Climate change is one of the defining issues – if not the defining issue – of our era. But when it comes to news about this topic, media outlets often struggle to garner audience attention. The story can seem intractable, depressing, and often difficult to understand. It is also frequently politicised, with audiences polarised on the topic. In this chapter, following on from our examination of the topic in 2020,1 we explore audience attitudes and behaviours as they relate to climate change news, providing insights which may help newsrooms in their thinking about how to cover such a complex issue, as well as how to generate audience interest.
An episode on the chapter
Interest in climate change news
At an overall level, our data show that interest in climate change news is highest in several Latin American, Southern European, and Asia-Pacific markets. Just over half of respondents in Greece (53%), Portugal (53%), Chile (52%), and the Philippines (52%) say they are interested in news about climate change and the environment. Interest is lower in Northern and Western European markets such as Norway (33%) and France (36%), along with the United States (30%). At a broad level across markets, those who are more interested in climate change news tend to have higher levels of income and education. Perhaps surprisingly, they also tend to be older.
Examining what is driving some of these regional and country-level differences in interest, we find that one factor is polarisation. In markets with greater differences in interest between those on the political left versus right, there is less overall interest in climate change news. For instance, in the US – the market with the lowest level of interest in climate change news – the gap between those on the political left and right is 41pp, with low interest among those on the right driving down the overall interest figure.
On the other hand, in markets with the highest levels of interest, there is less left–right polarisation. We can see this dynamic play out in Greece and Portugal. In Greece, the difference in the proportion of people on the political left versus right who are interested in climate change news is only 16pp, while in Portugal it is just 10pp.
Another influence on our figures may be the impacts of climate change itself. Many countries have witnessed extreme weather events linked to climate change; Greece and Portugal, for instance, have suffered from devastating wildfires in recent years, and Chile continues to suffer from severe drought, which has made climate change ‘easy to see’.2 It may be that audiences are more interested in news about the topic when they are not so polarised and can clearly see the negative effects of extreme weather where they live.
Sources of climate change news
Beyond interest, we can examine the sources people say they pay most attention to for climate change news. Overall, across the markets we cover, more people say they pay attention to documentaries (39%) than to major news organisations (33%) for information about this topic. This is the case across all markets in the aggregate, as well as across age groups.
This disparity between the use of documentaries and major news organisations for climate change news is also the case across many individual markets. In Greece, for instance, there is a large gap in the proportion of people paying attention to documentaries (55%) versus major news organisations (35%). Exceptions to this trend are markets like Japan, where larger proportions of people say they pay attention to major news organisations (41%) than documentaries (27%). But, more often than not, respondents across most markets say that documentaries draw their attention.
It may be that films and television shows, from Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth – which drew global attention to climate change – to the numerous nature documentaries produced since then by the BBC (e.g. Blue Planet II), Netflix (e.g. Seaspiracy), and Disney+ (e.g. Elephant), pack a bigger punch and remain more memorable to people than daily news reports. These are films and television series which, while not always about climate change, combine stunning visuals with compelling storytelling and environmental messages, reaching millions of people. Netflix says its series Our Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, pictured below, has reached 100m households since its release in 2019.3 While some documentaries have been criticised for their accuracy,4 the emotive power of these films certainly seems to resonate with audiences. Their popularity here is also further evidence of the importance of TV in driving attention to climate change information – something we noted in 2020.
Sir David Attenborough
When we drill down into the attention paid to major news organisations, we find that usage for climate change news is lower in markets where interest and attention are polarised, such as the US and Australia. In these markets, along with Norway, we see the largest proportions of people saying they don’t pay attention to climate change at all, with these high figures largely being driven by those on the political right. Half (49%) of those on the political right in the US say they don’t pay attention to climate change at all, and it is a third in Australia (34%) and Norway (31%). This compares to just 5% of those on the political right in Portugal and Chile who say they don’t pay attention.
Indeed, the comparisons between the US, Australia, and other markets are stark, showing the role that polarised politics – and media coverage – can play in driving down interest in and attention to climate change as an issue. Attention to sources across the board is low in both the US and Australia despite the visible effects of climate change witnessed in both countries in recent years. In contrast, countries like Greece and Chile do not appear to suffer from the same levels of audience polarisation and see higher rates of attention.
Finally, there are also interesting differences in attention to sources by age. Respondents under 35 in many markets are often two or three times more likely to say they pay attention to celebrities, social media personalities, or activists for climate change news than people over 35. So-called ‘green influencers’ have amassed large followings online, drawing attention to the linkages between climate change and social justice issues. They include Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda with hundreds of thousands of followers across Twitter and Instagram; Jack Harries, an environmentalist YouTuber whose channel has 3.7m subscribers; and Jerome Foster, a young climate activist who is a White House adviser with over 41,000 Instagram followers. Groups like the EcoTok collective on TikTok also seek to connect with the younger audience on the platform. Younger respondents are also somewhat more likely to say they get climate change news from smaller or alternative news sources, some of which have been started by young climate activists.
