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How much does bad press affect policy and public attitudes to renewables?

  • 30 Nov 2012, 12:30
  • Ros Donald

Photo: Martin Pettitt

The UK's most-read newspapers wrote overwhelmingly negative articles about renewable energy sources despite evidence showing strong public support according to a new report. It calls for a more proactive approach to public relations from the renewables industry to address what it says is a democratic deficit in energy reporting. We asked a selection of experts on climate and energy in the media for their opinion.

CCGroup, the communications agency that compiled the report, says more than 51 per cent of the 138 articles selected was "negative or very negative toward the industry".  In contrast, it says 21 per cent was positive and 28 per cent was neutral. The group claims the findings indicate a 'democratic deficit' in the UK's press on renewable energy, because polling results indicate strong public support for renewables in the UK.

Research methods

CCGroup concentrated on articles published in July this year - the period when the government was deciding the level at which it would set payments to renewable energy sources through Renewable Obligation Certificates. It examined the coverage of the UK's five most-read newspapers: the Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Mirror.  Researchers analysed the "overall sentiment" of articles mentioning renewables, as well as renewable energy in general, classifying it as neutral, positive, negative or very negative.

Several of the experts we contacted pointed out that the CCGroup study did not include newspapers that are generally more positive toward renewable sources of energy. James Painter, who heads the journalism fellowship programme at Oxford University's Reuters Institute, notes:

"[O]nly eight articles came from a left-leaning publication (the Mirror) of the 138 articles examined.  It may have been better to include a left-leaning or liberal paper like the Independent or Guardian who are more sympathetic to renewables."

Asked about this, a spokesperson for CCGroup told us : "We wanted to illustrate what the majority of the population are reading." So instead of looking to 'balance' out the coverage by including a pro-renewable newspaper - albeit with a smaller circulation - the authors decided to focus on the UK's most-read titles.

Findings

CCGroup says 55 per cent of the articles published in the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail were either negative or very negative. This accounts for the majority of the articles in the analysis, as the Daily Mirror only produced eight articles discussing renewable energy in July.

CCGroup says its analysis is intended to provide a snapshot of media coverage during a crucial time for renewables policy. But while renewable energy gained a large amount of press at the time, it might have meant that the coverage was particularly unfavourable. Painter suggests that in a broader study, researchers might pick "at least two periods to analyse to check there weren't special circumstances which may have affected the coverage". This would help distinguish whether the newspapers were in "campaigning mode" during July, he says.

Another key finding, according to CCGroup, is that only 10 per cent of articles contained comment from a spokesperson from the renewable energy industry. It says the renewables industry and businesses in particular need to take the opportunity to make their voices heard. There are indications that newspapers take notice when businesses speak up on renewables. When high profile businesses and key engineering companies called for the government to support renewables last month, the stories featured prominently in the Times and Financial Times.

What does the study say about energy in the media?

So what conclusions can we draw about the media's attitude to renewable energy from this particular study? CCGroup argues:

"Negative coverage is increasingly fuelling policy uncertainty, as well as doubt around investment security, future planning and industry development".

But Dr Neil Gavin at Liverpool University's department of politics  suggests the truth might be more complex. He says negative coverage might also reflect uncertainty in policy. This would be consistent with the notion of ' indexing', meaning the media often take their cue from governmental elites", he says.

Meanwhile, Adam Bell, a policy advisor at thinktank the Green Alliance, says the negative coverage may also illustrate a shift in the way the media reports on energy matters.

"Energy policy has become increasingly politicised over the last few years, and an increase in negative coverage on renewable energy can be understood partly through this lens, but also partly through a change in the kinds of journalists reporting on these stories," he says. According to Bell, political reporters are writing more energy stories.

What does the study show us about public opinion?

Carbon Brief also asked researchers what, if anything, they thought this kind of work can tell us about public opinion.

Adam Corner, a researcher at Cardiff University, says it is important to look at the reasons why wind power in particular gets a bad press from some influential newspapers. He says:

"[It] is well known that the siting of any energy technology generates a certain amount of controversy. So is the reason that wind turbines get such a bashing because they are less popular? Or is it because - relative to other energy technologies, including other renewables - siting decisions are currently much more common?"

One development that might influence public opinion - and possibly the tone of reporting - is Good Energy's decision to offer residents near its new windfarm discounted electricity - if it catches on, that is.

Further analysis might also be required to understand whether media coverage is a "barometer of public perception" on renewables as CCGroup states in one part of the report, or whether, as it says later, there is a democratic deficit in renewables reporting, as the polling results suggest. Painter says:

"In general, there is a huge debate as to what extent, when and how media coverage affects people's attitudes.  Most academics argue that the media have an agenda-setting role, but not much of a role in setting people's opinions.  In crude terms, the media tell us what to think about, but not what to think."  

So what does this tell us? Even though some sections of the media are hostile to renewables, researchers say it's important not to be too deterministic about the press's effect on policy or public opinion when it comes to renewables. And when the sector focuses on stories such as the business case for renewables or making sure communities benefit from being near installations, it could even garner some good press.

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