My friend James Painter has a new report out, so my colleague John Magrath has kindly reviewed it to avoid any accusations of favouritism…..
Why is media coverage of climate change – and other scientific issues – so radically different in countries across the globe? And what are the social and political implications of such uneven and contrasting reporting?
To explore these questions James Painter and colleagues at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism have mapped the differences in the amount of sceptical voices in newspapers in six countries – in two papers apiece in the USA, Brazil, China, France and India, and across all papers in the UK. They also looked at where sceptical voices appeared, in the news pages or in opinion pieces. In all they analysed over 3,000 pieces of journalism.
Some of the findings are pretty obvious. Sceptical voices get a lot more coverage in the US and UK (and in some papers, are the predominant voices), particularly around the so-called “Climategate scandal” in 2009. In contrast, in the other countries, although climate change coverage is generally less substantial, sceptical voices barely get a look-in.
What was more interesting was the exploration of why this might be so, going beyond the politics of the newsroom to examine wider cultural frameworks and reference points within which different societies (perhaps unconsciously) function, and which influence how science and scientists are seen.
The ability of sceptics to get their views across in the US media reflects not only the influence of organised and wealthy lobbies but underlying attitudes and an “historical trajectory of climate scepticism or denialism…linked to other scientific issues”. Scepticism in (and of) science is a good – and essential – thing, but this has tipped over into denialism. Attitudes include distrust and questioning of government and authorities, rejection of mainstream thinking and perceived conformity in favour of individualism and alternative views.
At the report launch Graham Lawton of New Scientist magazine pointed out that evolution, for example, clashes with long-standing and deep cultural frames of reference that extol US exceptionalism and the virtues of Capitalism. Climate change challenges cherished values and aspired-to lifestyles, so it is felt as a very personal threat. But science-denial isn’t the sole prerogative of the Right. In the US and UK most vaccine denialism is a Left-wing phenomenon, because of deep-rooted distrust of Big Pharma.
In Brazil reporters pointed to a journalistic culture of strong science and environment reporting that carries great weight within newspapers. In India too, scientists are reported “straight”. The prominence of Dr Pachauri as chair of the IPCC has weight. Environmental groups are influential and vocal about climate change risks. And it helps that in a wider sense, people in Brazil and India, whilst they might feel threatened by climate change, don’t feel that they are to blame for causing it.
Several questions emerge from all this. Who – ultimately – has the healthier media? We can despair about UK and US papers giving undue credence to denialists, but are journalists in other countries too deferential? One Chinese journalist quoted in the report said she personally did not include sceptical views as she had had guidance “from the renowned Chinese scholar Luo Yong that we should not listen to sceptics”. On the other hand, journalists elsewhere regard much US and UK coverage with bemusement, perceiving our media as constantly over-reacting to events with a herd mentality that whips up irrational frenzies.
And what role does the blogosphere play in influencing both social attitudes and, directly or indirectly, the mainstream media? Journalists at the launch acknowledged its influence but seemed reluctant to downgrade the pre-eminence of their newspapers – perhaps understandably. Tom Clarke, the science correspondent for Channel 4, thought that the blogosphere “has made the world a more confusing place”. Thomas Friedman in the New York Times recently wondered if the Internet “has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory, and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own”.
The biggest question though is, what happens next for climate change – and more generally for science – reporting? What needs to change to get better coverage? At the report launch Graham Lawton said that the public in the UK “are fed up with the stuff” (talk of climate change, that is).
The Left has been poor at (re)framing climate change in a way that appeals to many people but Lawton, for one, feels that this might change with economics and with new thinking. He cited the film Carbon Nation as “a brilliant piece of polemic” that avoids mention of climate change entirely, but frames the issues in terms of energy, and the potential jobs, business and investment opportunities and national security factors that go with energy.
So, could there be a “Sputnik Moment” for the USA as Saleemul Huq recently asked? As the US sees China pulling ahead dramatically in renewable energy, will the US react as it did when Russia shocked the Western world by sending a satellite into space and the US realised that it had to catch up? US Energy Secretary Steven Chu seems to think such a moment is needed. Testifying to the Energy and Commerce Committee last Thursday, he said “When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat. I believe we can and must compete” (see chart).
Perhaps in the near future the way to get action on climate change (in Anglo-Saxon societies at least) will be to focus on the other, linked issues that really register with people – jobs, energy, and avoid mention of the climate change ‘stuff’. If so, would that mean that the denialists had won? If so, how much would it matter?
Poles Apart: the international reporting of climate scepticism is available from the Reuters Institute. The Executive Summary can be downloaded free, but you have to cough up £20 if you want to read the whole book.