CliSAP successfully finished in 2018. Climate research continues in the Cluster of Excellence "CLICCS".

Urgent need to explain climate policy


News from Climate Science: Once a month, climate researchers report on their latest findings in the newspaper "Hamburger Abendblatt". Michael Brüggemann is analyzing the media coverage on climate change — for example during the climate conference.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris attracts global attention.
The huge media interest is bearing risks and opportunities.
Michael Brüggemann is Professor of Communication Research at Universität Hamburg

The majority of respondents want Germany to trailblaze for climate protection. This is one result of an online survey with more than 2,000 participants, which was recently conducted by my research group. Thirty-seven percent declare that climate and environmental protection are shaping their votes in elections. At the same time, there is an enormous need to elucidate climate policy. To the general public, the exact aim of this year’s global climate summit and the two-degree limit are equally obscure. This poses quite a challenge to all journalists reporting about the upcoming 21st Climate Change Conference in France.

The conference promises to become a stand-out media event across the world. For a short period of time, myriad journalists will concentrate on climate change– an important condition for a global public debate. But the media’s focus on specific major events also carries many risks. As public expectations are growing, resignation is imminent if politicians fail to set binding targets. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Kopenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009 with an attendance of 3,200 journalists. Due to its disappointing outcome, less than half the number of media representatives felt inclined to attend subsequent climate summits. Reporting on climate issues ran dry in certain media domains. But now, it is back on the increasefor the first time in years.

As a communications researcher I find this time captivating. My team and I aim to investigate how debates are evolving and what role journalists are taking on. They are faced with the task of shedding light on complex climate science scenarios or the political hotchpotch in a succinct way.

Objectivity and balance – a curse for climate reporting?

Numerous studies prove that scientific debates and reporting tend to diverge. Whereas scientists agree that the current climate change is human-induced, English-language media, in particular, raise serious doubts. Why? Are these journalists questioning the existence of global change?

We interviewed climate change journalists in five countries and analyzed their articles with the following result: all agree that global change is real and anthropogenic. So, how to explain ingrained skeptical media positions? Initially, they were triggered by the journalistic rule of balance and fairness, as any dispute calls for an assessment of pros and cons. Journalists have since understood, however, that there is no academic dispute because climate change is real. Nonetheless, stories about skeptics draw plenty of attention, for conflict sells well and can be depicted far more easily than complex climate change discussions.

Journalists are now challenged to spin novel climate change tales. We will follow their tracks: our newly developed online monitor enables us to scan media coverage in forty countries and we will interview the public again both during and after the conference. Furthermore, we will have experts commenting on summit reporting through our media watch blog.


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Author: Michael Brüggemann; Photos: Conference (UNFCCC/via Flickr/CC-BY 2.0), Press (UNFCCC/via Flickr/CC-BY 2.0)