Disasters dominate television coverage of climate reports, study finds

by James Painter, Reuters Institute | Reuters Institute
Tuesday, 23 September 2014 10:15 GMT

Stranded cars are seen on a flooded street amid heavy rainfall in Shenzhen, in China's Guangdong province, on May 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From Brazil to China, reporting of climate change science focuses on the bad news

Despite the revolution in the way audiences, and particularly young people, now get their information, in most countries television is still the most used and trusted source of information for news – including news about science.

Yet it is unusual to find studies that focus on the way television (rather than print media) covers climate change - or studies that focus specifically on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, or that include major developing countries.

So that’s why we at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism decided to look at television coverage of the recent IPCC working group reports in six countries with very different political and media contexts – Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India and the UK.

In each country we chose a channel that commanded a significant audience - often the largest with the most-watched evening news bulletin, and rated as the most trusted. The combined audience of the six channels was around 50 million.

The six channels were ABC 1 in Australia; TV Globo in Brazil; CCTV-1 in China; ARD in Germany; Aaj Tak in India, and the BBC in the UK.

The first major difference was in the amount of coverage.  While Australia, Brazil, Germany and the UK carried considerable coverage of the reports, China had just 40 seconds, and India no coverage at all.

This is partly to be explained by differing editorial priorities.

In India, the 200-plus news channels compete aggressively for ratings, and the release of the reports was eclipsed by much greater interest in the country’s general elections, which took place in phases over a month.

In China, our researcher observed that media were much more interested in very immediate and visible environmental disasters like air and water pollution.

What’s interesting is that the Chinese and Indian media do pay more attention to U.N. climate meetings, partly because they are much more political and China and India have a major role in them.

SCEPTICS AND ‘THE PAUSE’

Another major difference is how much attention media paid to climate sceptics or what is termed the climate ‘pause’ (the lack of a significant rise in global average temperatures since 1998).

The BBC in the UK and ABC in Australia were the only two channels of the six to delve into the ‘pause’.  Of the other four countries, there was only a brief mention on Jornal Nacional in Brazil.

The UK was the only country to have a climate sceptic – someone who doubts the veracity of climate change, or the role of humans in causing it - appear on screen in the news bulletins monitored, although there was a generic mention of ‘sceptics’ in Brazil.

The results endorse the findings in other studies that show the strong presence of sceptics and sceptic discourses in ‘Anglo-sphere’ countries like Australia, the UK, and the USA – but much less in other countries.

For example, the 2011 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism publication, Poles Apart, showed that climate scepticism was widespread in the print media in the UK and the USA, but virtually absent from Brazil, China, France, and India.

FOCUS ON DISASTERS

The new study also showed similarities in coverage of the IPCC reports. Those included a strong emphasis on the adverse impacts or ‘disaster’ elements of the climate change story, such as Arctic ice melt, more drought or more extreme weather events.

Other potential focuses – the uncertainty surrounding climate change, the opportunities it presents and the explicit risks it presents – got much less air time.

Outside of television news, the risks surrounding climate change are an ever-bigger focus. The Risky Business report earlier this year, for example, used a risk management perspective to lay out the threats from climate change for agriculture, energy, and coastal real estate in the United States.

The IPCC, too, put considerable emphasis on ‘risk management’ in its reports – but had little success getting those into television reports.

This is not unexpected.  Television needs pictures and strong engaging narratives to attract audiences. Disasters are full of them,  while risks are more difficult to explain and harder to turn into stories.

James Painter is a researcher and head of the journalism fellowship programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.