This New Study Shows How The Media Makes People Climate Change Cynics -- And What They Can Do Differently

Author Explains How Stories Emphasizing Action, Agency Can Inspire Political Engagement


Media coverage of climate change may have a hand in making the public apathetic towards acting on climate, according to two recent studies. But one study also details how the media can improve.

A new study from the policy think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the media can breed cynicism about climate change when reporting emphasizes “the failures of climate politics.” The study, titled “News Media and Climate Politics: Civic Engagement and Political Efficacy in a Climate of Reluctant Cynicism,” concluded that such news stories can “intensif[y] feelings of political alienation, despair and cynicism.”

The study's findings go hand in hand with another study by researchers at Rutgers University, which examined how four major U.S. newspapers frame their reporting on climate change. That study, published in Public Understanding of Science, found that The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and USA Today often include “negative efficacy” (framing climate change actions as unsuccessful or costly) as opposed to “positive efficacy” (framing climate actions as manageable or effective). The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in particular framed climate action as ineffective more often than effective:

 WSJ chart

The Canadian study also found that consuming stories about political activism and individual actions -- “especially news that featured a local focus, a compelling narrative and an accessible 'everyday hero'” -- can have the opposite effect on readers. Study participants who read and discussed such stories reported “much greater enthusiasm and optimism for political engagement.”

But according to the Rutgers study, these types of stories are rarely reported, at least at the national level. The study found that for non-opinion climate change articles in four major national newspapers from 2006 to 2011, just 9.7 percent discussed behavior change and just 13.6 percent discussed political advocacy.

Taken in tandem, the two studies paint a bleak picture of how mainstream newspapers' coverage of climate change can breed cynicism among its readership. Indeed, Lauren Feldman -- the lead author of the Rutgers study -- said to Media Matters that while the studies “can't establish a definitive causal relationship between media coverage and public cynicism toward climate,” the two combined “are certainly suggestive of the role of mainstream media in breeding pessimism about climate change.”

And Shane Gunster -- a co-author of the Canadian study -- agreed with Feldman, telling Media Matters that there is “a strong connection between both studies” and that they show how “decisions which news media make about how to frame climate change have a significant impact upon how or if the public engages with the issue.” Gunster, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication, added:

The efficacy emphasis is especially important given how easily one can otherwise be overwhelmed by the magnitude of climate change as a problem. And if one thinks of journalism as playing a crucial role in facilitating public engagement with the critical issues of the day, a much greater focus upon how efficacy can be cultivated and strengthened is in keeping with that mandate.

But Gunster said that one of his study's goals was “to move beyond simply criticizing media for their failures and shortcomings,” and identify “constructive suggestions about how journalists could approach this topic differently.” These include, among other things: "[s]uccess stories about climate politics"; “stories of entrepreneurial activism and everyday heroism”; “localized information about the causes and consequences of climate change”; and "[i]nformation about how to engage politically."

Gunster summed up his study's findings to Media Matters as follows: “There is a strong desire for a different kind of news about climate change, which provides people with inspiring and compelling stories about how others just like them are becoming active and engaged in climate politics.”

He also pointed to a previous paper he published in 2011, illustrating that such reporting exists, though it may not be not the norm. That paper, which examined media coverage of the United Nations' climate change conference in Copenhagen, found that alternative and independent media often frame climate change in ways that can promote political agency and efficacy, offering “a much more diverse and optimistic vision of climate politics as a place in which broad civic engagement on climate change can challenge and overcome institutional inertia as well as model democratic and participatory approaches to the development of climate policy.” Gunster wrote that such stories “can affirm our sense of how effective news media could be in motivating broader civic engagement with climate change.” From the report:

[I]t is equally important to explore existing media institutions and practices which are communicating about climate change in a more effective and engaged manner. Just as success stories about (some) governments getting climate politics right can invigorate our sense of political efficacy, success stories about (some) media getting climate politics right can affirm our sense of how effective news media could be in motivating broader civic engagement with climate change. Identifying best media practices can also sharpen the critique of mainstream media insofar as it provides concrete evidence that a more radical approach to environmental journalism is not simply idealistic speculation, but, rather, already being actively practiced.