Tens of thousands of papers about climate change are published every year, but media coverage isn’t giving the public a full picture of this research, according to a new study. The findings suggest mass media’s potential to increase public awareness, concern, and action against climate change is going partly unfulfilled because of the way scientific journals, university press offices, and journalists deem research newsworthy—or not.
“Current knowledge produced by scientists on climate change is much more diverse than what [members of the public] hear from in the media,” says study team member Marie-Elodie Perga, who studies the impact of climate change on alpine lakes at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Perga and her colleagues identified 51,230 scientific papers on climate change published in 2020. They gathered information on media coverage of these papers from Altmetric.com, a service that tracks mentions of scientific studies in more than 5,000 media outlets.
The researchers then analyzed the characteristics of the top 100 scientific studies that received the most media coverage, and compared them to a randomly selected group of 100 climate change papers published in 2020.
The more than 50,000 papers published on climate change that year received 36,355 mentions by international news media, the researchers report in the journal Global Environmental Change. But just 9% of the papers received any media coverage at all, and only 2% received extensive coverage with more than 10 mentions in the media.
The papers that received media attention were disproportionately in the natural sciences, the researchers found. There’s lots of other research on the social, economic, and technological aspects of climate change, as well as the effectiveness of potential solutions, but these topics get relatively little play.
Papers that get media attention disproportionately focus on projections of the rate or magnitude of climate change, especially at the global scale and over the long term, for example modeling global average temperature at the end of the 21st century. Such research characterizes roughly half of the most-covered papers, but only 4% of climate change research overall.
A total of 5,796 scientific journals published papers on climate change, but papers that received media attention came from only 13% of those journals. In fact, 41% of media coverage of climate change research focused on papers published in just 6 high-profile journals.
This isn’t only journalists’ fault. The most prominent scientific journals favor big, end-of-century focused papers. Journalists, in turn, favor covering papers published in the most prestigious journals. And university press offices like to send out press releases about papers that get published in splashy journals too.
The results of the analysis didn’t surprise Perga. “This study was motivated by a feeling I had when hearing news media,” she says. “But this feeling was worth nothing, I had to test whether it was supported by real data.”
The problem isn’t just that the public is only getting informed about a narrow slice of climate change research. It’s that the slice they are hearing about is more likely to lead to fear, denial, and paralysis than climate action.
“By reporting on this limited aspect of climate change science, we miss the psychological triggers to engage public into action,” Perga says.
Previous research has shown that the most effective way to get people to change their behavior and take other action against climate change is by emphasizing the immediate and local effects. On the flip side, being confronted with global-scale effects that feel distant in both time and space can make people feel powerless to make change and cause them to tune out.
The researchers argue that news media should place a greater focus on solutions-oriented research, and choose and frame stories in a way that emphasizes the local rather than just the global scale.
“Press offices should diversify what is sent to journalists, and there is a crucial need to emphasize results on human and social sciences,” Perga adds. Meanwhile, newsrooms should view social sciences as an integral part of environmental coverage, and ensure that their journalists have the background and skills to cover them effectively, she says.
Source: Perga, M.-E.. et al. “The climate change research that makes the front page: Is it fit to engage societal action?” Global Environmental Change 2023.
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.