Research shows that there is increasing polarization in reporting on climate change between elite and domestic news sources

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New research led by the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy reveals a crucial disparity in the way climate change is reported across different types of news outlets and locations.

National newspapers, concentrated along coasts and in metropolitan areas, have expanded their climate bureaus and significantly increased their coverage, while smaller news sources in America’s heartland have also increased their coverage, but at a much slower pace.

The study, published in Climate changeResearch shows that elite news sources like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal saw a 299% increase in coverage of climate change between 2011 and 2022, while domestic news sources increased their coverage by 144%. In other words, in 2011 there was a 30% chance that a heartland newspaper would publish an article about climate change on any given day. Today the chance is about 3%.

“The success of climate policy in America depends heavily on public engagement and support,” said David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy and corresponding author of the article.

“Since 2015, elite media, especially along the coasts, have paid a lot of attention to climate change, but not inland. That tells us that a politically sustainable climate policy must pay much more attention to what is happening in the rest of the country. including rural areas and especially in the center-right of American politics.”

This comprehensive study, using a massive database known as MediaCloud, analyzed 168 million articles from 9,000 unique U.S. news sources to understand public awareness and opinion about climate change.

Although coverage of climate change has increased overall, it is not a topic that consistently holds the public’s attention, the study found.

For example, the biggest drop in climate change coverage in national newspapers occurred in the first half of 2020, as COVID-19 began spreading in the US and mainstream coverage shifted to the pandemic. Other periods of decline include the run-up to the 2016 election.

However, a time when climate change reporting increased in both national and local/rural newspapers was when Pope Francis made remarks about climate change at the 2015 United Nations General Assembly.

“A key implication of this research is that when the environment intersects with other issues that people care passionately about, such as religion, jobs or local air quality, then it becomes truly politically sustainable to gain bipartisan support for legislation on environmental issues. climate change.” Victor, co-director of UC San Diego’s Deep Decarbonization Initiative, said.

He added that this is a key message in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, How to Accelerate Climate Action Across America, which Victor chairs.

The reduction in climate coverage in state and local news is especially surprising because of changes in the media industry. Over the study period, smaller news sources have become more dependent on larger media outlets and wire services as news feeds. Despite that dependence, the domestic news media did not pay nearly as much attention to climate change.

“This research serves as a reminder to those who study the role media plays in informing the public about pressing global issues to look at all news sources, not just the top news sources we always think about, like the New York Times. or Washington Post,” said Victor and co-author Parker Bolsted, a former research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

“We need to pay attention to regions where local news is the main source of information to truly understand public awareness and opinion on climate issues.”

More information:
Parker Bolstad et al., Growing disparities between elite and non-elite media coverage of climate change in the United States, Climate change (2024). DOI: 10.1007/s10584-024-03750-1

Magazine information:
Climate change