Coverage of climate change
Audiences appear to be more interested in and pay more attention to climate change news in places where the negative effects are felt more acutely. But it is arguably too late if audiences only pay attention once disasters have already struck. A central challenge is how to cover the issue in a way that draws attention to the causes and decisions that lead to disasters, not ‘just’ the disasters themselves.
One approach to this is taking a clearer stance on the issue, as exemplified by the Guardian calling for more action on the ‘climate crisis’ and many documentaries that take a clear activist stance on environmental issues. But how do audiences feel about news outlets adopting a position?
We find that, in general, there are strong regional differences in views. These reflect similar patterns to those already identified in this chapter: audiences in Latin America, Southern Europe, and several markets in Asia-Pacific are more open to news outlets taking a stand in favour of climate change action. Large proportions of respondents in Chile (58%), Portugal (48%), and the Philippines (42%) say that journalists should advocate for change. On the other hand, pluralities in Northern European, Western European, and North American markets favour impartiality. Respondents in Germany (45%), Norway (44%), and the US (42%) say they would prefer news outlets to reflect a range of views and leave it up to them to decide what to think.
Examining these trends, it may be that audiences in markets such as Norway and Germany are predisposed to expect an impartial approach to reporting – particularly from public broadcasters. On the other hand, political polarisation may again be playing a role.
In many markets, large majorities of those on the political right want journalists to remain impartial on climate change and their views drive some of the overall trends. The proportion of those on the right favouring impartiality is 60% in Norway and 69% in the US. Conversely, those on the political left tend to favour journalists advocating for climate change action. Views in Chile and Portugal are not as polarised on this question, with both those on the political left and right favouring climate action.
Notably, these polarised views on impartiality are reflective of trends we identified in the Digital News Report 2021 where, on the question of impartiality, audiences split by their political views. They also split by age, and the same is true this year: younger people are more likely to think news outlets should take a clear position in favour of climate change action. Across all markets, 43% of those aged 18–24 think this, compared to just 34% of over 55s. Those over 55 instead favour news outlets taking an impartial position.
Our findings show that trends around climate change news are driven by factors such as politics, age, and the impacts of climate change itself. Interest in and attention to climate change, as a news topic, is much more politically polarised in some countries than others, with many of those on the political right tuning out. Conservative politicians and alternative media have played key roles in this. For newsrooms, the difficult question is how to engage this critical segment of the audience, particularly if conservatives view climate change as a politicised issue of the ‘left’ and disfavour newsrooms taking a stand.
Are there other steps journalists can take to make climate change stories feel more relevant? Perhaps lessons could be learned from the wide appeal of many environmental documentaries, which provide clear stories and engaging visuals. These narratives help audiences connect with what is a very large and sometimes abstract story – while not necessarily being ‘political’. But at the same time, some documentaries have been accused of selectively using facts, and a ‘slick-but-lacking-substance’ approach may backfire among those not already convinced. Yet there is always room for better storytelling.
But what about taking a more active stance? Among those on the political left, while they are more interested and engaged, there is still a large proportion in most markets who do not express interest in climate change news and who are not paying attention to major news organisations. For this audience, taking a clearer stance may be one way to increase interest or attention, but doing so risks running up against journalistic norms of impartiality adopted in many countries.
In the UK, the Guardian has taken a stand and this may win the favour of younger (and left-leaning) audiences who are more inclined to want this. Engaging younger audiences on this issue means reaching them with accurate and compelling stories in the digital spaces they occupy – where influencers and activists make calls to action. At the same time, taking a clear stand may risk further alienating already disengaged audiences, further entrenching divisions around the issue.
What seems apparent, however, is that audiences express more interest, pay more attention to climate change news, and feel more inclined to support journalists taking a stand in places where the direct impacts of climate change are acutely felt. But if the very visible manifestations of climate change – fires, floods, and droughts – are what draw attention, this raises a problem in itself. Action – and, therefore, credible information to inform it – is needed before disaster. Yet long-term trends, future unseen risks, and the scientific complexities of climate change are harder to engage audiences with, especially when other immediate crises, from inflation to war in Ukraine, are on the doorstep. Climate change is a difficult news topic to cover and it is not clear that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to it.
4 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/31/seaspiracy-netflix-documentary-accused-of-misrepresentation-by-participants and https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/bbc-david-attenborough-nature-documentaries-fake-a8291961.html ↩