Abstract

News media outlets are crucial for the dissemination of information on climate change issues, but the nature of the coverage varies across the world, depending on local geopolitical and economic contexts. Despite extensive scholarship on media and climate change, less attention has been paid to comparing how climate change is reported by news media in developed and developing countries. This article undertakes a cross-national study of how elite newspapers in four major greenhouse gas emitting countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, China and India—frame coverage of climate change negotiations. We show that framing is similar by these newspapers in developing countries, but there are clear differences in framing in the developed world, and between the developed and developing countries. While an overwhelming majority of these news stories and the frames they deploy are pegged to the stance of domestic institutions in the developing countries, news frames from developed countries are more varied.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the threat it poses to the planet, international policy responses—most notably in the form of a global climate treaty—remain fragmented and inadequate. The on-going negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are marked by a fundamental disjuncture between current geopolitical, economic, and environmental realities and the relevance of “a regime forged in another era” (Grubb 2014, 325). Much of the disconnect between the stark ecological and scientific reality, on the one hand, and the inadequate political and policy responses, on the other, has been driven by the coming together of a powerful alliance of a fossil fuel industry that funds climate denialism, a small but vocal minority of contrarian scientists, and a news media committed to the norm of “balanced reporting” (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Oreskes and Conway 2010). At a more fundamental level, the failure of political consensus also reflects a lack of public confidence and trust in the scientific community and institutions, and therefore requires a response that is sensitive to “the performative and persuasive demands of reasoning for culturally diverse audiences” (Jasanoff 2013, 131).

As has been widely acknowledged, the media play a critical role in communicating the importance of climate change and the need for appropriate policy responses (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Cooper 2011). However, journalistic norms can “often mitigate against meaningful, accurate, and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming” (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004, 125). Previous social science research has explored media representations of climate change primarily in developed countries, including comparative analyses across two or more states (Brossard et al. 2004; Grundmann and Scott 2014; Jaspal and Nerlich 2014; Nisbet 2009; Painter and Ashe 2012). Significantly less attention has been given to the news media’s role in shaping the climate policy agenda in developing countries, and particularly to comparing the news media across developed and developing countries. This article undertakes a comparative analysis of the coverage of international climate policy issues by the news media in four major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting countries, two each from the developing and developed worlds.

Background

Studies on media effects have vividly demonstrated the nature and extent of public reliance on the media for information on issues of public concern (Dautrich and Hartley 1999; Johnson-Cartee 2005). The media, thus, play a key role in shaping public understanding of such issues, including climate change (Asayama and Ishii 2014; Boykoff 2011; Cooper 2011; Nerlich 2010; Wilson 1995). The English-language press coverage of climate change has tended to focus on scientific research and commentary, especially in the US and the UK (Antilla 2005; Carvalho 2007; Dunlap et al. 2016; Kuha 2009; Grundmann and Scott 2014). Grundmann and Scott (2014) explored media coverage of climate change discourses, using corpus linguistic methods, in four developed countries—Germany, France, the UK and the US—and found that climate advocates had much greater visibility than skeptics in all four countries. Some studies have examined media coverage of climate change in other English-speaking countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand (Bell 1994; Einsiedel 1992; Henderson-Sellers 1998; McManus 2000; Takahashi 2008), whereas others have focused on France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Japan (Dirikx and Gelders 2010; Lopera and Moreno 2014; Shehata and Hopmann 2012). Painter and Ashe (2012) examined media coverage of climate skepticism in the US, UK, Brazil, China, France and India and found that news coverage of skepticism is primarily limited to the US and the UK. But, on the whole, there is limited scholarly analysis of the media coverage of climate change in the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, China, and India despite the pivotal roles of these countries in international climate change policy negotiations (Billett 2010; Painter and Ashe 2012).

Furthermore, with some notable exceptions, little scholarly attention has been directed at a cross-national assessment of the framing of climate policy issues by the news media and the potential impact of these framings on shaping international climate policy (Stromback and van Aelst 2010; Schmidt et al. 2013; Takahashi, 2008). Dirikx and Gelders (2010, 733), among others, have called for “[m]ore cross-national analyses of climate change media coverage to discover similarities and dissimilarities in the climate change information that people in various countries receive” (Benson 2004). This article evaluates the ways in which the media have framed the discussions around communicating issues of international climate change policy-making, ranging from the barriers confronting international climate negotiations to the potential paths forward, with specific reference to print media in the US, the UK, China and India. Such an analysis is important in determining how climate change science and negotiations have been portrayed by the leading prestige or elite newspapers (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Carpenter 2007) from both developed and developing countries that are also the major emitters, which has implications for public understanding of climate change as well as for the nature of political negotiations in these countries.

