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March 21, 2022, 2:57 p.m.

How can journalism get better at covering climate change? Being a bummer might help

A new study of social media about a climate change conference found journalists’ negative tweets gained far more traction with users than positive ones. That’s one of the findings in this new collection of research into climate journalism.

The structures of journalism are pretty good at covering some things, pretty bad at covering others.

Want to keep track of every homicide in your city? Watch your local TV newscast every night — you’ll probably catch them all.

Want to know which teams made the Sweet 16 this weekend? As a profession, we’ve more than got you covered.

Want to understand a huge global problem that, by its nature, advances slowly across many decades, with few punctuating events to provide a news hook, and with a well-funded machinery dedicated to adding confusion, pushing misinformation, and preventing action? Yeah, climate change is a harder nut to crack.

There has certainly been progress in recent years. The simple existence of anthropogenic climate change is treated as a he-said-she-said question than it used to be, and there are dozens of initiatives aimed at doing more and better reporting on how we’re changing the earth. But the continuing challenge is what drew me to the new special issue of Journalism Practice, which is all about the intersection of climate change and journalism and which launched on Friday. There are 17 articles in all, and they’re all un-paywalled and available for anyone to read. Here were a few of the highlights of “Journalism, Climate Change, and Reporting Synergistic Effects of the Anthropocene” for me.

What do readers want from climate change reporting, anyway?

That’s the question asked by Ida Willig, Mark Blach-Ørsten, Rasmus Burkal, three Danish academics at Roskilde University. (Obligatory Scandinavia caveat: They’re talking about readers in Denmark. Your non-Nordic mileage may vary.)

Climate change is at the top of the public agenda, but researchers argue that climate journalism needs to be improved. However, knowledge of the public’s perceptions of and expectations for climate journalism is limited.

We asked a representative sample of the Danish public (N = 2,028) about their views on climate journalism. The results showed that most respondents regarded climate journalism as important but found it less trustworthy and of lower quality than journalism in general.

While the public generally wants climate reporting to live up to the same functions as general reporting such as fact-checking and dissemination information quickly, they also find some functions to be more relevant for climate reporting than for general reporting.

The Danish case thus indicates a greater need for climate journalism to function as a provider of guidance and solutions on how to deal with climate change in everyday life and to focus less on political opinions while giving more space to experts. However, these findings were influenced by demographic factors, especially political affiliation and age.

Ah, those demographic factors. This being Denmark, though, the differences between the political left and right weren’t as extreme as one might expect in the United States.

Asked how much they trusted news overall, 39% of those left of center trust it at least to a “large” or “great” extent, versus 30% for those right of center. Broaden it out to those who trust news at least “to some extent,” it’s 92% on the left and 83% on the right. Gaps, to be sure, but nothing cavernous.

If you ask about climate/environmental news in particular, though, the differences grow a bit greater. On the left, 33% trust climate news to a “large” or “great” extent, and 87% trust it at least “to some extent.” On the right, those numbers are 22% (“large” or “great”) and 69% (at least “to some extent”).

All those surveyed were asked what they felt the most important functions of journalism were — both for all news and for climate/environmental news. Some of the standout differences:

  • “To give ordinary people the opportunity to express their views”: 26% for news in general, 15% for climate news
  • “To identify solutions and provide users with guidance”: 6% for news in general, 14% for climate news
  • “To disseminate information quickly to the public”: 53% for news in general, 40% for climate news
  • “To convey stories, opinions and information”: 58% for news in general, 42% for climate news

In other words, readers seem to feel stories about climate change are less the place for Joe Q. Public to “express his views” and more to offer expertise, guidance, and solutions.

Based on the study’s findings as a whole, we would like to encourage news media to work with climate journalism in multiple ways instead of approaching it as one genre or one beat, fulfilling just one journalist role.

By listening to the public, media outlets producing climate journalism might be able to build more trust or to improve the level of quality that the public experiences from climate journalism.

