Our podcast: Digital News Report 2022. Episode 3: How people access climate news

In this episode of our podcast series we look at findings from our DNR22 on how people access news about climate change
28th June 2022

The topic

In this special episode of our Future of Journalism podcast we are looking into the findings of the Digital News Report 2022 around how people access climate change news. We will look at what news sources people pay most attention to, how interest differs around the world and why, and what news organisations could do to more closely engage audiences with climate change news.

The speakers

Craig T. Robertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His research focus includes news trust and credibility, fact-checking and verification, and how both partisan attitudes and epistemic beliefs factor into these domains. He is the author of the Digital News Report 2022 chapter on how people get climate change news.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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The transcript

Why newsrooms find climate change difficult 

Federica: Firstly, what do you think makes climate change a tricky issue for newsrooms to cover? Is it that there always seems to be a more immediate story that takes priority?

Craig: I think there are a few things that make it tricky – and this is just from my view, as a researcher.

One issue is just how large and complicated the story is. It can be difficult to tackle head-on. We’re talking about a process that is playing out over time, that is affecting many different things, and which can be hard to explain. The causes are multifaceted. The effects are multifaceted. And it’s hard to put all that into a short news piece. The process of explaining greenhouse gas emissions, their affects on climate, and the implications for global ecosystems is large task.

Another reason that climate change is difficult to cover links to this and to what you said. The story plays out gradually over time. And this can mean climate change doesn’t quite fit in with so-called news values. These are kind of the unwritten rules of journalism – the features of stories which make them interesting or worth covering. News values include things like immediacy and novelty and timeliness. You cover a house fire because it’s immediate and there in front of your face. Or a protest because it’s a visible demonstration of people’s anger and frustration.

But climate change doesn’t always have that kind of immediate face. Temperatures rise gradually, ecosystems are impacted gradually. The effects take time and aren’t always visible and obvious and immediate. So it can be tricky to cover sometimes. That’s unless there’s a big fire or flood that’s related to climate change. Then there is something immediate and obvious to point a camera at. But at the point that there’s a big forest fire, that’s arguably a bad thing – it’s too late. Because that’s a sign that things have gotten pretty bad already. You need to cover the causes, the trends, the underlying science. But that stuff can always be pushed aside until the next day or the next week because there’s another story – a political scandal or big court case – that takes more immediate focus. Arguably, though, climate change always needs that focus on it – because it’s a big story that won’t go away.

But all this relates to a third element I’ll mention: news audiences. You do need to cover the causes, the trends, the underlying science. But it can be tricky to get audiences interested in complicated things they can’t necessarily see. Things that play out over time. And things which are – quite frankly – depressing and scary, as well as difficult to understand. One big throughline of our Digital News Report this year is how much people are tuning out to certain stories in the news because those stories are depressing and difficult to understand. So for newsrooms it’s tricky to get audiences interested in this because it so big, because it’s depressing, it’s scary.

Interest in climate change news around the world 

Federica:  The Digital News Report gauges audience behaviours in 46 markets around the world. What variations do we see in interest in climate change news between countries?

Craig: We see some large variations and it's interesting how these are grouped by different regions. So if we look at interest in climate change news, it's highest in several markets in Latin America, Southern Europe, and Asia. For instance, in our survey, the highest levels of interest we find are in Greece and Portugal - these Southern European countries - as well as in Chile and in the Philippines. In these markets, around half of the population say they are interested in climate change news.

We can contrast these regions with the stark differences in Northern and Western European countries. In places like Norway and France we find low levels of interest – only a third of people say they are interested. And then the lowest levels of interest we find are in the United States, where 30% of people saying they are interested in climate changes news. And we will get to the reasons that is the case in a moment.

Federica: What could explain these variations?

Craig: When I looked at this data, one of the difficult things I had to figure out was why it looked the way it did. As researchers, we are always looking for patterns in the data and for explanations. When I looked at the large variations in interest in climate change news and the groupings of countries, I had to sit back and think why it looked this way. Why were Greece, Portugal, and Chile, among those with the highest interest? And why were Norway, France, and the US among those countries grouped together down the bottom?

