consensus.

    [Washington Post, 4/13/14; Wall Street Journal, 3/27/14; Wall Street Journal, 4/2/14; USA TODAY, 3/31/14; Associated Press, 4/2/14, via The Huffington Post; Media Matters, 1/7/14]

    ABC Ignored Third Report, Continuing Paltry Climate Coverage

    ABC, CBS, Fox News, and LA Times Ignored The Latest U.N. Climate Report. Four outlets neglected to cover the “Mitigations and Climate Change” report by Working Group 3 (WG3). The Los Angeles Times, ABC, CBS, and Fox News all provided coverage to the first two assessments from the IPCC, but not to the third and final chapter:

    IPCC Coverage By Outlet

    ABC Provided Least Airtime To The Three U.N. Climate Reports, Continuing Its Trend Of Scant Coverage. ABC provided very little coverage to each installment of the IPCC report, according to our analysis. The network aired only three segments or mentions on the report overall, paling in comparison to coverage from the other broadcast networks -- CBS and NBC each provided almost four times the amount of coverage, with 11 and 12 segments or mentions, respectively. A previous Media Matters analysis found that in 2013 ABC World News was greatly outpaced by the other two major nightly news programs on NBC and CBS, which each aired over four times as much coverage on climate change. [Media Matters, 1/16/14]

    METHODOLOGY: We searched Nexis and Factiva for “panel on climate change” from August 1, 2013 through October 1, 2013 and from March 15 to April 15 for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY and The Wall Street Journal. For TV outlets, we did an additional Nexis and Factiva search for “climate change.” We also searched an internal video archive for “climate change” for Fox News and MSNBC daytime shows, which are not included in Nexis.

    Our analysis included any article, op-ed, editorial or segment devoted to the latest IPCC report, as well as any mention longer than one sentence.

    We only counted those quoted who commented on climate change in the context of the IPCC report. Guests were included as “doubters” if they cast doubt on whether the majority of recent warming is manmade, self-identify as a “skeptic,” or stated that the benefits of warming would outweigh the costs without explicitly mentioning that at some point the costs would outweigh any benefits.

    We treated authors of bylined op-eds as figures quoted, but did not include editorial boards in this count. 

    Shauna Theel contributed to this report.