To better match the needs of audience-citizens-consumers, news media should consider climate journalism not only as a specialist beat or a specific genre, but as a topic that is handled by both generalists and specialists, that is developed across news beats and editorial desks, and that serves many functions, not just as a watchdog, but also as a provider of tips, solutions and guidance to the public as to how the best can handle the climate crisis in their everyday life.

The news media should also consider the balance between expert and political opinions more carefully.

Tilting photos of windmills

Who could possibly resist an academic article titled “Blowing in the Wind: Norwegian Wind Power Photographs in Transition”? Not me. This piece by social anthropologist (and journalist) Anne Hege Simonsen examines how the visual depiction of windmills — generators of climate-healing wind power or very tall carcinogens, I guess? — have changed in Norwegian media as they’ve become a larger part of the physical landscape.

With the growing awareness about the impact of images in climate change communication, wind turbine images are largely associated with positive and solution-oriented actions. This article questions if this is inherently so.

Empiric material from the Norwegian media coverage of land-based wind power plants in 2018 and 2020 suggests that wind power images are transitioning from green icons to more ambiguous and sometimes downright threatening representations.

The visual transformation is particularly salient in the growing body of photojournalistic images, as opposed to photographs from commercial sources such as news agencies and wind power companies. In addition, it seems that even the symbolic meaning of wind power icons is transitioning from representing a hopeful “future perfect” to symbolizing nature degradation and political arrogance.

These findings generate a call for contextual awareness when it comes to identifying visual meaning, and caution about treating “solution visuals” as ready-made tools for greater climate awareness.

Norway is, politically, a broadly progressive welfare state in the Scandinavian mode. But it is also “a petro-economic society,” she writes, with its massive oil and gas industries serving as “a, if not the, pillar of Norwegian modern society”:

Since the late 1960s, the petroleum industry has become completely inserted into the political and economic power structures. Even if a growing number of Norwegians are questioning petroleum as part of a viable future, there is no easy way out.

The public debate on petroleum is thus a constant, but it is far from as heated as the wind power debate. Petroleum is primarily a subject for politicians, environmental organizations, activists, and specialists, while wind power has infuriated people at a grassroot level.

Opposition to wind power has a number of causes: threats to “cherished hiking areas,” the impact on eagles and other birds, sound pollution, and “the new shapes and formations that fill the skyline with light and movement.” The subject assembles unusual coalitions of left and right; Norwegian support for onshore wind power dropped from 75% in 2015 to 36% in 2020.

Simonsen pulled together 1,177 articles in Norwegian newspapers (and one news site) about wind power, from both 2018 and 2020. They were accompanied by 340 photographs of wind turbines. Looking at the same outlets, the number of photos of turbines (on land, as opposed to offshore) more than quadrupled between 2018 and 2020. Among her findings:

  • Over time, news outlets were less likely to use stock photos and more likely to use original photos shot by journalists. At least for land-based windmills — offshore imagery remained mostly a realm of recycled stock photography, which can be explained by the difficulty of shooting fresh pictures out above the North Sea.
  • Stock photos tended to portray wind energy in a more idealistic, futuristic light. Photos shot by journalists were more likely to show windmills as some variety of menace. Examples: “dead eagles and troubled reindeer”; “local politician walking in a desolate scenery with wind turbines towering on the horizon”; “turbines that interfere directly with local communities”; “as it protrudes from the fog, it appears almost ghostlike and is easily read as unfriendly.”

The reasons for these changes are closely linked to changes in peoples’ physical life worlds. Onshore wind power plants have confronted local communities and media alike with the tangible, visible and audible effects of onshore wind turbines. Yet, the images communicate beyond the local, and they structure the relationship between the depicted object and its viewers in new ways…

The land-based wind power turbine as a symbol becomes unstable when lifted from the realms of tacit understanding. The photojournalistic investigation contributes to new understandings of the object, including political and ideological criticism…

The images that best communicate social knowledge are the photographs of concrete sites and situations, but all categories play their part in shaping collective memory, modelling citizenship and providing figural resources for communication action. The photographs thus bring depth and sometimes even poetry to the news items and the angry opinion letters, and they do so in their relational interplay with text and context…

To reach an audience will always depend on people’s psychology and affiliations. At the right moment in time, a particular photograph may stabilize a world view or trigger positive affect. At another point, the same image may be seen as an empty cliché and generate frustration. Photographs are more than illustrations and they perform within a complex meaning-making matrix. In a journalistic setting, photographs are co-creators, not sidekicks, as they provide affective social meanings that deepen or expand on the journalistic text.

