Our podcast: From protests to politics: How people follow news about climate change

In this episode of Future of Journalism, we discuss our report on how people access news about climate change in 2023
14th November 2023

In this episode of Future of Journalism, we’ll explore our report on how people access news about climate change, which we are publishing two weeks before COP28 kicks off and in a year when the news has been dominated by so many effects of the climate crisis.

Our report offers fresh insights on climate news consumption patterns in France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, India and Pakistan, all of which contend with the profound impacts of climate change. It is a unique piece of research as it covers key countries in the Global South and provides insights for both journalists and policymakers on the intersections between health, politics, climate justice, and the news media.


Mitali Mukherjee is the Director of Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute. Shes a political economy journalist with more than two decades of experience in TV, print and digital journalism. She is the co-author of a new report, 'Climate change news audiences: Analysis of news use and attitudes in eight countries'.

Waqas Ejaz is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Oxford Climate Journalism Network at the Reuters Institute. He earned his PhD at the Technical University of Ilmenau, Germany. His research interests include studying digital media effects, climate change, political, and computational communication. He is the lead author of a new report, 'Climate change news audiences: Analysis of news use and attitudes in eight countries'.

Host Gretel Kahn Gretel is a journalist at the Reuters Institute. Previously, she worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Montreal covering daily news for radio and web.

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The transcript

A global perspective on climate newsEffective forms of climate coverage | Attitudes towards climate protestsWho people trust to discuss climate changeConcern around climate misinformationPolitics and polarisation around climate change newsUnderstanding the climate's impact on healthEvery news story has a climate angle

A global perspective on climate news 

Gretel: The report covers a lot of ground when it comes to news and climate change. What will you say was the goal when approaching this piece of research? And how do you do it?

Mitali: So just as a very brief piece of context, first, the Oxford Climate Journalism Network has been very successful in working with journalists across the world and really trying to build a syntax around climate and trying to build awareness on what climate journalism or journalism with a climate lens should look like. Having said that, I think the research part of what we do within the network stands out for a few reasons. We have at the Reuters Institute been almost sort of front runners and leaders in terms of working on audience research that provides not just valuable and insightful, but, I think, often critical information for newsrooms that are trying to understand how audiences are engaging with news. And we decided to do that this time around with a climate lens.

Our main purpose here is really to understand how people are accessing news, how they're evaluating that climate news, and how that's shaping their information around climate change. I will say briefly, while we were trying to set the structure of what we were doing around research, we were very, very mindful of the fact that we wanted diversity, both in geographies, in socioeconomic conditions, the relationship with news media, which is why we chose eight countries that we think are quite reflective of a big mix of what's happening across the world. So we've got countries like the USA, the UK, Japan, France, where there is a certain level of development, socioeconomically speaking. And then we've also got countries like India, Pakistan, Brazil, that are really not just on a different cusp in terms of, you know, where things are moving for them economically, but more importantly, that the whole climate landscape and the challenges that some of these countries face are quite unique, and often quite severe.

Gretel: And yeah, you mentioned the diversity of countries. And obviously, the report focuses on the same eight countries you surveyed in 2022. Waqas, what key changes have you found in terms of attitudes towards climate news and climate news avoidance in these eight countries?

Waqas: So there are basically two different ways for me to answer this question. One, in terms of changes, surprisingly, we do not find significant changes across how people consume news in terms of which platforms they use, what are the main sources of information, who are the main sources of climate related information. But what we did find was cross-country variation. So some countries have slightly increased consumption of climate change news compared to the others. But overall, if we look on the aggregate level, the situation remains pretty stable as it was last year. On one hand, it's a good thing. On the other hand, it means that there are the concerns that we had or we highlighted in the previous report, they continue and are reflected in this report as well. On the other hand, what sort of new thing in a sense that this report offers is we tried to tackle some new issues, which we could not do in the previous one, specifically talking about the issue regarding climate justice and climate change's impact on health, where we see a lot of divergence and how people actually think about these very important issues.

