Mass Media, Framing and Climate Change

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Defining the Issue

This chapter outlines how climate change is presented in The New Zealand Herald, The Irish Times and The Guardian. It presents analysis of how much coverage climate change news was afforded during the Cancun conference and what types of journalists wrote the bulk of the coverage. The dominant framing of climate change as an economic problem is explored. How and how often the newspapers report climate science is discussed, followed by analysis of the frequency and extremity of climate catastrophe or scare story framing. How Big an Issue?               The Cancun conference was not the only thing that happened between November 29 and December 13 2010. In New Zealand, a fatal explosion at the Pike River coal mine led the news. Amidst a debt crisis in Ireland, the government unveiled a €15 billion austerity package imposed by the EU in return for an €85 billion economic rescue package. Britain experienced widespread protests against rising university tuition fees, a strike by London Underground workers, H1N1 “swine flu” cases, the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton and the fiftieth anniversary of Coronation Street. Extreme winter weather closed critical infrastructure in Britain and Ireland and was also felt across Europe and North America. A NATO summit was held in Lisbon, Portugal and a G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea. Much of Latin America experienced extreme flooding. Wikileaks released 250,000 classified documents and Interpol issued a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange. Nobel Prizes were awarded. Cholera reached epidemic levels in Haiti, as the country was preparing for an election. National elections were held or their results announced in nine other countries.281 FIFA announced the locations of the 2018 and 2022 football world cups. North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire over Yeonpyeong Island. Two new planets were discovered. The Cancun conference had to contend with all these and more for newsworthiness and this analysis suggests that often climate change lost out. Judging newspapers by their front pages is a blunt but illustrative method of analysis that reveals little about how journalists frame climate change but does illuminate how importantly editors and publishers view the politics of climate change. Climate change does not feature on the front page of any of the three newspapers at the time of the Cancun conference. Given the Pike River mining tragedy in New Zealand and the debt crisis in Ireland, it is not surprising that neither The Irish Times nor The New Zealand Herald mentions climate change on its front page at any time during the period of analysis. One New Zealand Herald Cancun story made the front page of the World section of the newspaper.282 In The Irish Times, the highest-placed climate-related story was on page seven, and it is about science in general not climate change or the Cancun conference specifically.283 Neither did The Guardian report climate change or the Cancun conference on its front page; climate change was accorded space on page two, but only once.284 This lack of placement of climate change stories on the front page suggests that climate change is not considered to provide the journalistic hooks necessary for a front page story. The trend is consistent across the dataset that climate change is rarely anywhere near the front of the newspapers: climate change is not often given prominent or front-page space even during global climate conferences. The topics of editorials can also be counted to provide a measurement of the importance that newspapers place on issues. The specific content and framing of the editorials also sheds light on understandings of climate change, as is explored later in this thesis. The Guardian published two editorials about Cancun during the analysis period, The New Zealand Herald published one and The Irish Times none. This crudely suggests that The Guardian placed most editorial weight on climate change as an important issue at the time of the Cancun conference and The Irish Times placed least. Figure 5.1 shows the total number of climate change-relevant items published in the three newspapers during the analysis period. The Guardian published nearly double the twenty three items in each of The Irish Times and The New Zealand Herald. In Britain there was not one major news event that defined the media landscape during the period of analysis like there was in Ireland (debt crisis) and New Zealand (mining disaster), and this correlates with more space in The Guardian for climate change journalism. newspaper. These figures show that The Guardian published significantly more words in total but also on average published fewer words per item: The Guardian contains more, shorter items while the other two newspapers tend to contain fewer but longer items. Many of the shorter items in The Guardian are comment or opinion items from people who are not journalists, and this dimension of public debate in The Guardian is returned to later in this thesis.  Who Writes Climate

Change Journalism?

