No wonder so many are confused
Long-standing readers of this blog – and those who have merely stumbled upon it and perhaps read my About page too – will be aware that, in completing my MA in Environmental Politics last year, I spent 5 months researching arguments used and/or preferred by different kinds of climate change sceptics (e.g. scientists, economists, politicians, and journalists); writing up my research under the title A Discourse Analysis of Climate Change Scepticism in the UK. My conclusions reflected the organised nature of the campaign to deny the reality of climate change – as was identified in the research of Peter Jacques (University of Florida) et al, in ‘The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’ in the journal Environmental Politics (Volume 17 (3), pp.349-85).
However, when it came to discussing the findings of my own research into the output of sceptical journalists in particular, I also relied upon the conclusions reached by Neil Gavin (University of Liverpool) in ‘Mediated climate change in Britain: Scepticism on the web and on television around Copenhagen’, in the journal Global Environmental Change (Volume 21(3), pp.1035–1044). [See also: Why I'm so hacked off with journalists (30 Sept 2011).]
It is only much more recently that I have become aware of The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media (YFCCM), which is consistently excellent in its analysis of the way in which the issue of climate change is portrayed in the media. Given the nature of my own personal journey over the last 12 to 18 months, it is perhaps not surprising that the YFCCM site is one of my favourites. However, with the permission of Bud Ward, YFCCM’s Editor, I am very pleased to be able to provide a precis of a recently-posted item entitled ‘Competing Narratives in U.S. Television News’, written by Frederick Mayer (Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University). I would encourage all readers, with time to spare, to view the original (which includes more detail, links and graphics).
Content analysis of TV news coverage from 2001 to 2010, reflecting six basic narrative lines, shows striking on-air differences between cable coverage on Fox and CNN and broadcast news on ABC and other traditional networks.
Six Climate Change Narratives
The study tracked the prevalence over time of six basic narratives on four networks — ABC, CNN (as broadcast), Fox News, and MSNBC — using elaborate keyword searches of Lexis-Nexis.
The Climate Tragedy – A story of impending disaster, in which we (or big energy) are the villains, scientists and environmental advocates the potential heroes.
He Said, She Said – A conflict story about the contest between scientists: some say that humans are altering the climate, some say we aren’t, inaction is the prudent path.
Don’t Kill the Goose – A story in which climate change may be happening (most likely from natural causes) but the real threat is regulation.
Hoax – A tragic story in which climate science is part of a conspiracy (along with liberal elites and the UN) to empower government, and the heroes are those who expose them.
The Denialist Conspiracy – A story about those who tell the Hoax story, in which they are part of a right-wing conspiracy (funded by energy interests and wealthy ideologues).
The Policy Game – A story about the contest over policy, similar to “horse-race” stories in elections, in which the reader/viewer is encouraged to take a rooting interest.
Stories of climate change told by Fox and CNN began to differ dramatically from those told by traditional television network news during the decade from 2001 to 2010. By 2009, the crucial year both for congressional action on climate change and for the global negotiations in Copenhagen, the divergence was almost complete.
On Fox the dominant climate change story had become some variation of a “Hoax” narrative: climate change is a fraud foisted on the public by scientists, the UN, and liberal elites and the media. If Fox were one’s only source of information, it would have been nearly impossible to even imagine that climate change was real, let alone an issue society should do anything about.
On CNN, a potpourri of narrative lines did battle: “Hoax” stories, “He Said/She Said,” and “Don’t Kill the Goose,” on one side; “Climate Tragedy” on the other; and “Policy Game” reporting on the fortunes of climate risk-management initiatives. If CNN were one’s only source of news, it would have been hard not to be confused.
And on the traditional ABC, CBS, and NBC networks, a curious thing happened. Although each had provided extensive coverage of climate change in 2006 and 2007 — a huge majority of them with some variation of a “Climate Tragedy” story — they all but stopped covering climate change in 2009. If one of these networks were one’s only source of news, it would have been perfectly reasonable to imagine that somehow climate change was no longer an issue.
What difference might the differing mix of stories have made? It seems quite likely that they contributed to the remarkable shift in public opinion (toward decreasing concern over climate change) in the latter part of the decade, particularly among those on the right of the political spectrum who were more likely to be Fox viewers.
After peaking in 2007, the year IPCC issued its most recent assessment and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, Americans’ belief in climate change headed downward. By the crucial year of 2009, with the Congress debating nationwide “cap and trade” carbon dioxide emission legislation, the percentage agreeing that “there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming” had dropped from 77 percent to only 57 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Even more problematic in terms of the politics and what has become a full-fledged split between Democrats and Republicans, only 35 percent of Republicans agreed with the “solid evidence” premise, down from 62 percent. And only 18 percent of Republicans said they believed warming was substantially caused by human emissions.
Why the dramatic drop? The “Great Recession” that began in 2008 almost certainly played its part. In economic hard times, combating climate change, as with addressing most other environmental problems, becomes a lower priority, and not acting is just plain easier to justify if one rejects that there is a problem in the first place.
But the economic downturn cannot account for the growing partisan divide, a divide that had become particularly glaring in the context of the past several months’ presidential primary campaigns. Part of the shift in public opinion, and particularly the collapse of belief among Republicans, was likely driven also by the impact of an increasingly partisan media and the different stories they told.
For more detail, please see the original piece by Professor Mayer. However, with so many people now relying so heavily on television for their “news” (me included), is it any wonder that so many of us are so confused?