Framework of Analysis

Drawing on a textual analysis of media frames (de Vreese 2005; Entman 1993; McCright and Dunlap 2000; Semetko and Valkenburg 2000), this article provides a cross-national analysis of the media coverage of international climate policy negotiations by eight “prestige press” or “elite newspapers” from four countries between 2007 and 2013. Gitlin (1980, 7) defines a “frame” as “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis and exclusion by which symbol handlers routinely organize discourse.” Frames are the interpretive packages and at the core of the interpretive package is “a central organizing idea … for making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue” (Gamson and Modigliani 1989, 4). Frames can be generic or issue specific (de Vreese 2005). Explicitly or implicitly, frames emphasize aspects of complex issues such as climate change to make it possible for the public to determine readily why an issue is important, who is responsible, and what the consequences might be (McCombs et al. 1997).

Frames thus “become invaluable tools for presenting relatively complex issues, such as stem cell research” or climate change, “efficiently and in a way that makes them accessible to lay audiences because they play to existing cognitive schemas” (Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007, 12). An analysis of framing does not focus on which topics or issues are selected for coverage by the news media, but instead on the particular ways those issues are presented (Price and Tewksbury 1997). McCombs (2004) argues that framing is simply a more refined version of agenda setting. From that perspective, framing means making aspects of an issue more salient through different modes of presentation to shift people’s attitudes (Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007).

Framing offers a powerful discursive strategy for presenting and defining an issue in ways that can persuade, often having profound political, social, and behavioral consequences (de Vreese 2005; Entman 1993). Although the media representations of climate change issues involve deploying key frames derived from complex relationships between scientists, policy actors, and the public (Boykoff and Roberts 2007), “the actual framing takes place in the way some facts are highlighted or underplayed or in the way some are tagged positively or negatively” (Munshi et al. 2014, 91). Framing can also help define how specific topics are presented to particular audiences, including policy makers and observers at Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings (Hjerpe and Buhr 2014).

In a review of the literature on framing, Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) found the recurrence of five major frames: the responsibility frame, conflict frame, economic consequences frame, human interest frame and morality frame. The responsibility frame places responsibility or accusations for causes of or solutions to a problem on individuals, politicians or groups (or levels accusations at them) and emphasizes that the problem requires urgent actions. The conflict frame emphasizes conflict between parties or individuals, stresses the points of divergence between opponents and creates winners and losers. The economic consequences frame emphasizes the economic issues—financial losses and gains—that affect people either by pursuing or not pursuing actions. The human-interest frame personalizes a problem and presents an issue from a more emotional point of view such as how climate change affects people personally. It employs personal vignettes and visuals that generate feelings of outrage or empathy. The morality frame presents situations from a moral and/or religious perspective (Semetko and Valkenburg 2000; see also Dirikx and Gelders 2010). Dirikx and Gelders (2010) used these five frames to do a cross-national analysis of the media coverage of climate change in the Netherlands and France.

In contrast, McCright and Dunlap (2000, 506) identified three “counter-claims” that focus on constructing the “non-problematicity” of global warming. Their study of the American conservative movement’s counter-claims in the debate over climate change generated the following frames: the scientific uncertainty frame, which criticized the scientific evidence on climate change as weak and wrong; the anti-regulation frame, which highlighted the negative consequences of implementing climate legislation; and the benefit frame, which claimed global warming would improve quality of life, health, and agriculture. These frames are used by conservative US think tanks in challenging actions and regulations against climate change and GHG emissions (McCright and Dunlap 2000, 510; see also Antilla 2005). Despite the strong consensus among scientists about anthropogenic climate change and its impacts, the media have continued to present climate change as a controversial issue (Antilla 2005; Elsasser and Dunlap 2013). In turn, public attitudes toward climate change in the US and the UK continue to reveal disagreement over whether anthropogenic climate change is happening (Roser-Renouf et al. 2014), with public concern only recently recorded as rebounding from all-time lows in the US.

