Protests spark media attention about climate change

Media inform the public, thereby influencing societal debates and political decisions. Despite climate change’s importance, drivers of media attention to climate change remain poorly understood. We assessed how different sociopolitical and extreme weather events affect climate change media coverage.
Protests spark media attention about climate change
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Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and how we as a society perceive climate change is to some extent shaped by the media. The way the media talks about climate change can influence how we think and feel about it. If the media covers climate-related events often and in a way that feels personal, it can make us more concerned and more likely to support action to address climate change. 

Facing temperature records, extreme weather events and debates about climatic tipping points, it can be tough to understand why the implementation of mitigation measures is so slow and why we as a society have to keep debating at what cost we are willing to mitigate climate change. Even though it seems pretty clear to me and well supported by studies that the consequences of failing to mitigate exceed the costs of mitigation by magnitudes, we keep on discussing what to do instead of actually doing it. One reason for these lengthy debates is likely the different perception of climate change in society and potentially how the media affects perceptions and debates.

But, what makes media outlets report on climate change? Existing research suggests that events like the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties; COP), the largest global conference on climate policy, and domestic extreme weather events increase climate change media coverage. Additionally, it would be relevant to know which event draws the most attention to the topic of climate change, how long the media focus on climate change can be kept, and whether climate change is only discussed in the context of the event or whether events can also incite broader discussions about climate change.

How I investigated media attention to climate change

Together with my colleagues Annika Stechemesser and Leonie Wenz, I have shed light on these questions in our recent publication “Climate summits and protests have a strong impact on climate change media coverage in Germany”. I needed three things, to find out more: data on how much the media covers climate change, data on climate change-related events, and a way to link the two. Ideally, it would be a method that allows me to understand the causal relationship between the two. To keep things simple, I focused my analysis on Germany, one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. 

News media, like online and print newspapers, are an important source of information on climate change in Germany. A third of Germans get their news at least once a week from daily print newspapers. Another third use online news platforms like Google News, which cover news articles from multiple journalistic news media companies. I therefore focused on newspaper coverage and finally collected more than 90,000 climate change-related articles out of about 9,000,000 newspaper articles published between 1990-2021 by nine large German news outlets. To do so, I was using an automated scraping procedure and identified articles related to climate change as such if they contained a related keyword.

Additionally, I gathered data on climate change-related domestic extreme weather and socio-political events. Specifically, I looked at domestic heat waves and extreme rainfall events that affect a significant number of people, as well as the introduction of new climate laws in Germany, climate change-related protests, publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UN Climate Change conferences (COPs), and G7/G8 summits.

To work out how much climate change coverage is caused by these events, I used a fixed effects panel regression. This method allows controlling for different confounders and makes it possible to interpret the results in a plausibly causal way. I also used a distributed lag model, which models the change in climate change coverage not only during the event but also in the weeks before and after. This lets me investigate how long the events cause climate change coverage to increase.

UN Climate Change Conferences draw most attention to climate change

What I found is that UN Climate Change conferences have led to the most coverage of climate change. I noticed that climate change coverage started to rise in the week before the conferences and peaked during the two conference weeks. After the conferences, climate change coverage was elevated for another two weeks, which made a total of five weeks of elevated reporting on climate change. None of the other event types had such a pronounced effect on climate change coverage. For instance, extreme rainfall raised climate change coverage for two weeks, while heat waves only did so for one week. It’s worth noting that extreme heat triggered only a quarter of climate change reporting compared to extreme precipitation, which contrasts with the fact that heat waves are the deadliest extreme weather events in Germany.

Protests and IPCC publications amplify climate change coverage

When events don't incite a lot of coverage on climate change, it's probably because there isn't much reporting on that type of event in general, or because the reports that do exist don't mention climate change. To investigate this further, I next compared the coverage of the event with the coverage of climate change incited by the event. For example, for heat waves, I found that most of the heat wave coverage didn't address climate change at all. Their coverage likely focused on the consequences rather than on the causes. We find the same for extreme rainfall events: they are mostly discussed without contextualising climate change.

What's most striking to me is the result for climate protests and IPCC reports. Unlike extreme weather, I found for both event types that more climate change-related articles are published than event-related articles. This indicates that there's a media discourse that goes beyond the protests or IPCC publications themselves, and generally addresses climate change. One interpretation is that both types of events prompt journalists to write not only about the event but about the topic of climate change more generally.

Media prominence of climate change is increasing

Finally, I was interested in how the events' influence has changed over time. I split my data into three decades and found that the influence of all events has risen over time. This is especially true for G7/G8 summits and extreme rainfall events. In the first decade, these events took the spotlight off of climate change, with less reporting than usual. In the most recent decade, though, a large share of the event coverage addresses climate change.

Conclusion

Overall, my study helped me and hopefully others to gain a better understanding of what drives media attention on climate change and in particular how the effect changes between the events and over time. The effect of all the different types of events on climate change coverage has increased over the last three decades, which has made climate change a more prominent topic in the media. This is good news because it means more people might become aware of the problems climate change poses.

However, there are still questions that remain unanswered. The study looked at the number of articles published, rather than the content and tone of the articles themselves. Both could have a big impact on how the coverage affects how people think about climate change. I wonder which events shape the tone of reporting and how, and thus increase or decrease the likelihood of people agreeing on the importance of climate change mitigation. And what kind of coverage makes people more or less likely to take climate-friendly actions? There's still a lot to explore here, and there are many potential future research avenues.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

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Climate Sciences
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Climate Sciences
Media Economics
Humanities and Social Sciences > Media and Communication > Media and Communication Theory > Media Reception and Media Effects > Media Economics
Media Research
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Sociology > Media Sociology > Media Research
Sustainability
Research Communities > Community > Sustainability

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