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Most Americans won’t act on climate. The news probably isn’t helping.

A new study suggests some journalists are missing a key piece of the story.

CREDIT: JON S.
CREDIT: JON S.

By Jeremy Deaton

While a growing number of Americans acknowledge the climate is changing, the issue generally ranks low among voters’ concerns. A scant few have bothered to contact a government official to press for action on global warming.

This is a point of frustration for organizers and academics alike, who contend that lawmakers will only pass strong policies when Americans demand it, and Americans will only demand it if they believe they can affect the political process. At the root of all this grumbling is the question of empowerment. How do you empower citizens to pick up their phones and call their elected officials?

A new study published in the journal PLOS One investigates the effect of news coverage on feelings of empowerment — what social scientists call efficacy. Their findings suggest reporters are missing a key piece of the story.

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Rutgers communications scholar Lauren Feldman and her co-author, University of Michigan professor Philip Solomon Hart, broke efficacy down into three areas:

  1. Internal efficacy: Do you feel like you know enough about politics and climate change to write a letter to your representative?
  2. External efficacy: Will your representative actually heed your words?
  3. Response efficacy: Will public policy actually do anything to alleviate climate change?

If answered “yes” to all three questions, congratulations. You are a prime candidate to participate in your democracy. You believe the costs of taking action are low and the benefits are significant.

Feldman and Hart wanted to know how news coverage shapes efficacy and how efficacy influences action. For their new study, they had more than 1,400 people read one of a few different fictitious AP news stories about climate change. Articles described heat waves, floods, droughts, and other impacts of global warming, and also included empowering or disempowering information. They then followed up with a series of questions related to efficacy and political participation.

Conceptual map for testing. CREDIT: HART/FELDMAN
Conceptual map for testing. CREDIT: HART/FELDMAN

After some number-crunching, they found:

  1. People felt more empowered when they read that Americans generally understand climate change and the political process and feel confident in taking action.
  2. People felt less empowered when the story suggested government does not respond to public opinion.
  3. Feeling empowered made people more likely to “become politically engaged on the issue of global climate change.”
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Feldman acknowledges that efficacy may be less easily influenced than this study suggests. And certainly, one faux AP article does not the represent the vast media ecosystem. But the findings have implications for coverage of climate change.

Generally speaking, news about climate change does little to promote efficacy. Feldman and Hart’s prior work looked at print and TV news stories on global warming. In the periods studied, doom and gloom dominated coverage—climate change would flood cities, dry rivers and extinguish supplies of coffee beans and avocados. Little of the reporting focused on what people could do to shape climate policy.

“Stories that do talk about efficacy or action tend to mix positive and negative efficacy information in the same story. There is very little focus on individual actions,” said Feldman in an interview.

Feldman’s previous work found that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times were tended to frame climate action as difficult, costly or ineffective. CREDIT: MEDIA MATTERS
Feldman’s previous work found that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times were tended to frame climate action as difficult, costly or ineffective. CREDIT: MEDIA MATTERS

Reporters are more likely to ask if a policy would be effective in addressing climate change. They are less likely to ask if people would be effective in influencing policy. And journalists rarely cover the impacts of climate change and possible solutions in the same story.

“One explanation for why journalists may shy away from this kind of coverage is because of norms of objectivity,” said Feldman. “Journalists don’t want to look like they’re advocating for individuals to write letters to their congressperson or to go out and participate in protests. But it still, in some cases, could be newsworthy and something worth talking about.”

Feldman suggested that a future study could investigate journalistic norms. Researchers could interview journalists about how they cover climate change. Should news be considered simply as a collection of facts? Or should reporters consider how news shapes the attitudes and behaviors of readers and viewers?

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Questions like these have plagued reporting of the presidential election. Donald Trump has challenged the journalistic penchant for balance with his erratic behavior. Reporters have increasingly resisted the urge to portray Trump as a comparable alternative to Hillary Clinton. As Joe Scarborough asked, “How balanced do you have to be when one side is just irrational?”

CREDIT: VADON/SKIDMORE
CREDIT: VADON/SKIDMORE

This gets at the tendency to conflate neutrality — presenting every perspective — with objectivity: presenting the truth. Journalists don’t want to be seen as taking a side, but on climate change, the facts are clear. Carbon pollution is dangerous, and policymakers need to act in order to stop the worst impacts. As Feldman argues, empowering information deserves to be a part of the story.

“I think it’s important for journalists to balance and temper their discussion of climate impacts with information about what to do about it,” said Feldman. “That’s our hope with this research, that it will encourage journalists to think a little bit more carefully about how they’re reporting and how their editorial decisions might actually influence public opinion and engagement.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.