This study undertakes a cross-national analysis of the presence of the first four frames identified by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000), the three climate denial frames by McCright and Dunlap (2000), and three other salient frames developed by us to explore how newspapers cover the issues of climate change in the US, the UK, China and India. Initially, we intended to use only the seven frames developed by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) and McCright and Dunlap (2000), but after an initial round of preliminary coding, we realised that three more frames (scientific certainty, national position, and human development) were required. The “scientific certainty” frame emphasizes that climate change is a scientifically validated problem that needs to be addressed to avoid negative environmental consequences. The “national position” frame draws attention to the policy position of the state and the actions it is prepared to take to address climate change. The “human development” frame emphasizes issues of human health, social impacts, economic growth, and sustainable development. Therefore, we developed a comprehensive framework comprising the ten frames. The morality frame, albeit powerful in terms of climate change actions, was excluded because it is the least prevalent in the coverage around climate policy negotiations, since its primary focus is on morality, religion and God. It is difficult for journalists to give a moral message while sticking to the journalistic norm of objectivity (Semetko and Valkenburg 2000). Although Anglican and Catholic leaders, for example, have voiced concerns about climate change, our focus is on examining the news articles relating to international climate change negotiations where moral views from religious leaders are less likely to be expressed and reported by newspapers.

In examining the elite press coverage of climate change issues, we focused on the following key questions: How are issues of international climate change policy framed in the news media of the US, the UK, India and China? What are the similarities and differences in the frames used by the media in each country? Is climate change news framing pegged to the national positions of each country?

Method

This research analyzes climate change coverage by widely circulated, nationally-ranked English language prestige or elite newspapers (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Carpenter 2007) from four major GHG emitting countries: the US, the UK, India and China. The newspapers selected were the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the New York Times (NYT) in the US; the Guardian United Kingdom (GUK), and the Daily Telegraph in the UK; the Hindustan Times (HT) and The Hindu in India; and China Daily (CD) and Xinhua1 (Xinhuanet.com) in China. Each of these is a well-reputed, influential English language newspaper in its country. The English-language press in an authoritarian state such as China does not seek to influence the elite policy agenda so much as to reflect it. This makes it different from the English press in the three other countries of our study, where the press is independent and seeks to influence the political and policy agenda. Given China’s significant role in the global climate negotiations, we believe including Xinhua and CD in the analysis offers an important opportunity to assess the policy priorities of the state.

The rationale for the selection of these eight newspapers was their national and international reputation among the top 100 newspapers2, widely read and used by researchers, and recognized as prestige press or elite newspapers (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Boykoff 2007; Carpenter 2007; Reese and Danielian 1989). Previous research has shown that such newspapers set the agenda for other news organizations (Carpenter 2007; Reese and Danielian 1989). To a limited extent, these newspapers also present views from both the English speaking world and the non-English speaking world, as well as from both developed and developing countries, thus even partially capturing the range of perspectives present at the global climate negotiations at the annual COP. Another important rationale for choosing these newspapers was to examine the climate framing roles of newspapers in major emitting countries. Only articles that focused on the UN climate change negotiations and/or were related to the COP meetings on the Kyoto Protocol from Bali to Warsaw were included in this analysis.

This study involves a textual content analysis of news articles, through sampling and coding the relevant articles from 2007 to 2013. The period 2007–2013 was significant in terms of negotiating more stringent global requirements for GHG emission cuts. This period had three significant phases in the history of climate negotiations and a high level of media coverage of climate change. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its Fourth Assessment Reports and the UNFCCC agreed to the Bali Action Plan, which sought to negotiate further binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions by wealthy nations by 2009. In 2009, COP 15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver on the high global expectations of producing a legally binding commitment to reducing emissions. At the same time, there was massive media coverage of leaked emails of climate scientists as part of what was termed “climategate” (Guardian 14 July 2010). The year 2012 was critical because the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was to expire by the end of the year and it remained to be seen whether the parties to the UNFCCC would commit to cutting GHG emissions in the second commitment period, while negotiating a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2020. In 2013, the IPCC produced its Fifth Assessment Report affirming the near certainty of anthropogenic climate change, and negotiations intensified to seal a new climate deal in Paris in 2015. Thus this period was marked by key moments in the chronology of climate change negotiations, making the present study of the media coverage of climate change negotiations during this time particularly relevant.

Factiva was used to extract the news articles, using the search terms “international climate change negotiations” or “Kyoto Protocol” or “Copenhagen Accord.” Where an article had been duplicated it was removed to avoid repetition. All relevant articles (columns, interviews, commentaries, and news articles) were included. The Factiva search produced a total of 1740 articles from eight newspapers. The search produced 184 articles from NYT, 159 articles from the WSJ, 358 articles from the GUK, 93 articles from the Telegraph, 264 articles from CD, 180 articles from Xinhua, 298 articles from the Hindu, and 204 articles from the HT. A systematic random sampling from each newspaper was conducted and one in ten articles was selected for coding and analysis. In the sampling process, any article shorter than 200 words was replaced by the next article with more than 200 words. While coding, we found that a few articles which had appeared in the Western media had been reproduced by either Indian or Chinese newspapers, and these were excluded.

