TV audiences around the world aren’t hearing
much about climate science.
That’s the main conclusion of a new study
looking at how TV news covered the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change’s (IPCC) three big reports earlier this
While the IPCC reports made a
small splash in the print media, the same wasn’t true of
television news. The main news bulletins in some countries barely
covered the reports. And when they did, they used an old-fashioned
“doom” narrative to explain them, research by Oxford University’s
Reuters Institute finds.
That’s concerning, because many people still get
their news from the TV, and place particular trust in TV news to
deliver a balanced account of climate science.
Here’s which channels covered the reports, how,
and why it matters.
The IPCC’s first
report on the sciencific foundations of climate
change was launched in October 2013. A
second report on the impacts of climate change was
released the final day of March 2014, with a
third report looking at policies to cut
emissions following a couple of weeks later.
The Reuters Institute looked at how a selection
of news bulletins in the UK, China, India, Brazil, Australia and
Germany covered all three reports on their launch day, and the day
13 out of the 36 key news bulletins the Reuters
Institute studied covered the IPCC reports. That adds-up to about
34 minutes of airtime.
The UK’s BBC was way out ahead, giving almost 15
minutes in total for all three reports, across four segments.
Germany and Australia’s bulletins were next, dedicating a total of
almost seven minutes to the reports.
It was a different story in the three
less-developed countries included in the study. Brazil’s bulletin
covered the first two reports in a total of four and half minutes.
China’s main TV channel dedicated just 40 seconds to the first
report. The Indian channel included in the study didn’t cover any
of the reports at all.
That’s likely to be because it was election
season in India, the study says. The country held general elections
between April and May 2014, so the second and third reports in
particular got lost in campaigning noise.
In China, the main news network chose to barely
cover the IPCC’s landmark reports because it didn’t think there was
anything “new” in them, the study says:
“The Chinese government
has long recognized the existence of climate change and made
efforts to face the challenges. The repetition of the same
viewpoint is not attractive either to the media or its
This contrasts with the amount of attention
China’s media gives the UN’s climate meetings.
The international negotiations are given a lot
more TV time, the study says, because “the Chinese government
encourages journalists to attend these meetings to be able to be
put over its point of view domestically and internationally,
particularly as in recent UN meetings they feel their position has
been distorted by the Western media”.
So what filled those 34 minutes of airtime?
Mainly doom-and-gloom stories, the study says.
This chart shows how often the IPCC reports were
linked to the themes of disaster, uncertainty, managing risk, and
As you can see, the news bulletins most often
framed their segments on the IPCC reports in terms of the potential
disasters associated with climate change.
This is not unusual, the study suggests.
Journalists can construct a strong narrative around a looming
disaster, providing an easily communicated tale: if people carry on
emitting greenhouse gases, bad things will happen.
In contrast, uncertainty and risk are much more
complicated concepts, and TV news producers simply don’t have the
time to explain them.
The study questions the effectiveness of using
doom and gloom to engage the public about climate change, however.
Emphasising more hopeful messages, such as the economic
opportunities of decarbonisation, may be more effective, it
While the way in which TV news covered the IPCC
reports wasn’t unusual, the news programmes’ choice of interviewees
was. The vast majority of interviews were with scientists that had
worked on the IPCC reports, the study found.
Of the 35 segments that contained interviews, 19
were with IPCC authors. That means climate scientists directly
involved with the IPCC’s process were by far and away the most
represented group in the bulletins, as this chart shows:
This again contrasts with media coverage of the
UN’s international climate negotiations. In newspaper coverage of
the meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, only 12 per cent of interviewees
were scientists, the study says. In TV news coverage of the IPCC
reports, it was 54 per cent.
So while there wasn’t much coverage of the IPCC
reports in TV news bulletins overall, scientific voices dominated
what little there was.
Not much news
The Reuters Institute’s research suggests TV
news’ appetite for climate change stories is limited. Many are
competing in a market where ratings rule, meaning more politics and
celebrity stories and less science, the study notes.
It suggests that the IPCC could release a single
synthesis report, rather than three, to try and generate more media
coverage. But most of all, it says the IPCC needs to try and move
away from stories that emphasise the negative aspects of climate
Offering solutions is more helpful than describing
disasters, it says, which could be the key to getting climate
change on TV.