Environmental Communication Volume 8 – 2014, Issue 4Pages 551-553 | Published online: 21 Nov 2014
Climate change in the media: reporting risk and uncertainty
Pages 551-553 Published online: 21 Nov 20A clear comprehension of the dual concepts of risk and uncertainty is a highly beneficial attribute held by those pursuing answers to scientific questions—this is certainly the case when we attempt to understand our anthropogenic (human-caused) climate crisis. The promotion of meaningful approaches to communicating such intrinsic facets of climate change is, understandably, a growing topic of research. Emerging from decades of academic analyses in such social research fields as communication studies and public understanding of science, Climate Change in the Media expands our appreciation of the crucial role held by media organizations in public understanding of climate science.
Scholarly literature has explored the substance and treatment of risk and uncertainty with respect to various aspects of climate change. In addition to media coverage, principal spheres such as natural sciences (effects within natural earth systems, etc.) and policy (mitigation practices, etc.) regularly undergo such examination. Painter and colleagues measure (qualitatively and quantitatively) how and to what degree risk and uncertainty are reported in six countries—India, France, Australia, Norway, the UK, and the USA—by investigating coverage of certain climate news events, including findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Prior to examining metrics, this narrative explores various categories of risk, including implicit and explicit as well as certain low probability/high impact events known as “tail risks” (for instance, hurricane damage); what follows is an exploration of newspaper article frames during four relevant time periods.
The term “frame” is applied to the embedded structure which provides context and meaning to a story. Four types of frames are assessed: (1) uncertainty, (2) disaster/implicit risk, (3) explicit risk, and (4) opportunity. For purposes of this research, an implicit risk frame entails a focus upon specific adverse physical impacts, (sea-level rise, flooding, droughts, etc.). Alternatively, an explicit risk frame is applied if the text revolves around numerical probabilities or less defined consequences.
Although these researchers “were particularly interested in … explicit risk,” their analyses found such “was very seldom the dominant tone on its own” (p. 67); however, they encountered consistent presence of both uncertainty and implicit risk frames. A significant number of uncertainty frames—widely considered obstacles to public understanding and engagement—are attributable to the inclusion of skeptical voices. Still, the uncertainty format was not as dominant as implicit risk which was ubiquitous—not only as most salient but also the prevailing timbre of stories.
A major risk faced by all Earth's inhabitants is the tipping of climate thresholds (leading to abrupt climate events)—some, such as a melting Arctic, may have already been pushed beyond the point of no return. Describing such scientific intricacies to lay communities (and policy-makers) requires complex groundwork by reporters, but Painter's group found (as have other academic researchers), such climate fundamentals (including the albedo effect and other physical and ecological dynamics described by the IPCC) have not been well deliberated by the press in most countries. Although, over the last few years, there may now be a greater awareness within the public sphere of the notion of triggering tipping points, a more purposeful conversation—which seems critical to finding real climate solutions—has yet to be fully launched.
Both risk and uncertainty are difficult ideas for correspondents to cover as these terms hold various definitions across disciplines and societies. A key finding here is that, internationally, newspapers are beginning to treat climate mitigation as managing risk. In further comparison of the uncertainty frame to the increasingly deployed risk management format, Alister Doyle, a journalist at Thomson Reuters, has found that people generally understand risk better than uncertainty; therefore, he believes it is helpful if scientific reports are presented as such. But other environmental writers, such as Fiona Harvey of the UK's Guardian, are concerned that such nomenclature in general “is often inadequate and can be easily misunderstood” (p. 37).
As touched upon earlier, another valuable discussion relates to widespread presentation of scientific findings and commentary outside proper context and “in particular the presence of ‘dueling experts’ without [reference to international scientific] consensus” (p. 45). While there may be wide variations in treatment of skeptics by reporters and editors, it is a well-established fact that media-generated controversy and misrepresentation are powerful influencers to public [mis]perception(s).
Painter found that Australian publications generated the highest number of quotes by doubters of global warming, followed by the USA. The UK edged over France, but Norway and India were barely in the running. Apparently, strong nuclear power political links in France leave little media space for fossil fuel industry-affiliated lobby groups so prevalent within the Anglosphere. What is more, France has no equivalent to British tabloids, the locale of the UK's most strident climate denialism. In stark contrast, “climate skepticism has never publicly entered Indian political debates” (p. 99).
Another leading takeaway is that in order to “correct a common [misunderstanding] that uncertainty [equates to] not knowing,” scientists “should … explain that uncertainty [doesn’t] mean ignorance” (p. 136). But perhaps most compelling are Painter's remarks on the unwarranted but excessive exposure of prolific, well-connected climate deniers in the news and opinion pages of broadsheets. We learn, for instance, that although the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has a similar audience and news department as the New York Times, the former is further to the right with an editorial section strikingly heavier on climate skepticism than the latter. In fact, the WSJ—part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire—has been a hub for climate dissention for decades “maintaining the sceptic tone of many of Murdoch's other papers, particularly in Australia” (p. 128).
While these researchers succeed in edifying a broad audience on the overall significance of climate communication as well as how media treatment is critical to sociopolitical action, regrettably, Painter perceives “the worst climate change impacts are probably distant in time and space [and] most people in the west have no direct experience of them” (p. 30). Although oft-repeated within the public sphere, this statement becomes (even) less cogent as extreme weather increasingly threatens us all—a rare but crucial bit of context floundering to land upon our daily news plate.