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 moment.
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 after.
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 but tailed-off.
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 impact skepticism.
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 instance).
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 report’.
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 newspapers’ attention.
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.
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 year.
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.