Climate change must be treated as a systemic issue by the news media

  • Climate and sustainability

Professor Alison Anderson FAcSS, Professor in Sociology, University of Plymouth  

In this piece Professor Alison Anderson focuses on the ways that climate change is covered, and sometimes not covered, in the news media.  Alison uses evidence from social science to show that, whilst it has increased overall, coverage of climate change is often event-driven and the issue is often presented as a separate or niche topic rather than as a systemic problem and as a cross-cutting element embedded within our news reports.

The media play a key role in communicating climate change and over time there has been a trend towards increasing accuracy in covering the science in legacy outlets. Media (both traditional legacy media and new born digital outlets) have an important agenda-setting role through prioritising certain issues over others and according them greater visibility, whilst rendering others relatively invisible. When it comes to climate change, news media attention is highly event-driven and the largest spikes in coverage tend to occur during international climate summits, as illustrated by the findings of The Media and Climate Change Observatory at the University of Colorado which tracks news media attention over time:

People tend to have a limited pool of worry at any one time and there are many issues that compete for attention. Public opinion polls undertaken by Ipsos MORI before and after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow asked respondents what they saw as ‘the most important issues facing Britain today.’ In November 2021 (the month when COP26 took place) environment/pollution/climate change was seen as the most important issue facing the country with 4 in 10 people mentioning environmental issues as a concern, reaching its highest ever score on the Ipsos Issues Index. However, by December 2021 only 13% selected this as the top issue with 6 in 10 people now seeing the ‘coronavirus/pandemic’ as the most important problem. The most recent Ipsos Issues Index (September 2022) suggests the economy and the cost of living crisis is currently the overriding concern. Public opinion at any one time merely offers a snapshot of attitudes and tends to reflect the priority afforded to news topics at the time. We know that with climate change people tend to take their cues from the media in terms of both the amount of exposure and the content and tone of that coverage. However, the relationship between media coverage and public attitudes and action is complex and there is no simple causal link. Research highlights that knowledge about climate change does not necessarily inform beliefs or translate into action. Whilst awareness levels are high there are significant barriers that need to be addressed such as affordability, accessibility, and lack of infrastructure to support making sustainable choices.

Calls for action on such issues are far from new. As far back as 29th June 1988 readers of The Guardian were warned ‘Changing climate ‘will alter face of the world’. And an article in 1989 in Options magazine (targeted at young women, entitled ‘Why the Future must be Green’, declared:

“Pollution is a catch-all phrase for industrial processes and waste materials which cause damage to the environment and is the greatest threat the world faces…  Ultimately if pollution continues unchecked at its present rate it will threaten all life on earth…. At the 1987 general election a MORI poll showed that 81 per cent of people believed that a future government should give the environment a much higher priority. It was therefore somewhat surprising that environmentalist issues should take over a year to move to the political centre stage”

A former environment correspondent for the Daily Express, who I interviewed at the time, saw the Prime Ministerial speech on the environment as being pivotal:

“I think it’s become high profile for newspapers… I think what did push it right up to the top of the agenda was initially the speech made by the Prime Minister. And I think it was acceptance of the fact that the government suddenly realised the environment was a pressing issue that promoted what I might call pop to the middle of the road media to take it seriously. Being a Tory supporting newspaper we realized the government was now elevating it to a very high priority and therefore that it ought to be reflected in our coverage.”

Short electoral cycles do not tend to benefit issues such as climate change. While the environment enjoyed a spike in media attention in 1989 it was quickly taken over by worry about the UK recession, the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. By 1993 many environment correspondents who had been appointed for the first time by national newspapers in the late 1980s had been dispensed with, as editors responded to shifting government priorities. Across the water in the US it was a similar story with newspaper articles and magazine stories on the ‘greenhouse effect’, as it was then referred to, halving in number. And it was not until the distractions of the war and the economic recession had subsided that such media outlets began to re-appoint specialist reporters covering the environment.

However, by 2009 most newspapers had their own specialist environment correspondents and the BBC news science, health and environment team had grown from 2 to 30. Attention to climate change has varied considerably across different media outlets and print titles, with the Guardian having given it the most sustained attention over time. The stance taken by national newspapers has also shifted over the years with a quadrupling of the number of editorials calling for more action to tackle climate change between 2019 and 2021.

Given that coverage tends to follow cyclical patterns, together with the current war in the Ukraine, soaring inflation and the rising cost of living, there is a danger that climate change will be put on the back burner again. Research demonstrates that elite cues and economic factors play a key role in influencing public concern about the environment. While levels of concern about climate change among the UK public are still very high, and largely the same as there were since August 2021, more immediate worry about the cost of living crisis has over taken it. When tracing patterns over time the economy has been at the top of the public’s list of concerns for decades but a recent report indicates that support for climate change increases when communication focuses on co-benefits of net zero policies, such as job creation, improved air quality, or health improvements. While COP27, the major climate conference shortly to take place in Egypt, will focus renewed attention on it the issue must not slip down the agenda. Speaking ahead of COP27, UN Secretary General António Guterres insisted that climate change is the defining issue of our time and countries must re-prioritise climate change in order to avert catastrophe. As the latest UN Report highlights, while some progress has been made current climate plans are insufficient to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

What role can the media play to help to ensure that, following the publicity around COP27, climate issues are kept high on the agenda? Some positive shifts are beginning to happen, such as an increasing numbers of weathercasters mentioning climate change when reporting extreme weather events, but it needs to be proportionate in volume and depth to the size of the challenge. Increased coverage alone is not a panacea for climate change. Stories needs to meaningfully connect with citizens and discuss co-benefits and solutions.  This is particularly challenging for mainstream media. Legacy media face significant challenges, with declining audiences along with drops in advertising revenue and competition from new born digital players. Audiences for traditional news sources such as TV and print newspapers have declined significantly over the last decade, with younger people preferring to get their news online or via social media. Creative ways need to be found to ensure that the issue is prominent without encouraging feelings of disempowerment or fatigue.

Part of the problem is that climate change is still not generally treated as a systemic issue by the news media. Unlike the economy, which straddles across numerous news beats, climate change tends to be viewed as the preserve of the environment or climate correspondent and barely gets a mention in popular television and film. Just as within the education system, climate change tends to be treated as a separate topic rather than one that cuts across all subjects. Silo thinking needs to be broken down so that coverage of climate change is fully embedded within news media coverage. Climate impacts on every area of our lives including politics, the economy, health, culture and lifestyle. Whilst specialist climate and environment reporters are important, all news desks need to become fluent in dealing with the topic.


Photo Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About the author

Alison is Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth and Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Monash University, Australia.  Her research focuses on risk communication particularly in terms of environmental issues and health.  Alison is a founding member of the International Environmental Communication Association and former Editor-in-Chief of the Routledge journal, Environmental Communication. She is currently an Editorial Board member of Environmental Communication and on the International Advisory Board of Environmental Media. At Plymouth, she is the research lead for the Environment, Culture and Society research group.