Category Science Radar
20 August 2021

Line by Line Under the Microscope

Tag Research
Tag Sustainability

Line by Line Under the Microscope

What Print Media Coverage Tells Us About Our Progress in Communicating Climate Change

Meet our Postdoctoral Researcher Lucy McAllister, who joined the Center for Energy Markets at TUM to combine her passion for interdisciplinary research in the field of sustainability and her enthusiasm for Germany. This week, Environmental Research Letters published her recent study, which raises a question on a topic that continues to be the subject of heated debate: Does print media accurately represent the relevant expert scientific consensus on human contributions to climate change?

Lucy McAllister is passionate about a wide range of research topics and explores sustainability from a variety of angles. Studying the environmental and social harms of the electronics commodity chain, or leading discussions on what role corporations should play in social and environmental issues, are just two examples that have shaped her academic career. For McAllister, who completed her Bachelor of Arts at Connecticut College and her Masters of Science and PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder, TUM is the perfect place to follow her academic research and teaching interests. Having lived in Germany before and learning the language since the 7th grade, she already knew what to expect. When both McAllister and her husband Prof. Siddharth Vedula received a job offer at TUM, it was the perfect next step for both to move to Munich – personally and professionally. “TUM, specifically the Center for Energy Markets and Professor Svetlana Ikonnikova, offered me the chance to pursue my interest in interdisciplinary research and teaching,” explains McAllister.

Working in an international and interdisciplinary research group

Having spent several years of her academic career at CU Boulder, McAllister makes sure to maintain her network with the research community in the United States. For her recent work, she teamed up with a group of colleagues at CU Boulder and the University of New England to address an issue of importance to the public: How accurately is the major print news media informing readers about climate change and the evidence of human contribution? The answer is crucial for further developments in the sustainability movement because there are few people among the general public who follow or are trained to follow the ongoing discourse on climate change in scientific journals. Most of us are much more likely to read about environmental developments in social or mass media.

The paper is a follow-up study to Boykoff and Boykoff 2004, who first found “balanced coverage” of climate change in the U.S. print media. It analyzed whether all relevant opinions are presented on an equal footing – that is, whether print media give equal weight or space to relevant expert scientists and skeptics representing outlier perspectives on the topic of climate change. “Such an approach creates a completely false picture of the scientific consensus on climate change and misleads the public. This is because 97% of relevant experts agree that humans are contributing to climate change”, says McAllister.

“Because the findings are important to ongoing discussions on the topic, and many still cite the Boykoff and Boykoff 2004 article whose data collection ended in 2002, it was clear to us that we needed to update and expand the analysis,” McAllister explains. For the study, the researchers conducted a content analysis of coverage on the topic based on more than 4,856 newspaper articles. In doing so, they examined a total of 17 print media from the USA, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Media coverage on climate change is improving – with one exception

The good news is that 90% of the sample accurately represented climate change and that the accuracy of coverage on climate change had improved over time. The analysis covers 15 years (2005–2019), during which reporting has changed significantly – especially in the last 10 years. There is one exception, however: the conservative media, represented in the study by Canada’s National Post, Australia’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, and the U.K.’s Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, reported with significantly less accuracy on climate change.

After all, the results give hope that with more precise media coverage on climate change, the general public is also becoming more aware of the importance of taking action against the developments. And what about the German news? “It would be very interesting to repeat this analysis and gain more insights by using print and digital German media sources,” emphasizes McAllister.