Each article was coded using the ten frames, with 37 questions in total3 (Table 1). To establish the reliability and validity of our coding, each author independently coded a sample of ten articles, compared the results to clarify the process and frames, and repeated this process four times to achieve an inter-coder reliability rate of 95 percent. Then the entire corpus of articles was coded, and we randomly cross-checked all articles to ensure consistency in inter-coder reliability (McHugh 2012; Neuendorf 2002).

Table 1 

Analysis of Frames (Adapted from Semetko and Valkenburg, 2000; McCright and Dunlap 2000)

Attribution of responsibility 
1. Does the story suggest that some level of government has the ability to alleviate the problem? 
2. Does the story suggest that some level of government is responsible for the issue/problem? 
3. Does the story suggest solution(s) to the problem/issue? 
4. Does the story suggest that an individual (or group of people in society) is responsible for the issue/problem? 
5. Does the story suggest that the problem requires urgent action? 
Economic consequences frame 
6. Is there a mention of (financial) losses and gains now or in the future? 
7. Is there a mention of costs/degree of expense involved? 
8. Is there a reference to (economic) consequences of pursuing or not pursuing a course of action? 
Conflict frame 
9. Does the story reflect disagreement between parties/individuals/groups/countries? 
10. Does one party/individual/group/country/reproach another? 
11. Does the story refer to two sides or more than two sides of the problem or issue? 
12. Does the story refer to winners and losers? 
Human Interest frame 
13. Does the story provide a human example or “human face” on the issue? 
14. Does the story employ adjectives or personal vignettes that generate feelings of outrage, empathy, caring, sympathy or compassion? 
15. Does the story emphasize how individuals and groups are affected by the issue/problem? 
16. Does the story go into the private or personal lives of the actors? 
17. Does the story contain visual information that might generate feelings of outrage, empathy, caring, sympathy or compassion? 
Scientific Uncertainty frame 
18. Does the story reflect that global warming is highly uncertain? 
19. Does the story refer that mainstream climate research is “junk science”? 
20. Does the story refer that global warming is a myth or scare-mongering? 
21. Does the story refer that global warming is just a political tool for environmentalists and bureaucrats? 
Benefit frame 
22. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves our quality of life? 
23. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves our health? 
24. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves agriculture? 
Anti-Regulation Frame 
25. Is there a reference to climate regulations harming national economy? 
26. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would weaken national security? 
27. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would threaten national sovereignty? 
28. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would actually harm the environment? 
Scientific Certainty 
29. Does the story reflect climate change science as certain? 
30. Does the story refer to mainstream climate research as “consensus science”? 
31. Does the story refer to climate change as causing potential environmental risks and consequences? 
32. Does the story refer to climate change denial as just a political tool for lobby groups? 
National Position 
33. Is there a reference to the official national position on climate change in the story? 
34. Is there a reference to national policy actions against climate change in the story? 
Human Development 
35. Does the story refer to impacts upon human development due to climate change? 
36. Does the story refer to climate change as an obstacle for human health, prosperity, economic growth, social and sustainable development? 
37. Does the story refer to efforts against reducing the impacts of climate change as facilitating human development? 
Attribution of responsibility 
1. Does the story suggest that some level of government has the ability to alleviate the problem? 
2. Does the story suggest that some level of government is responsible for the issue/problem? 
3. Does the story suggest solution(s) to the problem/issue? 
4. Does the story suggest that an individual (or group of people in society) is responsible for the issue/problem? 
5. Does the story suggest that the problem requires urgent action? 
Economic consequences frame 
6. Is there a mention of (financial) losses and gains now or in the future? 
7. Is there a mention of costs/degree of expense involved? 
8. Is there a reference to (economic) consequences of pursuing or not pursuing a course of action? 
Conflict frame 
9. Does the story reflect disagreement between parties/individuals/groups/countries? 
10. Does one party/individual/group/country/reproach another? 
11. Does the story refer to two sides or more than two sides of the problem or issue? 
12. Does the story refer to winners and losers? 
Human Interest frame 
13. Does the story provide a human example or “human face” on the issue? 
14. Does the story employ adjectives or personal vignettes that generate feelings of outrage, empathy, caring, sympathy or compassion? 
15. Does the story emphasize how individuals and groups are affected by the issue/problem? 
16. Does the story go into the private or personal lives of the actors? 
17. Does the story contain visual information that might generate feelings of outrage, empathy, caring, sympathy or compassion? 
Scientific Uncertainty frame 
18. Does the story reflect that global warming is highly uncertain? 
19. Does the story refer that mainstream climate research is “junk science”? 
20. Does the story refer that global warming is a myth or scare-mongering? 
21. Does the story refer that global warming is just a political tool for environmentalists and bureaucrats? 
Benefit frame 
22. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves our quality of life? 
23. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves our health? 
24. Is there a reference that global warming/climate change improves agriculture? 
Anti-Regulation Frame 
25. Is there a reference to climate regulations harming national economy? 
26. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would weaken national security? 
27. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would threaten national sovereignty? 
28. Is there a reference to climate regulations that would actually harm the environment? 
Scientific Certainty 
29. Does the story reflect climate change science as certain? 
30. Does the story refer to mainstream climate research as “consensus science”? 
31. Does the story refer to climate change as causing potential environmental risks and consequences? 
32. Does the story refer to climate change denial as just a political tool for lobby groups? 
National Position 
33. Is there a reference to the official national position on climate change in the story? 
34. Is there a reference to national policy actions against climate change in the story? 
Human Development 
35. Does the story refer to impacts upon human development due to climate change? 
36. Does the story refer to climate change as an obstacle for human health, prosperity, economic growth, social and sustainable development? 
37. Does the story refer to efforts against reducing the impacts of climate change as facilitating human development? 

