Who speaks for the climate? Trying to make sense of media reporting on climate change

A conversation with Maxwell T. Boykoff
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Pitcure by {link:http://www.flickr.com/photos/52781623@N00/1064450190/} cgkinla {/link}

Pitcure by {link:http://www.flickr.com/photos/52781623@N00/1064450190/} cgkinla {/link} - Creative Commons

At the moment there is no a single spokesperson for the global atmosphere; there are rather multiple competing interpretations of global warming.
Mass media constitute the arena in which these different versions are presented and discussed. “Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change”, by Maxwell T. Boykoff of the University of Colorado explores the different narratives around climate change.
In Laura Caciagli’s interview, the author talks about the new role of media, highlighting the factors that influence media coverage of climate change.

Prof. Boykoff, what’s your opinion on the new role of the media in communicating climate science and what do you think about the way media representations of climate change are produced and negotiated?

In my book I analyse media coverage of climate change because of its important role in reaching out everyday people. To keep myself up-to-date about the major topics of climate change, I participate in climate science conferences and workshops; I follow climate talks and negotiations as well.
But, in reality, very few people have access to the science literature and to policy documents so they generally rely upon media representations of climate change. Mass media help to interpret and translate important but difficult information and processes.
In terms of reaching a mass audience and shaping public awareness, public engagement as well as public support for positive action, mass media play a very important role and need to be studied carefully.

What do you mean by “competing frames” in your book?

Well, there are a lot of different ways in which mass media address dimensions and aspects of climate change. When I introduce the notion of “competing frames” I want to explicitly discuss how media rely upon actively shape public discussions on climate change and its impacts. For example, a charismatic leader talking about climate change action becomes a chance for the media to cover the issue. This, in turn, shapes ongoing considerations on action in the public arena.
Statements and pronouncements of leaders, politics and policy makers often become frames.
When covering climate change mass media mainly focus on few topics such as weather extreme events or charismatic megaphones like polar bears, while some important themes – i.e. socioeconomic aspects of climate change or environmental justice – are completely ignored.

{link:http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/publications/special/who_speaks_for_climate/index.html} Who Speaks for the Climate?  {/link} "In my book I analyse media coverage of climate change because of its important role in reaching out everyday people"

{link:http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/publications/special/who_speaks_for_climate/index.html} Who Speaks for the Climate? {/link} "In my book I analyse media coverage of climate change because of its important role in reaching out everyday people"

How could journalistic norms affect and influence media coverage of climate change?

In terms of socioeconomic factors I find the situation quite discouraging.
I think it is very challenging to cover stories such as those of climate change in a comprehensive, responsible way. At the moment hope is raised by some ONGs that are stepping forward to provide a connection between climate scientists and the media, although they remain small examples in a larger scene openly discouraging mass media consolidation and enduring.
As for journalistic norms, they really influence the ways in which stories are shaped and realized and how pieces of information are translated into news. In this process, the trend is to rely upon personalities and dramatic events with journalists trying to give a spectrum of opposing points of view. In this way the audience is provided with a framework of competing on the same stage but there isn’t any emerging difference if one point of view is brought into the media arena by a scientist, an opinion leader, a politician.
The journalistic norms that I have tracked on the book are personalization, dramatization, novelty, reliance on authoritative spokepersons and journalistic balance of opposing viewpoints. They all contribute to a coverage that coheres with dominant market-based and utilitarian approaches to discussing the spectrum of possible mitigation and adaptation action on climate change. The journalistic norm of balance in news reporting has in particular served to amplify outlier views on anthropogenic climate change and concurrently caused an appearance of increased uncertainty regarding this issue. This, in turn, has permeated climate policy discourse and decision-making.

Are climate experts able and effective in communicating climate change enough? Is there a way to improve their PR skills?

The role of expertise, authority and perceived legitimacy remain very important. To understand a changing climate we have to rely upon climate models and experts, whose role is critical in terms of reaching out the mass media and the public. As a scientist, I consider a duty and an extension of my work trying reach out the public and spread knowledge among the general audience.
In recent years, Internet and social media changed the situation a lot: today many people find information about climate change via Google searches, and the legitimacy checks in place there are much different than those in place in academic ‘peer review’. I think that these democratizing and complementary developments are net positive changes, with many more people discussing and participating. Yet there are costs as well. My book works through these sorts of issues in the context of 21st century climate challenges.

Why climate change has become so important in politics?

I think that climate has become very important in politics because it cuts our relationship with the environment and every aspect of daily life: how we work, travel, produce food and use land, how we play and relax. Curbing emissions has become central in considerations of critical phenomena such as poverty, inequality, justice and armed conflicts. More and more people recognise climate change as a central issue to discuss.

In your opinion, how can we improve media reporting on climate change?

Research like mine can help to re-consider media institutional practices and theirrelationship with the scientific and policy communities as well as with the public. Journalists should work to provide accurate metaphors in order to describe climate change and its impacts in a simpler and clear way.
Scientists too might improve their way to communicate this complex issue.
Media, scientists, policy actors and focus groups in the public must dialogue and cooperate to democratize these topics and inspire more reactive engagement about climate change. At the moment some media outlets are trying to connect journalists – especially those from developing countries who have no access to peer-reviewed articles – with the relevant experts in order to improve and foster the media coverage about climate change.

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published January 23rd, 2012
Category: Interviews

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