How has the international print media treated the issue of climate change over the decades?

·3-min read
Activists from climate action group Extinction Rebellion pose in central London on Sept. 8, 2020, with "newspaper" signs with parody headlines about the climate crisis.

A decade ago, the concept of global warming was still being debated, including in the international press. The most conservative titles did not hesitate to show their skepticism, or even to overshadow the issue of global warming... A new study has analyzed the media's treatment of the climate crisis in newspapers from 2005 to 2019.

Whether you live in the U.S., England, or Australia, you've probably noticed a difference in the way newspapers have been addressing the climate crisis in recent years. Once the sole domain of activist media, few newspapers in 2021 are ignoring the issue in their columns.

To better understand the evolution of the climate crisis over the past decades through the prism of the media, researchers from the University of Technology Munich (Germany), the University of New England (Australia), and the University of Colorado Boulder (United States) analyzed nearly 5,000 newspaper articles from 17 print media outlets in five countries (Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom) over a period from 2005 to 2019.

Conservative media, the last bastion of climate skepticism?
According to this research published in Environmental Research Letters , information related to the environment and climate published in the media now has an accuracy rate of 90%, the researchers found.

"Twenty years ago, the print media often gave the same credence to legitimate climate experts as to outlier deniers. But in recent years, we've found that the world's media is right most of the time. However, the facts now trump the debate," observes Lucy McAllister, a former doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the study.

But if climate skepticism has gradually disappeared from press articles, some conservative titles are still recalcitrant, the study points out. This is notably the case of the National Post (Canada), the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph (Australia) or the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday (UK). "All historically conservative media have covered climate change in a much less accurate way," the authors of the work note.
Topics such as anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions or other crucial issues concerning the future of the planet are for example much less covered in these newspapers than in titles traditionally considered "left-wing" such as The Guardian (England) or the Toronto Star (Canada).

More reliable media coverage since COP21
The study also highlights the impact of global climate events on journalists' accuracy. For example, media coverage was much less accurate in 2010, just after the "Climategate" scandal, when emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (England) were hacked. Conversely, the information delivered by these same media was more reliable in 2015, at the time of the negotiations of the Paris Agreement at COP21.

However, the authors of the study warn that the media are not the only sources of information that can raise awareness on the subject of climate, citing conversations with our loved ones and entertainment or opinion leaders, among others. "Our work provides insight into how the media portrays human contributions to climate change, but clearly more needs to be done," they say.

Léa Drouelle

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