All three newspapers employed specialist environmental reporters at the time of the Cancun conference. As specialist journalists, they are expected to synthesise political, economic and scientific information and communicate “environmental” issues to the public. As an issue at the intersection of domestic and global politics, science, and economics, climate change reporting requires some understanding of these different disciplines and the terrain on which they intersect. Many stories that environment reporters write may be about unheard-of species of insect or local problems with illegal rubbish dumping; times like the Cancun conference provide fertile ground for environment journalists to write front-page stories that focus on major environmental issues. Forty-eight per cent (eleven articles) of The Irish Times items analysed were written by the paper’s environment editor, Frank McDonald, who filed just over half of his stories from Cancun during the period analysed. The predominance of McDonald in the reporting of climate change and the Cancun conference in The Irish Times lends coherence and continuity to the paper’s content. The value of the specialist position of environment editor is conveyed through the comprehensive reporting; a professional journalistic focus on climate change that recognises a multidimensionality to the issue that is not as prominent in items by economics journalists in the other newspapers analysed, The New Zealand Herald especially. The Guardian also sent a journalist to Cancun, environment editor John Vidal, who is credited with four items (just under ten per cent of total Guardian items) plus one jointly written with a Guardian contributing journalist based in Mexico City, Jo Tuckman. Four items in The Guardian are by the newspaper’s Head of Environment Damian Carrington. Together, Vidal and Carrington account for less than half the percentage of total items written by The Irish Times’ environment editor McDonald, from Cancun. The Guardian consequently has more narrative variation than The Irish Times, but, like The Irish Times there is a recognition in The Guardian of the value of specialist environmental journalism regarding climate change. The New Zealand Herald did not send a journalist to Cancun. Its environment reporter, Isaac Davison, is credited with only two stories comprising a total of less than one thousand words during the analysis period, and only one story is about Cancun. Brian Fallow, the economics editor, is credited with three stories, a total of just over two and a half thousand words. Which journalists write about Cancun influences the discursive framings that are strong in the newspapers. As the next section shows, the framing of climate change as an economic issue is stronger in The New Zealand Herald than it is in the two northern hemisphere newspapers, which publish more narratively varied, comprehensive and nuanced climate change journalism. Climate Change as an Economic Problem Bulkeley and Newell argue that the logic of neoliberalism pervades common prescriptions for climate policy.285 Prescribing market mechanisms such as emissions trading, promoting self-governance at the community and individual levels, and ‘the growth in [public-private] partnership approaches’, encases climate policy action firmly within the bounds of accepted hegemonic economic discourse.286 This is the case in The Guardian, The Irish Times and The New Zealand Herald. In all three newspapers the solutions proposed or implied are market-based and do not seek to question current neoliberal economic paradigms; this solution framing stems from the framing of climate change as an economic problem. The data analysis suggests that The New Zealand Herald generally employs a simplistic economic framing that implies that climate change policy is inherently economically damaging, whereas The Guardian and especially The Irish Times employ more complex narratives that play on both economic and social progress framing, with considerable journalistic attention given to “green” or sustainable economic ideas. But, like The New Zealand Herald, the two northern hemisphere newspapers emphasise the financial costs of climate change mitigation and adaption. Nisbet’s economics frame defines scientific policy issues in terms of economic development or competitiveness or in terms of market benefits or risks.287 Figure 5.4 shows the proportionate occurrence of economic framing in across the three newspapers. In The New Zealand Herald, economic framing appears in sixty-two per cent of the items analysed; in The Irish Times, it appears in forty-three per cent of items, and in The Guardian in only twenty-nine per cent of items. This data shows the percentages of articles that frame climate change as an economic issue, rather than the (higher) percentages of articles that contain discussion or mention of economics. Data was also gathered on the mention and prominence of “green” economics, or economic development /competitiveness brought about through the development and use of sustainable “green” technologies. The results appear in Figure 5.5. In only two items did the option of sustainable development or “green” economics enter the frame in The New Zealand Herald. The Guardian features a higher proportion of items that mention green economics (fifteen per cent), and The Irish Times the highest at thirty per cent. Climate change policy is framed as ‘imposing costs on your country.’288 It could ‘cost New Zealand companies a fortune’.289 Central to this framing is an expressed concern for potential competitive disadvantage if countries like New Zealand are burdened with the financial costs of emissions while key trading partners are not (in the absence of a binding global agreement or ETS). In The New Zealand Herald, the environment is, as Boykoff writes of American climate change reporting, subservient to political, social and economic “progress”.290 Only occasionally does The New Zealand Herald’s coverage of the Cancun conference allows space to discuss the global economic impacts (which are also felt on a local level) of not doing anything about climate change; these include rising food costs due to decrease in arable land, and even the potential loss of major coastal metropolises due to rising sea levels. The 2006 Stern Report on climate change suggests that while effective action to mitigate climate change would cost between one and two per cent of global GDP, taking no action and letting the climate grow hotter and more extreme over the coming century could cost as much as twenty per cent of global GDP.291 This perspective is largely absent from The New Zealand Herald’s coverage. Only two New Zealand Herald articles make mention of “green” economics, or the potential bottom-line benefits of building a sustainable economy. One of these two articles is about ‘the first successful New Zealand project to turn landfill gas into a transport fuel.’292 Opening with personalisation – ‘A waste truck which is fuelled by what you threw out last week has begun its rounds’ – the article’s subject matter relates to everyday concerns around the price of imported transport fuel. It addresses the marginal cost of converting trucks to run on biogas, and explains in simple terms the process by which waste is turned into biomethane fuel. Scientific and business experts are quoted emphasising the importance of continued researching and funding of renewable energy infrastructure, an eventual outcome of using biogas for domestic heating is promoted and an aspiration that five per cent of New Zealand’s road transport could be converted to run on biogas is voiced. A scientist is quoted saying that ‘the sky’s the limit’ for converting waste into fuel, and that the cost of converting diesel engines to biogas ‘can be earned back within a year’, however the article also stresses that the logistics of waste-to-fuel application are difficult, as the biogas is difficult to transport. 293 This article relies heavily on a press release from the company that developed the biogas rubbish-collection truck.294 The experts quoted in the article are from the press release, as is the catchy opening sentence about last week’s waste being this week’s fuel, albeit slightly reworded. The article does not contain any information that is not in the press release, making it a clear example of Davies concept of “churnalism”.295 The article presents a “she’ll be right” orientation towards the problem of climate change. Local businesses are finding solutions, and the mayor is supportive. No personal action is required – just keep throwing out your rubbish so someone else can turn it into fuel, which will be used to power more rubbish-collection trucks. The other New Zealand Herald article that mentions “green” economics is an opinion piece by Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action and host of the 2009 Copenhagen conference.296 Hedegaard’s opinion column is an exception to the dominant narratives and framing in The New Zealand Herald, emphasising the benefits of a ‘transition to a low-carbon economy.’297 Economic growth and development is usually framed in The New Zealand Herald in opposition to action to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Likewise in The Guardian climate change action is usually framed as costly: ‘the first overwhelming priority of the government has to be to get the deficit down’, which means borrowing less to fund investment in clean technologies.298 This framing promotes the idea that the global north must pay financially to prevent catastrophic consequences for the global south. Coupled with the human impact framing discussed in chapter five, it establishes a separation between those affected by climate change and those who effect climate change policy, when in fact, for arbitrary reasons of geography and latitude the costs of climate change will be borne disproportionately by some countries rather than others; global warming is just that, global, and it will very likely have profound global effects on everyone in the twenty first century. Comparing figures 5.4 and 5.5 shows that most of The Irish Times items that contain economic framing discuss “green” economics. While these articles do frame climate change as an economic problem with potential economic costs, they also stress the potential economic benefits of climate change policy. The Irish Times reports that ‘global clean energy investments’ are worth US$200 billion, with scope to at least double, and that ‘the long-term cost of governments pursuing weak policies on climate change … would be an additional US$1 trillion to cut carbon emissions after 2020’.299 Action now is said to ‘reduce potential damages very significantly and pay off many times, compared to inaction.’300