I’ll concede that there are no perfect explanations. There will be some very nuanced and complicated reasons for different levels of interest in different countries – so it might be how climate change is covered, or whether it’s covered much at all, to how much of a political or social issue it is, if it’s a big issue at all. For instance, if climate change isn’t covered very much, people might actually express an interest in hearing about it. If they feel it’s covered too much, they may express less interest in the topic. Or if climate change isn’t a very polarised or political issue, people might be open to hearing about it. Whereas if it’s a very political and polarising topic, people might tune out to it like in the United States

These are possibilities. And we can’t necessarily point to one reason over another in this research. There will be different reasons in each country. But one factor I did come to – which cuts across all the markets – is how much each country has been affected by climate change. So in theses countries where we see higher levels of interest have been impacted in recent years by bad things – there’s been wildfires in Greece and Portugal, drought in Chile. These are not the only countries to experience bad things – the US has had frequent and very bad wildfires in recent year and their levels of interest are low – but my working theory is that people will express more interest and pay more attention when bad things happen. We’re a visual species – we respond to stimuli, we respond to our surroundings - so when we can see, in our own countries, in our own backyards, bad things like fires and floods and droughts, and we can link them in our minds to climate change – then people might express more interest and openness to the topic because then climate change is real and there in their backyards.

Politics and polarisation 

Federica: One of the things your chapter looks at is how political orientation correlates with individuals’ interest in climate change news. What did you find?

Craig: So this is one of the key points which accounts for some of the differences we see in places like the US and Australia. These countries have lower levels of interest in climate change news. But they are also countries which have experienced some pretty bad things in recent years – each year, we expect to see large wildfires in the US and Australia. But these things don’t fit in with my theory about people being more interested in countries where bad things happen. And when I looked at the data, what I found was an explanation: politics, polarisation.

In both the US and Australia, climate change is arguably quite a political and polarising topic. And if we break down people’s interest in climate change news by their political views, we can see what’s going on. In both countries, there is extremely low interest in the topic among people on the right. Conservatives in the US are almost completely uninterested in the topic. People on the left are about as interested in climate change as people elsewhere in other countries. But it’s the very low interest among conservatives which is driving down the overall average level of interest across the country. And if we look at political discourse in the US about climate change, we can see why this might be happening.

Federica: Have you seen this across all countries you looked at?

Craig: No – the interesting thing is that it’s not the case everywhere. There are some countries where there are no major left/right political differences at all. This may be because climate change isn’t such a political or polarising issue in these countries. Or it may be that climate change isn’t discussed as a major issue at all – so it hasn’t had the chance to become polarised. But no, we don’t always see the same kind of left/right polarisation in other places like we do in the US and Australia.

Preferred sources of climate change news 

Federica: Which sources of information do people pay most attention to when it comes to climate change news? What do you think is the reason that people look at these specific sources?

Craig: Yeah, so beyond people’s interest in the topic, we also looked at where people said they got their information or news about climate change. We gave people a number of options to choose from. So we’ve got major news organisations, politicians, regular people, influencers and celebrities, documentaries, and a few other options. We gave people this list of sources and asked them where they got climate change news from – if they got climate change news at all.

Interestingly, the source which came out on top across markets and age groups was documentaries – TV and film documentaries. This was above major news organisations, in second, and smaller or alternative news organisations

Now the reason why documentaries were above major news organisations – I think this comes back again to us being a visual species.

These documentaries aren’t necessarily always about climate change – maybe they have an environmental message or, because they’re about animals and the environment, people take them to implicitly be about climate change – but they have climate change associations. And people remember them because they have good stories and great visuals. You follow an emotional narrative and see the animals and environments. The documentaries are memorable and engaging and impactful. People learn from them and I think they are also sometimes emotionally impacted by them. So they resonate with people and people remember them. David Attenborough is also a very popular person and people think about him when they think about climate change or environmental issues.

So at the end of the day, I think people are just more likely to remember and be impacted by an episode of Blue Planet – or another documentary – than they are to remember a news story they read. Those highly produced documentaries are memorable and have resonance.

A couple of interesting things I will also note: We can see in our data just the sheer number of people, particularly on the political right, who say they don’t pay attention to any sources for climate change. This is particularly in the US and Australia, but not the case in places like Chile or Portugal.

And then we see the much higher levels of engagement with celebrities and influencers among younger people. They are not the most popular source for information among younger people – that’s still documentaries and major news organisations. But younger people are sometimes two or three times more likely to get climate change news from celebrities, social media influencers, and activists online.

Impartiality and climate change news 

Federica: Climate change is one of those issues where the scientific consensus is so overwhelming that some people feel journalism shouldn’t engage in ‘both-sidesism'. What does our research say about people’s attitudes to impartiality around climate change news?

Craig: Yeah, so we also asked people in our survey in all our markets how they think journalists should cover climate change as a topic. This could be to take a clear position in favour of climate change action, so taking positions saying we should do something. Or this could be a position saying we should do nothing or be against climate action. Or this could be to reflect a range of views to let the public decide what to think. We put this to our respondents and we found some big differences across countries.

