87th AMS Annual Meeting

Tuesday, 16 January 2007: 4:00 PM
An overview of climate change coverage in US and international media since 1950
213A (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Robert Henson, UCAR, Boulder, CO
Media interest in global climate change has varied greatly over the last half-century, reflecting trends in scientific thinking, political attitudes, and the climate itself. In 1950, the Saturday Evening Post asked whether the early 20th century warming was “part of a natural cycle” or something more. A subsequent drop in global temperature drew the interest of reporters in the 1970s. Articles on “the cooling world” appeared in US newsmagazines, and a major UK/US documentary explored the risk of catastrophic cooling. However, coverage of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect was sporadic until the US drought and heat wave of 1988, when the topic quickly became front-page news and “global warming” became a household phrase. After a brief period from 1988 to 1990 during which reporters focused on the scientific consensus, a trend toward politicized coverage developed in which global-change science was presented as highly controversial and reporters strove for “balance” between the consensus view and positions held by a relatively small number of skeptics. Content analyses of climate-change articles that appeared in US and European newspapers during the early 1990s show a dramatic rise in the proportion of quotes from people expressing skepticism about climate change. The amount of coverage itself decreased in the early 1990s, which is consistent with theoretical models of the life cycle of environmental news topics. It increased once more during the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Since 2000, coverage of climate change has continued to increase, along with intensified activity on political and corporate fronts, a sustained rise in global average temperature, and a growing body of research on the impacts and implications of global warming. Especially in US media, where skeptics have been most prominent, a qualitative shift away from skeptic-vs.-consensus balance and toward consensus viewpoints appears to have emerged since 2005, although this trend does not yet seem uniform or consistent.

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