And I want to highlight here one key aspect, since we are moving into COP28 in a couple of days, I think loss and damage and climate justice is going to be a big debate around the fringes of the conference. And our work actually kind of provides a context to those debates in a way that how people make sense of such issues. So in that regard, this report offers some more nuanced information.

Effective forms of climate coverage 

Gretel: Mitali, the report also reflects that significant proportions in every country think the consequences of climate change are at least a decade away, but also importantly, shows that people who use climate change news regularly are more likely to think they're being affected by climate change right now. From your conversations with the members of our climate network, which kinds of news coverage do you think is most effective in conveying the importance and the urgency of the climate crisis?

Mitali: That's a really interesting question. Thank you for that, Gretel. I will sort of start by saying that for those who may not be aware, the climate network takes in for a period of five months, 100 journalists, you know, in each cohort, and we work quite closely with them on building their idea of what climate journalism should look like. So across 400 journalists now, we span more than 100 countries. I'm only sort of putting this as context to understand the fact that we are really speaking to people all across the world to get a sense of, you know, what's happening in their communities and what's happening in their countries. There's interesting variations in terms of what people see as the consequences. But I will say that there are divergences in how people see that. So for some countries, actually, they don't see the climate impact as something far away. Whereas in a few others, we found that people seem to have parked that a decade away from now, they don't think there is an immediate impact.

Having said that, you know, just sort of going back to the point that Waqas was mentioning, which is that people are interpreting this or audiences are interpreting this in a different way. So even if people think climate impact is a few years away, they're very conscious of the fact that climate is impacting health for themselves, and their families right now, you know, that's very urgent. And you're seeing that in countries like India, that has been plagued by, you know, pollution, that has been plagued, including Pakistan by, you know, you know, constant flooding every year. And there are very real health consequences of that, which is what I think people are sort of palpably feeling. And that's something interesting we picked up in this report.

Just switching to, you know, what it is that we're getting from our journalists who were a great repository, honestly, of, you know, information and knowledge sharing. One is the fact that people want more solutions journalism. And essentially, that means that they're looking for not just positive stories, but they're looking for what's working in a community and might be replicated in another. They want to know what the process of that is, they want to know how feasible it is. And they're looking for hope, I think, you know, amidst what can often be quite a grim and dark landscape in terms of how things have been changing with climate change.

It is also true that people more frequently engage in times of extreme weather events. So you know, that does see a spike in terms of attention around the particular climate topic. But that's where I think working with journalists is so important, because what you need to do as a journalist in a newsroom at that point is not just report the event as is, but have the syntax available to track back and go back to, you know, where this is leading from and what's brought us to this point where we're facing this extreme weather event. So I think solutions journalism, just more awareness around what's happening with extreme weather events. That's something important. And as Waqas was mentioning, COP is generally sort of  a red letter day for a lot of people who track climate. So it is important, we think, for journalists to walk in with that information of what the wider audience is looking for, and what they see as something they would like addressed, you know, both personally and for their communities when they attend these large conferences.

Attitudes towards climate protests 

Gretel: Waqas, you pointed out that the 2023 report looks into other topics that perhaps the 2022 report didn't touch upon. And one of those things is that you guys looked into news coverage of direct climate protests. That is, protesters that have thrown paints at buildings, glued themselves to works of art, and blocked transport routes to raise awareness. What do people think about the protests? And how do they respond to coverage of them?

Waqas: Yeah, this was one of the concerns that we wanted to address, because there was a lot of discussion around why these protests are suddenly being so prevalent across some countries. But one thing that we took care of was these protests are not as prevalent across all eight markets. So we tried to break it down to the four markets, where we have seen that these protests are taking place. So the focus was basically on US, France, UK, and Germany. But the overall sentiment is that people are not very supportive of the fact that such protests should be taking place. And in order to get a bit more nuanced into it, we tried to look into the support for such protests across young people and those who align themselves politically on the left or the right, as well as differences between men and women. What we did find was that, of course, as you have seen, and a lot of our listeners have already seen, that such protests are basically conducted most of the time by young people. So there is sufficient support among young audiences who are supportive of such tactics.

