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Media accountability in climate change reporting

In 2002, British scientist David King made the bold declaration that climate change is a greater threat to civilisation than terrorism (implying also that global warming has killed more people). The media frenzy that ensued was a turning point in the public face of the agenda,...

In 2002, British scientist David King made the bold declaration that climate change is a greater threat to civilisation than terrorism (implying also that global warming has killed more people). The media frenzy that ensued was a turning point in the public face of the agenda, providing an injection of visibility that could be measured simply by the number of newspaper headlines it generated around the world. It is unusual to see scientists making these kinds of statements, commented Dr Anabela Carvalho of Portugal's University of Minho at a recent conference in Paris, France on how the social sciences and humanities deal with the climate change questions. Few scientists, she explained, want to be accused of making sensationalist claims that may never be proven. Instead, the professor of communication studies claims that politicians play a greater role in determining what messages are communicated to the public via the media on these global challenges, and in some cases, use the issues to advance particular agendas. 'If you look at the evolution of media coverage on these issues, it coincides with the big declarations of the big politicians,' she notes. 'The peaks are there in the times of the international summits. It seems as though politicians really shape the media agenda, and therefore shape the public agenda too.' Dr Carvalho's study takes into account the evolution of climate change as it relates to the last two decades (1988-2008) of media coverage. Research that shapes the debate in this area focuses largely on coverage in newspapers, due in part to practicality (accessing television and radio archives can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming) but also due to the influential relationship the so-called prestige press has with other media. 'If you look at The New York Times or The Guardian, the issues and views they bring up often then 'contaminate' (let's say) other media, often setting the agenda or initiating debates that then propagate to other media,' she told CORDIS News during the conference, which was hosted by the French Presidency of the EU. The year 1988 is noted as a milestone in the public sphere of climate change due to the timing of a number of key events, including scientist James Hansen's famous global warming presentation to the White House; the UK's Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher who developed a sudden interest in the issue (possibly motivated, said Dr Carvalho, by the plan to invest in nuclear power); and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Media coverage of the issues prior to 1988 was sporadic, highlighting the relatively young relationship between the press and the public on climate change challenges. Nevertheless, according to Dr Carvalho, research has shown that, 'the media is the main source of information and the main factor shaping people's awareness and concern in relation to climate change'. What meaning, then, has climate change acquired in the eyes of the public? A Eurobarometer opinion poll released in 2007 found that the overwhelming majority of EU citizens are concerned about climate change, with more than 8 out of 10 Europeans (82 %) well aware that the way they consume and produce energy in their country has a negative impact on climate. In the same year, a survey of 22,000 people in 21 countries (including China and the US as well as other major greenhouse gases emitters) revealed that the vast majority considered that it was necessary to take 'major steps very soon'. Media messages, explained Dr Carvalho, can take on two extreme tones: an optimistic, win-win message (for example, modernising an economy in order to protect the environment can create jobs by investing in renewable energies); or a message that is clearly pessimistic, with an emphasis on imminent catastrophe and doom. 'You have to strike a balance in order to avoid public scepticism or apathy, particularly to make the issue more manageable, more tangible for people to act.' Dr Carvalho pointed out that among the US media (but also in popular papers and TV networks in other countries), there is a problem with the choice to present a 50:50 representation of the issue. This pits scientists against climate change sceptics (those that believe climate change is not happening or that it is not anthropogenic) in order to present what some might say is the illusion of media objectivity, resulting in more confusion. 'A boxing match sells newspapers,' said Stanford University's Jon Krosnick in relation to this reporting phenomenon during his conference presentation on what Americans think about climate change. 'The damage has been done, and it will be a while until it disappears.' Although the US media no longer feels the need necessarily to continue to present stories in this way, 'the impact of the sceptics is holding over for many years.' He noted that proponents still get media attention and publish books. As a closing point, Dr Carvalho said that journalists need to become more critical and analytical of the issues in terms of cross-sectoral analysis and in establishing links (in some cases 'green' stories are run alongside the announcement of new highways). If the media assumed its role as a watchdog in monitoring the performance of corporations, she explained, it would help develop critical skills in members of the public. 'Asking the right questions: it's as simply as that!'

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