For the systematic analysis of news articles, we used the standard set of content analytic indicators to measure the prevalence of the ten generic frames developed by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000), McCright and Dunlap (2000) and us. The coding schedule was designed to be answered with “don’t agree,” “largely agree,” or “completely agree” (Table 1). Several studies (Klein et al. 2009; Dirikx and Gelders 2010; McCright and Dunlap 2000) have applied the questions drawn from Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) and McCright and Dunlap (2000) to media texts, and found that the questions reliably reflect the underlying frames. The unit of analysis was the whole article, and we focused primarily on the key framing devices used in the article, including the title, to answer the central research questions about the types of frames, and their alignment with national positions, used by different news media in their coverage of international climate change policy. We tested three hypotheses: (1) News media in developed and developing countries frame climate change issues differently. (2) The use of multiple and conflicting frames in media coverage of climate change can reinforce public confusion about climate-related issues. (3) Climate change news is often pegged to national positions and national interests.

Results

Responsibility, national position and conflict were the three main frames used in descending order in the Indian newspapers, the Hindu and the HT. In The Hindu, the responsibility frame was found in twenty-four articles, national position was in twenty-one, conflict was in nineteen, human development was in seventeen, economic was in twelve, and scientific certainty was in five. In the HT, the responsibility frame was found in fifteen articles, national position in fifteen, conflict and economic in twelve articles each, human development in five, and human interest in one. In both newspapers, the frames of scientific uncertainty, benefit, anti-regulation, and human interest received little or no mention.

The CD’s first two major themes were similar, but the third was economic consequences. The responsibility frame took the first position, the national position frame took the second and the economic consequences frame the third. The responsibility frame was found in twenty-one articles, national position in eighteen, economic in seventeen, conflict in sixteen, human development in fourteen, scientific certainty in eight, and human interest in two. Scientific uncertainty, benefit and anti-regulations frames were not found in the CD. Xinhua, the second Chinese newspaper, highlighted human development, responsibility, and economic consequences frames in framing its climate news stories. In Xinhua, the human development frame was found in eleven articles, responsibility and economic consequences in ten articles each, national position in eight, conflict in four, and scientific certainty in two. Frames such as human interest, scientific uncertainty, benefit, and anti-regulation were not found in Xinhua.

The GUK’s major frames for covering climate change news stories were conflict, responsibility and national position, in descending order. The conflict frame was found in twenty-six articles, responsibility in twenty-one, national position in twenty, economic consequences in seventeen, scientific certainty in ten, human interest in four, and human development in three. None of the articles focused on the scientific uncertainty, benefit, or anti-regulation frames. The Telegraph gave salience to economic consequences, conflict, and human development frames, in that order. In the Telegraph, the economic consequences frame was found in six articles, conflict and human development in four articles each, responsibility and national position in three articles each, and human interest and scientific certainty in one article each. Interestingly, the scientific uncertainty and anti-regulation frames were highlighted by two articles each in the Telegraph.