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1. Introduction
Climate Change as a Global Political Problem
2. Mass Media, Framing and Climate Change
Framing Climate Change
Climate Catastrophe: Seeing Climate Change?
Voices in Climate Change Debates
3. Comparing Ireland, New Zealand and Britain
Public Opinion
Political and Media Systems
Newspaper Ownership
4. Research Methodology
5. Defining the Issue
How Big an Issue?
Who Writes Climate Change Journalism?
Climate Change as an Economic Problem
Reporting Climate Science
Scare Stories and Disaster Scenarios
6. Locating Climate Change
Locating the Human Impacts of Climate Change
Locating Solutions
7. Framing Domestic Politics
8. Framing Global Politics
Emissions Reduction and Global Development
Intergovernmental Conflict and Strategy Games
Engaging with Complexity: Alternative Frames
9. Defining Important Agents
10. Conclusions
Limitations of the Research and Possibilities for Further Study
Appendix One: Agents Mentioned or Quoted in The New Zealand Herald
Appendix Two: Agents Mentioned or Quoted in The Irish Times
Appendix Three: Agents Mentioned or Quoted in The Guardian
Appendix Four: Summary of Content Analysis Coding Matrix

The Framing of Climate Change Politics in The Irish Times, The Guardian and The New Zealand Herald

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