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.
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
"[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
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
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
the Times and
What does the study say about energy in the
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
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.