The WSJ placed importance on economic consequences, conflict, and responsibility frames, in that order, whereas the NYT’s climate news stories focused on responsibility, economic consequences, and conflict frames. In the WSJ, economic consequences and conflict frames were found in sixteen articles each, responsibility in fourteen, national position in thirteen, human development in two, and human interest in one. The anti-regulation frame was found in nine articles, scientific uncertainty in two articles, and the benefit frame in one article in the WSJ. In the NYT, the responsibility frame was found in eighteen articles, economic consequences in seventeen, conflict in fourteen, national position in thirteen, scientific certainty in eight, human development in seven, human interest in three, and anti-regulation in one. The NYT articles did not highlight climate uncertainty or benefit of climate change.

Table 2 illustrates how the press has framed climate change coverage in the US, the UK, Chinese and Indian press between 2007 and 2013. It shows the number of times each frame deployed over the seven-year period.

Table 2 

Summary of Framing Frequency in the Eight Newspapers

Frame Xinhua CD Hindu HT NYT WSJ GUK Telegraph 
Responsibility 10 21 24 15 18 14 21 
Economic 10 17 12 12 17 16 17 
Conflict 16 19 12 14 16 26 
Human Interest 
Scientific Uncertainty 
Benefit 
Anti-Regulation 
Scientific Certainty 10 
National Position 18 21 15 13 13 20 
Human Development 11 14 17 
Frame Xinhua CD Hindu HT NYT WSJ GUK Telegraph 
Responsibility 10 21 24 15 18 14 21 
Economic 10 17 12 12 17 16 17 
Conflict 16 19 12 14 16 26 
Human Interest 
Scientific Uncertainty 
Benefit 
Anti-Regulation 
Scientific Certainty 10 
National Position 18 21 15 13 13 20 
Human Development 11 14 17 

Table 3 (and Figure 1, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/suppl/10.1162/GLEP_a_00430/suppl_file/GLEP_a_00430_supp.pdf) provides a detailed picture of the numerical frequencies of the frames and questions. Questions 1, 7, and 33 had the most responses, followed by questions 11, 2, 3, and 34. In other words, responsibility, national position, economic consequences, and conflict frames appeared the most often, in this order. Questions 13 to 28, which include frames such as human interest, scientific uncertainty, benefit, and anti-regulation, drew the fewest responses. Interestingly, questions 18 to 28 (scientific uncertainty, benefit, and anti-regulation) were discussed only by UK and US newspapers, specifically by the Telegraph and the WSJ, both known for their conservative ideology. Questions 29 to 31 on scientific certainty and 35 to 37 on national position were in the middle.

Table 3 

Numerical Frequency of the Questions Each Newspaper Covered and Overall Salience of the Frames*

graphic
 
graphic
 

A number of interesting points have arisen from this analysis. In broad terms, responsibility, economic consequences, conflict, and national position were the four major and most frequently used frames in both the developed and developing countries, whereas the human interest frame was the least used. The conservative newspapers from the US and UK, the WSJ and the Telegraph, carried a few stories on the “non-problematicity” of climate change using the frames of scientific uncertainty, benefit and anti-regulation whereas Chinese and Indian newspapers did not use those frames at all in their stories. The WSJ and the Telegraph focused on anti-climate change regulations, scientific uncertainty and climate change benefit frames, using them to attack proposals for ambitious climate policy with aspirations of climate regulations and carbon tax. In contrast, the GUK and the NYT coverage challenged the discrepancies of the climate non-problematicity frames. In addition to the frames used by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) and McCright and Dunlap (2000), many newspapers highlighted the three new frames—scientific certainty, national position and human development—which we have added in this study (Table 2 and Figure 1).

Discussion and Implications

We discuss and evaluate our findings in light of the three key hypotheses: 1. News media in developed and developing countries frame climate change issues differently. 2. The use of multiple and conflicting frames in media coverage of climate change may reinforce public confusion about climate-related issues. 3. Climate change news is often pegged to national positions and national interests.

News framing is one important factor in the climate change communication process in which some issues are framed as environmental problems for which solutions are sought (Tapio and Willamo 2008). Various factors affect media coverage of climate change, including the interests and activities of news sources, journalistic practices and norms, media ownership, phase of discussion and news framing, and frames used (Anderson 1997; Anderson 2009; Boykoff and Boykoff 2007; Roser-Renouf et al. 2014).

Previous studies conducted on Western print media’s news coverage of climate change show that the media often distort the climate change consensus view of the mainstream scientific community. For example, in a study of New Zealand news media, Bell (1994) found that the media tended to both overstate the effects of climate change as well as demonstrate confusion between a greenhouse effect and ozone depletion. Similarly, Boykoff and Boykoff’s (2004, 134) study of climate change coverage between 1998 and 2002 concluded, “The US prestige press … adherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming.”