How to go viral at #cop25

This piece by Rafael Carrasco Polaino, Montse Mera Fernández, and Sonia Parratt Fernández looks at one of those times when climate change shifts from being an abstract, formless issue into a concrete, global, top-of-the-agenda topic: the 25th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, or, as it was more commonly known, COP25. Held in December 2019, in those last glimmers of sunlight before Covid-19, COP25 brought together policymakers, activists, and journalists from around the world. And that, logically, meant there would be tweets.

In that context, which tweets stood out most? Drawing the world’s attention to climate change is an eternal challenge; what sort of #content pulled it off?

The objective of this research is to analyze the engagement generated by tweets published from verified accounts during COP25, and to see what place journalists occupy in the communicative flow during the event.

The original tweets labeled “#cop25” and published by media, individual journalists, and other users such as NGOs and international organizations among others, were downloaded during the summit. Through a content analysis, they were classified according to the type of author, the format, the type of content, and the transmitted sentiment. After calculating their engagement, significant differences were identified using non-parametric statistical tests.

The results show that the tweets that generated the most engagement are those published by journalists, those that contain only text, and those that present a negative sentiment. One of the most relevant findings is that journalists can be key pieces in the communication and awareness of climate change if they are more active on Twitter. If, however, they maintain a much lower number of posts than other users, it becomes paradoxical in that those who achieve a more effective impact are not sufficiently exploiting the potential of Twitter.

(Please, don’t take this as a request to tweet more often. No one needs that.)

The researchers gathered 67,431 tweets about #cop25. Removing retweets, replies, and tweets from non-verified accounts cut that down to 1,094. They categorized them based on the type of tweeter (NGOs, celebrities, scientists, etc.), the type of tweet (text-only, with URL, gif, video, image), and positive or negative sentiment (based on an automated linguistic analysis). Some of their findings:

  • Positive outweighed negative. Nearly 75% of tweets were positive in sentiment (“constructive, hopeful, educational, or provided solutions”) versus 19% negative (and the remainder neutral).
  • A tweet with just words — no URL, no image, no video, no gif — was remarkably rare, only 6.8% of all tweets. Meanwhile, 49% included an image, 25% a video, and 19% a URL.
  • In terms of engagement, tweets from individual journalists’ personal accounts were far and away the leader, with tweets from scientists coming in second. Journalists’ tweets gained more than 5× the engagement as tweets from news organizations’ accounts.

And while tweets with positive sentiment were more common, it was tweets with negative sentiment that got the most likes and retweets. Journalists’ tweets were significantly more likely to be rated “negative” than news organizations’.

It is striking that…it was the media and television and radio programs accounts that achieved less engagement despite publishing much more than individual journalists and having more followers. How is it possible that journalists achieved the most interactions while the media companies and programs that publish the information of these same professionals were the ones that achieved the least?

Perhaps the reason for such a difference lies in the attitude of Twitter users who look for a more personal, a more human component in messages and thus find greater appeal in the tweets published by specific professionals than in those broadcast by news organizations. It is also possible that journalists are more inclined than the media to interact with users…

What might be behind that big win for negativity? It “may indicate that in order to raise awareness and warn recipients of the importance of acting quickly in the face of the consequences of climate change, Twitter users prioritize the more pessimistic messages. Whatever the case, what can be deduced from the data obtained is that this issue was highly polarized.”

Here are a few other articles in the issue I think are worth a look:

Photo of wind turbines in Nordfriesland, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany by Frederik Schönfeldt

POSTED     March 21, 2022, 2:57 p.m.
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