Framing Science

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A study released this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning British think tank, criticizes the UK media for engaging in a dominant “alarmist” interpretation of global warming. This alarmist interpretation is characterized by an inflated sense of urgency and “cinematic tones” according to the study, which used discourse analysis of a sample of 600 news articles to reach its conclusions.

The problem with this lead media interpretation, concludes the report, is that it likely leaves readers “without a sense of agency,” giving the impression that “the problem is just too big for us to take on.” Alarmism, according to the report, has become a kind of “climate porn,” that helps sell magazines and newspaper editions. According to the report, other than an alarmist focus, when the news media does cover what can be done, the dominant focus is on small actions, rather than any forward looking, system-wide policy solutions. (The BBC covers the report here.)

Though focused on the UK scene, the report hits on a lot of trends appearing in the US media over the past few years.

In one way, the historic level of news attention to global warming in 2006 can be a positive for mobilizing collective attention and action but it seems a lot of news imagery is focused on dramatic climate impacts, attention-grabbing and event driven coverage that often falls short of a contextualized discussion of policy options. It’s in part what Chris Mooney and I write about in our recent article on the hurricane-global warming controversy. The British report analysis can be said to extend to the much talked about Time cover article from the spring, and the special “Green” issue of Vanity Fair from May.

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The Vanity Fair issue itself is an interesting paradox, and a leading example of a limited focus on “the small things” that citizens can do. The take home message is that the environment matters, but backgrounded by a 100 pages of advertisements promoting luxury brand consumption, the prescription in the articles is not to rethink markets or lifestyles, but rather its the “little things that matter,” like buying bio-friendly soap. Meanwhile, with celebrity profiles of George Clooney et al., driving an expensive hybrid car is not a symbol of cautious sacrifice, but a new mode to signal social status and wealth.

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    August 4, 2006

    I had to laugh at the pictures Vanity Fair created to illustrate global warming’s potential effects on coastal communities. Did they try to show millions of Bangladeshi facing ruin? Nope. They present us with a few mansions on the Hamptons destroyed. I guess they want to speak to their readers…

  2. #2 John Fleck
    August 4, 2006

    So how does the news coverage correlate with public attitudes, and if there is a positive correlation, has a causal relationship been established?

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