Three graphs breaking down media coverage of the IPCC’s big report
- 10 Oct 2013, 09:00
- Mat Hope
Credit: David Hawgood
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
released a major climate science report two weeks ago, and was
rewarded with a slew of media coverage. Now the dust has settled,
we take a look back at how the UK media covered the big
The IPCC's Working Group One Summary for Policymakers was
released at about 9AM UK time on Friday 27th September. It
attracted widespread coverage.
The BBC featured it on all main news programmes, following days
of previews in the print media anticipating the report's main
conclusions. For a brief moment, climate science was in the rare
position of being at the heart of the media's agenda. On the
Friday, ITN, Channel 4 and Sky also devoted significant airtime to
reporting on the IPCC.
What about the press? A quick look at which papers said what,
when, and how gives an interesting overview of the UK's climate
change reporting landscape.
The IPCC's moment
We searched for all the stories on the IPCC's report in nine
prominent newspapers: the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times,
Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian, Observer,
and Independent. (Bear in mind this is a quick snapshot, not a
comprehensive content analysis.)
The chart below shows the number of stories printed in the five
days leading up to the report's launch, and the five days
Factiva search for
"IPCC AND climate change" between the 23rd September to 4th
October, excluding duplicates.
In total, there 53 stories in the papers we looked at. The
coverage peaked with 19 stories on September 28th, the day after
the report was launched. By the following Friday, coverage had all
The Guardian provided the most coverage by volume, printing 13
articles on the report over the ten days we looked at. Of the
Sunday papers, the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times
published two articles each responding to the report.
Newspaper headlines usually reveal as much about the editorial
line of the newspaper as they do about the contents of the article.
The newspapers' IPCC-related headlines reflected a range of takes
on the report (the picture below gives a sample - click to
enlarge), displaying varying levels of (climate) skepticism across
news and comment pieces.
In his book, Poles Apart, James Painter from Oxford University's
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism identifies three
types of climate skepticism - 'trend', 'attribute' and 'impact' -
and the headlines reflected this variety.
The Daily Mail's headlines generally questioned the severity of
climate change, without rejecting its existence - known as
The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph were less consistent. Some
headlines echoed the Mail's impact skeptic tone (arguably 'Climate
change will make Britain cooler, UN predicts'). Others questioned
whether or not climate change is due to human activity (for
example, 'Global warming believers are feeling the heat; The
science used to 'prove' man-made climate change looks increasingly
threadbare') - what is termed attribution
skepticism. But in contrast, other headlines assert the
severity of human caused climate change ('Global warming
'unequivocal', say scientists; World panel warns of more extreme
weather after 'unprecedented' rise in temperatures', for
The Times' headlines showed similar variety. Some leant towards
attribution skepticism ('Climate Change in Rehab; Humans are
interfering with the atmosphere but we are still not sure quite
how') while others were impact skeptic ('Met Office's climate model
'is exaggerating warming effect'"). A story by its environment
editor canvassing responses to the IPCC's report launch was along
very different lines, however - with the headline, 'Radical
solutions urged to beat growing climate threat'.
Meanwhile, the Guardian, Observer and Independent's headlines
mostly stressed the severity of climate change and the need for
action. A couple of days before the report's launch, the
Independent ran a comment piece arguing that 'Hoping for the best
about climate change just isn't good enough'. An Observer editorial
was entitled 'No more denial. Time to act on climate change'.
The Guardian also led the way with post-report analysis of media
coverage of the event, publishing a comment piece under the
headline 'A betrayal of BBC values: It cannot be in the public
interest to let a geologist pour scorn on the IPCC climate change
For the most part, though, the top line message of the report -
that scientists are more sure than ever that humans are causing
extra warming - was reported without being questioned.
The science bit
As the IPCC's report is a predominantly scientific document,
it's interesting to see what aspects of the science caught the
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of references to carbon
dioxide, as our rather unsophisticated word search shows. The
papers all mentioned the oceans and ice frequently - 50 and 49
times respectively, across the 53 stories - but sea-level rise
captured the imagination less (with only 26 mentions).
The newspapers didn't communicate climate change in terms of
temperature change very often, however, and discussing climate
sensitivity and temperature rise as if they were interchangeable
was a recurring feature.
A mixed bag
Each newspaper we looked at had a distinct tone - sometimes
consistent, sometimes more varied - which it overlaid on its
coverage of the report.
This is a quick analysis and should be taken with a
pinch of salt, but hopefully it goes some way to making sense of
what was a noisy few days in the climate media world. The IPCC
releases the next installment of its report in March next
Updated, 11/10/13: The infographic and text were adjusted to
clarify which headlines appeared in The Times, and which appeared
in the Sunday Times.