Other scholars have pointed out that when climate skeptics “were given equal weight as credible sources in U.S. media coverage,” in the name of journalistic balance, it “created doubt regarding the need to act” (Eide and Ytterstad 2011, 54). This balanced but biased reporting is echoed in other studies of Western media coverage (Antilla 2005; Hulme 2009), although Boykoff (2007) showed that the media’s focus on balanced, and thus skeptical, reporting has decreased over time. A recent study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reported that the divergent views about global warming in the US present a challenge to decision-makers and educators to communicate effectively about the topic (Roser-Renouf et al. 2014).

The scientific uncertainty frame promoted by various climate skeptics as a way of disrupting international climate change negotiations and ambitious national domestic policies has received significant attention in the media coverage of climate change (Zehr 2000). In late 2009, just prior to the COP meeting in Copenhagen, skeptics hacked into the email accounts of researchers at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit to disrupt the international negotiation process. The media coverage of “climategate” as the hacked emails were dubbed added to public uncertainty and shook their faith in climate science. As Bowe et al. (2014, 157) observed: “According to some skeptics of climate change research, the content of those [hacked] emails suggested data were being manipulated, while climate scientists said their words were taken out of context.” In this context, the Copenhagen Accord that emerged from the COP was noteworthy for setting a particularly low bar for national commitments, highlighting climate science uncertainties and policy disagreements.

Our findings deviated slightly from previous findings in that the use of climate change skeptic stories were less frequent and appeared in only two Western newspapers, the WSJ and the Telegraph. The textual content analysis (Tables 2 and 3) affirmed that while news media from developed and developing countries used similar frames in their coverage of climate change, these frames were deployed differently to communicate different messages. Responsibility, conflict, economic consequences, and national position were the four dominant frames presented in news stories in both developed and developing countries. These four frames focused on the debate of “shouldering responsibility,” “economic loss or gain of taking responsibility,” “conflicting national interests based on national political economy,” and “local political undercurrents.” These frames highlighted the need for either sacrifices or gains in conflicts over common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and equity in terms of burden sharing, assuming responsibility, economic consequences, and development as the benchmarks for successful and ambitious climate change policies. The sustained attention to issues of economic development, competing responsibilities, and national interests also served to marginalize the need for urgent action from the international community to match current political, economic, and environmental realities.

In addition, we found differences in story frames between news media within developed countries, which contrasted with the similarity of framing by media in developing countries. For example, the references to skepticism in the GUK and the NYT were about unravelling the hidden motives and discrepancies of skeptics. The GUK and NYT carried stories that blamed the developed countries or the skeptics’ lobby for inaction, while the WSJ and the Telegraph remained conservative in framing their stories on climate change as an issue of non-problematicity. In contrast, Chinese and Indian newspapers made little reference to climate skepticism. Instead, framing by Chinese and Indian newspapers was focused on challenging those opposed to climate action based on historical responsibility, such as the advanced industrialized countries.

As in any scientific enquiry, uncertainties are inherent in climate science, but the reality of a world marked by more extreme weather patterns with rising sea levels and longer droughts is becoming clearer with every new record set (Tanner and Phathonothai 2014). Despite the rhetoric of most states, concrete and visible actions that need to be taken globally in response to accelerating climate change remain elusive. The lack of progress over the two decades of international climate change negotiations in halting climate change and its accelerating impacts is paralleled by the media’s framing of climate change issues in a variety of ways, often based on their political leanings in the context of developed countries. The contrasting framing of climate change between liberal news media such as the NYT and the GUK, and conservative outlets such as the WSJ and the Telegraph, may serve to reinforce people’s misunderstandings of climate change, which in turn may hinder political and policy responses. This requires the media’s news framing to focus attention on salient issues through different modes of presentation that can promote a shift in people’s perceptions and attitudes (Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007) towards an understanding of climate change imperatives and support for effective policy responses.