In places like Chile or Portugal that we have mentioned so far, people tend to be in favour of journalists taking a positive stance. They are more okay with journalists not being impartial, to advocate for changes or solutions. And this may be because political divides around climate change aren’t so stark in these countries as they are in the US or Australia or because the negative effects of climate change are being felt so people see the importance of taking action or taking a stand. And this translates in to them being in favour of journalists taking a stand.

On the other hand, in places like the US, Norway, Germany, we see people favouring impartiality. More people, particularly those on the right, want both sides covered. They want to be able to make up their own minds about climate change after being given a range of views on the topic. Part of this difference comes from the very strong views of people on the right – again, they are driving down some of the overall country averages and levelling things out. It’s a politicised and polarising issue, so people want both sides told in these countries. And part of this difference may also be about expectations of impartiality, especially in places like Germany or Norway where they have expectations of impartiality from public broadcasters talking about these kinds of topics.

Interestingly, the political divide is the same we found last year in the 2021 Digital News Report, where people on the right in particular wanted both sides told, while people on the left were more okay with journalists taking one point of view, taking a stand on the issue. Last year we also saw how views on impartiality split by age, and we find the same thing here again. So younger people are more in favour of journalists taking a stand on climate change, advocating for positive action. Whereas older people are more in favour of both sides or impartial reporting.

Federica: Do you think there are any pitfalls in newsrooms taking a more ‘active’ or campaigning stance when it comes to covering climate change?

Craig: I think there are benefits and pitfalls with any potential stance that’s taken. On the one hand, taking a stance down the middle, doing ‘both sides’ impartial reporting, might risk people thinking you’re out of touch with scientific reality. There is a scientific consensus, so coming across like you’re questioning that or playing it down the middle might not sit well with some people.

On the other hand, taking a clear stance in favour of action risks alienating those members of the public who aren’t quite on board with that. It risks putting off those older or more conservative audiences who want impartiality, not advocacy. But this is the line newsrooms have to walk and maybe some will say this issue is important enough that they have to take a stance. And maybe some of those in the audience will be brought along and be convinced, while others might be put off.

What I do think is important, though, is for newsrooms to think about who they want to reach and how they want to reach them. Older people and those on the political right are a very important and a very politically active parts of the population. Their participation is arguably needed if there’s to be action on climate change. So it’s a question of how to bring in that audience, not drive them away, and also how to serve those audiences who want newsrooms to take a more active stance. It’s a difficult task, especially when the issue becomes political and polarised but it’s a line you have to walk.

Federica: Could this be more of a problem in places where the issue is more polarised?

Craig: Yeah, as I say, it’s more difficult when the issue is politicised and more polarised. It’s hard when audiences are polarised. In the US, you’ve got a large contingent of people who are completely dismissive of climate change or the issues and concerns around it. It’s maybe not top of the agenda for them. It’s also viewed as a left-leaning issue. So journalists taking a clear stance will rub up against that. But if the scientific evidence is clear and the facts around climate change point in one direction, you just have to report that. And maybe those audiences will eventually come around or along with you. But, again, as I say, I think you have to consider audiences specifically – and make sure that you’re thinking about how to reach people and engage them even if they are tuned out to the story or if they think it’s a left-leaning issue. You have to think very clearly about how to reach them and engage them. And I think there are strategies to do that.

The value of storytelling 

Federica: We’ve seen how the success of television documentaries, and even the Netflix movie ‘Don’t Look Up’ – which essentially is an allegory or satire about climate change – demonstrates you can tell stories about the issue in engaging ways that appeal to a mass audience. Is there anything newsrooms can learn from the report and these examples on how to enhance their storytelling around climate change?

Craig: Yeah, 'Don’t Look Up' is an interesting example. It’s not a documentary obviously, but it’s a movie which told a story about climate change – and the politics around the issue – in a new and engaging way. It used comedy and satire. I think those elements were disarming and helped tell the story of how climate change is politicised. And it had resonance because it connected with something many people feel – that feeling that we seem to be ignoring such a big, big issue.

What can we learn from it and from documentaries as well? I think it’s about narratives and about emotions. Facts and figures are very important. They are key to this story. But there are only so many facts and figures that people can take. We all do tune out at some point – even me, and I’m a numbers person, I do tune out sometimes when there are too many facts and figures. What hooks people, what draws them in, and what makes things memorable or impactful, are stories. People need narratives. So maybe there is something to learn from documentaries or even from 'Don’t Look Up', the movie – that people need clear stories or narratives to grasp on to. And they need something that’s more emotionally engaging and less dry.

That’s not to say that all news reporting should be dramatic narratives and emotional tales. You do need the fundamentals of the reporting. You need the hard science, the data, and the facts. But I do think there is some room for more engaging storytelling.

Federica: Craig, thank you for joining us for our podcast and helping understand a complex issue.

Listen to the rest of the series