Climate change is a growing crisis that journalists are covering with increasing urgency. Yet, little attention has been paid to how readers understand and react to coverage of climate change. In a recent webinar, the ICFJ Pamela Howard Forum on Global Crisis Reporting dove into a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford that looks at how readers access climate change news, who they trust and how they feel about the issue.
During the webinar, Dr. Waqas Ejaz, a research fellow at Oxford presented findings from eight different markets and over 8,000 participants from the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, Germany, India, Pakistan and Japan. Here are some key takeaways:
Climate change news is in the news
The study found that most respondents have access to climate change news. Across all countries included in the study, 51% of respondents say they saw the news regarding climate change within the last week. Mediums in which audiences view climate change news varies across countries: France and Germany mainly get their news from television, while Pakistan and Brazil rely on online sources, for instance.
However, over a third of respondents say they get their news elsewhere, which includes academic journals, documentaries and blogs. Accordingly, Ejaz says that journalists should be creative in the ways they present their work, and understand that consumers are not necessarily relying on traditional channels for climate information.
When it comes to the type of media being consumed, age differences are important
Climate change is seen as a problem for future generations. Worryingly, it appears that young people consume climate change news less frequently than older audiences. The study also found that, reflecting patterns seen in general news consumption, older people use traditional media while younger people get most of their information online.
Scientists are great sources
Scientists were the most recalled and trusted information sources by audiences across all eight studied markets. Meanwhile, politicians and political parties are some of the least trusted sources. The study found that right-wing respondents tend to trust their politicians more, while left-wing respondents in the U.S., the U.K., India and Brazil trust politicians the least. Generally speaking, those on the political left tend to also have a lot of trust in environmental activists.
According to the study, news media tends to fall in the middle of the reader-trust spectrum, meaning that while news sources are not distrusted, there is still more that journalists can do to build trust regarding climate change coverage.
Public perceptions matter
One of the most important things that journalists need to be aware of when writing climate stories is how they are viewed in the eyes of the public. Journalists are in charge of educating the public about what climate change is, what is causing it and how it impacts the reader. Ejaz goes on to note that stories about the climate crisis have to worry and concern the reader, while not over sensationalizing coverage and making the reader become news avoidant.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism's study found that around 50% of the public says that politicians and the public are doing too little, while activists and scientists are seen as doing just enough. Readers also say that when reading the stories, they felt concerned, worried and informed. While these emotions might sound negative, Ejaz stresses that these emotions are warranted due to the scale and severity of the crisis. Only 26% of respondents said they felt indifferent.
Meanwhile, reading climate change news can also help audiences feel empowered, as more than 70% of readers in India and Pakistan reported in the study. Additionally, journalists can help the reader know what they can do in response by connecting ideas or information to action. Those who read climate change news more frequently likewise report feeling more empowered than those who read it less frequently.
The market for news is crowded
While climate change news is becoming more important and prevalent, it still competes for attention with kitchen table issues like the economy and politics. For all eight markets, the biggest concern reported was the rising cost of living and inflation, not climate change.
The good news is that while climate change has historically been considered a partisan issue, the latest study offers a different view. Most respondents said they are worried about climate change, and view it as an issue, even on the political right. According to the report, the U.S. sees the biggest difference between the left and right in seeing climate change as an issue in comparison to other countries.
Readers are less informed about plans to combat climate change
The good news is that people are well-served by news media, and most people follow and trust the news in regards to climate change. However, journalists can do more to serve readers better. As previously mentioned, not all sources are equal, with stories benefitting from quoting scientists in particular as they are highly trusted and can lead to more credibility for a story.
Meanwhile, even as readers tend to report that they are aware of climate change and the link between greenhouse gases and climate change, they also say that they know less about what governments, politicians and communities are doing to combat climate change. Ejaz contends that journalists should highlight policy initiatives more in their stories and cover what is being done to combat the crisis. This serves the purpose of ensuring that stories are not so negative and that they don't push readers towards avoiding this coverage.
Perhaps most importantly, climate change is no longer a separate beat and reporting on it can be found across journalism. “Economic news is climate news, health news is also climate news,” Ejaz said.
Ejaz stressed that there should be a concerted effort to put resources to make climate change a mainstream beat, especially in lower-income countries at the forefront of climate change. “There has to be some sort of sense of urgency among people which can only be instilled through covering the topic widely, and not just back page, that’s not going to get the level of attention that may be needed for them,” he said.
When it comes to the way journalists cover climate change, there are clearly some bright spots. Nevertheless, journalists across the globe can and should do more to strengthen their coverage on an issue that will become increasingly important in the years ahead.