April 26, 2019 | 62° F

Professor analyzes climate change reporting and impact

Photo by Courtesy of Carol Peters |

Climate change is one controversial topic in the media that is reported in a manner specifically designed to follow an agenda. 

Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, studied how climate change is reported in the media.

“This was a study where we looked at … straight news reporting, so no opinions or editorials, in four newspapers,” Feldman said. “We had previously done a study of network television news, and so we were in part looking to replicate the findings we saw in (that study).”

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today all covered climate change in numerous articles between 2006 and 2011, the years the study analyzed, she said.

Feldman and her co-author also did not speak with journalists about the pieces they wrote, she said. The study was strictly based on the published content of these organizations.

“The variables we focused on had to do with the impact of climate change versus the actions to reduce climate change,” she said. “We looked at the extent to which news organizations covered (one or the other).”

One of the goals was to see if an “ideological bias” might influence objective reporting, Feldman said. Based on the study, that seems to be the case.

While all of the publications covered climate change, the WSJ  was “significantly less likely” to write about what effects climate change would have on the nation, she said.

The other three papers devoted about 40 percent of their total articles on the topic to impact but the Journal only had 1 in 5 articles focus on that aspect, she said.

“(The WSJ was) … more likely to talk about actions (to reduce climate change) but they were also more likely to highlight the negative efficacy of those actions and say they wouldn’t work,” she said. “(They were more likely ) to frame them in a political context.”

This might indicate the paper’s editorial staff’s bias is influencing the writing at the paper, she said.

The WSJ has a more conservative readership and editorial board, she said. That could explain why their articles featured a more conservative slant, but that was not confirmed through the study due to the team not speaking with the writers.

“We don’t know what’s informing the reporting, if there’s a conscious bias or not,” she said.

The other chief issue her study found dealt with how readers were presented information, Feldman said.

“When (newspapers) cover … the impact of climate change and the actions that can be used to address (it), they don’t necessarily do that in the same article,” she said. “The article either discusses the need to deal with (it) or the policies and actions to reduce (it) without providing context.”

This was consistent with her previous study analyzing television coverage of the topic, Feldman said.

Combining the two aspects would improve how informative an article on climate change would be, she said.

“Based on what we know about the effect of media it would be more beneficial for journalists to talk about (both) impact and actions together,” she said. “Most Americans don’t follow climate change news.”

Readers who see an article discussing only the effect of climate change may become “overwhelmed” with that information if they do not see any solutions, she said.

Likewise, reading only about possible actions without understanding the need for them would not on its own encourage an audience to actively try and deal with climate change, she said.

This becomes an issue especially when someone only sees part of an article, said Chandni Patel, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. While she has heard a lot about the topic, she is not familiar with how urgent it really is, given that news articles tend to repeat themselves on its impact.

These articles need to highlight differences between the last time the topic was written about and the current piece, Patel said. It would also help to know how much impact a single person could have, given how large the Earth is.

“I would suggest (news organizations) try to avoid … the tendency to divorce climate impact from climate action,” Feldman said. “(Readers) both need to be able to appreciate there is a threat and believe something can be done to address that threat.”

One reason news organizations have difficulty combining the two aspects may have to do with their writers’ backgrounds, she said.

While science journalism is a growing field, many major news outlets do not have specialized writers for topics like climate change.

“It’s quite likely that at many of these outlets the people who are covering climate change, their expertise might be in politics or business or (law),” she said. “They might not necessarily be in climate change, so that would explain why they immediately go to (another) frame.”

Knowing the pure science behind climate change probably would not help, said Daniel Rodriguez, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

But adding context to an article would definitely be better than just throwing raw information out, Rodriguez said. 

“I think there are wonderful science journalists and environmental journalists working at these organizations,” Feldman said. “But sometimes they don’t necessarily understand their news reporting can influence the public.”

Nikhilesh De

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