Similarly, framing climate change responses in terms of the historical responsibility of the developed countries and the right to development of the developing countries has not effectively motivated the necessary collective actions. For example, in 1997, the US Senate refused to accept the commitment to reduce GHG emissions required by the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that it was unfair to impose such a requirement only on developed countries. As recently as 2015, the US Senate voted against measures that would have acknowledged the human role in climate change, indicating once again its unwillingness to act on the issue.4

In terms of policy and public priorities, concerns about the economy, health, and crime often trump environmental problems. Despite the frequent use by climate change activists of fear-evoking strategies, most scholars agree that such tactics are counter-productive (Moser and Dilling 2011). The public often responds with indifference, apathy, or denial, especially when fear and worry are not met by constructive strategies for collective action (Moser and Dilling 2011); also the public appears less willing to trade off economic growth for environmental protection when the economy weakens (Guber 2003). These characteristics have been some of the most critical aspects of climate policy politics. For climate change to rise and stay high on political and public agendas, there must be broad societal conviction that not only should we act on climate change, but also that there can be both economic costs of doing nothing and economic gains through deploying green technologies (Pralle 2009). This requires framing climate actions in ways that foster public support and maintain political will. However, the fact that climate change is a global concern while most media are still nationally focused presents a challenge (Eide and Ytterstad 2011). Our findings affirmed that climate change news is often pegged to national positions in all four countries (Table 2 and Figure 1). Whereas the US and the UK media argued about what ought or ought not to be the national interests or positions, Chinese and Indian media carried stories matching the positions of their national governments.

The vast majority of Chinese media is state-run, and articles are subject to scrutiny and censorship. Xinhua is the most influential newspaper in China, which reinforces the national stance of the Chinese government and stresses that advanced countries should shoulder the burden of addressing climate change. It also sets the agenda for all other Chinese media. Indian newspapers also reinforce the government’s position that India as a developing country cannot compromise its development. The NYT and WSJ in the US, and the Telegraph and GUK in the UK pegged themselves in different ways to national positions of their countries, reflecting their stands as liberal and conservative newspapers. The liberal newspapers NYT and GUK aspired to a climate-resilient world by addressing climate issues, while the Telegraph and WSJ remained conservative, requiring no actions against climate change. Such contradictory political leanings of the media have the potential to undermine the creation of coherent and ambitious climate policies.

Conclusions

Our research has approached the question of cross-national climate change coverage from a comparative perspective, using a comprehensive frame analysis framework. This is one of the first comparative studies to analyze the media framing of climate change in the US, the UK, China and India systematically, and thus makes an original contribution to the literature of climate change communication and climate politics. We also flag the need for scholarly analysis of the catalytic role played by the national media in developed and developing countries in shaping public perceptions on issues of climate change in ways that can influence the political and policy agenda. We demonstrated that national position, climate politics, and media coverage of climate issues are systematically connected to national political interests and CBDR in India and China, while liberal and conservative newspapers in the US and the UK take distinctly different political positions.

The newspapers we investigated offered extensive coverage of climate change negotiations, but such media attention does not necessarily translate into more public concern or policy change; in fact, the opposite might be the case when the information that reaches the public is contradictory and biased (Boykoff 2008). Consistent and high levels of media attention are required for political agenda setting to be considered for policy making and political change. The evidence also suggests that media coverage, framings, and agreement or disagreement on issues of international climate change negotiations can influence societal and political perspectives.

Nisbet and Mooney (2007, 56) argue that “scientists must learn to actively “frame” information” on complex topics, such as climate change, to “make it personally relevant” to diverse publics—a task that applies equally to the news media. Scholars have also called for reframing climate change news in ways that are more personally engaging; create an ethical foundation that may compel greater participation; localize the issues and switch the policy focus, thereby diffusing political polarization; and finally, position opinion-leaders as community-level connectors and recruiters (Nisbet et al. 2012). This can help increase public support for climate action required to begin making fundamental changes in society. However, as this study reveals, the dominant frames across developed and developing countries focus on short-term or narrowly defined priorities, which do not facilitate either public support or policy action. It is evident that media coverage of climate politics and policy requires new frames that allow the envisioning of a climate-resilient world.

Notes

1. 

Xinhua News Agency is a leading news agency in China, and its English version online newspaper is Xinhuanet (or Xinhua), available at xinhuanet.com, from which articles have been taken for this study.

2. 

4intermational.com, Newspaper Web Ranking 2014. Available at www.4imn.com/top200/, accessed August 21, 2017.

3. 

We extended the original coding schedule of 28 questions by adding nine more questions that we developed.

4. 

US Senate Refuses to Accept Humanity’s Role in Global Climate Change, Again. The Guardian, January 22, 2015.

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Author notes

*

We thank the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Waikato for financial support to Chandra Lal Pandey for his postdoctoral fellowship. We also thank our colleague Alan Simpson for his support and invaluable contribution to this paper, as well as the editors of Global Environmental Politics, Kate O’Neill and Stacy D. VanDeveer, and anonymous reviewers for their insightful and helpful comments.