In terms of gender differences, we could not find it across countries. In terms of differences between the countries, we have some very nuanced pictures in a way that, for example, in Germany, people are way more against such protests compared to those who are supportive of such types of protests. And lastly, what is perhaps the most important aspect across any climate change related debate is the political divide. In our work, we did see that people who align themselves with the political left, they are more supportive of such tactics and such ways of protesting compared to those who align themselves with the political right. These are some of the nuances and I'm not going so much into the details about how each country looks different, what happens when people consume news and how consuming news impacts their assessment towards these protests.

Who people trust to discuss climate change 

Gretel: Mitali, one of the most striking findings of the report is the fact that not just climate scientists, but also climate activists are both more visible and more trusted than governments and politicians when it comes to climate change news. Do you think this should shape news coverage of the issue?

Mitali: So let me say two things. One, that this was unsurprising compared to, you know, what we found last year. And the second that I think part of it already is, you know, Gretel, first of all, in our report across across eight countries, I mean, there exists, it seems quite clearly a fairly fragile relationship between the larger audience and politics of politicians when it comes to climate related information that is shared by politicians or political groups. So, you know, there is that sense that either the information is not completely true, or there is a sense that not enough is being done by way of policy action. And I think that's the big thing and the big headline to take away from the relationship with with politics, which is that, you know, fairly important questions are being raised now about policy failure and climate action.

What I will say, and I think this is extremely important, is who's the linchpin in this process, you know, who's kind of linking this broken relationship. And that is actually back to the media and back to the news. We found that across all eight countries, the wider public's belief in the media holding influential blocks like politicians, or industry or business accountable is very high. And I think that is an important message for the news organisations and the journalists, which is that your work matters. And your work around climate matters a lot. People put a lot of credence into, you know, what news organisations are doing, what they're reporting on, and what they're throwing a light on in terms of climate issues. And they do see the media as a powerful instrument in actually creating some change in that regard. And I don't want to use the word 'pushing' but encouraging, you know, pockets like politicians and industrialists to change for the better.

I will also say that one important thing we sort of delved into, because that's becoming a big issue, and it was raised in the IPCC report as well is climate misinformation and disinformation. Part of it harks back to our findings from the Digital News Report, as well, where we found that there has been an increase in misinformation around climate. We're seeing it honestly, on social media platforms like X, where many climate scientists and experts are facing an incredible amount of, you know, hate and trolling for what they're putting out as researched information around climate change. So I think it makes it all the more important for us to put out what the wider audience feels at this point, which is that there is high trust in climate scientists. There is a belief that the media can do quite a bit in terms of, you know, creating change. And there's low trust in politicians. And I think that's something that they should take on board.

Gretel: And if there's low trust in politicians, political parties and governments, which our survey frequently names as sources of false and misleading information, do you think journalists should be more careful reporting what they say?

Mitali: I think journalists should always be careful what they say in terms of sort of, you know, being careful about their attribution, careful about their sources. But, you know, I will also say that I think this is a more tricky terrain for journalists, purely because, and this is our interaction from journalists within our network, often they don't have the resources to do that. They don't know where to go to get the right syntax or to get the most legitimate information or the most updated information. And that's where networks like the Oxford Climate [Journalism] Network, which is what we run sort of complements what we are finding, you know, in our research, which is that there is a high degree of interest amongst journalists to tell the story better. We need to equip them with the tools to be able to do that. You know, I mean, if you asked 20 years back whether journalists were fully equipped to report on technology, say, or on finance, perhaps they didn't have the requisite tools, but then a process was created to build that. And that's exactly, you know, what we need to be doing at this point, especially when there is a situation where there is a low level of trust in politicians who often might be the ones running the government as well.

Concern around climate misinformation 

Gretel: Following that train of thought, a staggering up to 80% of respondents across the eight countries say that they are at least somewhat concerned about false or misleading news about climate change. Waqas, what do our figures suggest about the sources of climate misinformation and the channels where our audience finds it?

Waqas: I think what is really important to consider here is that the number, like what you mentioned, 80% respondents concerned, this is not something new. We have seen this consistently across many of our reports, Digital News Reports across years. This is like a consistent trend across markets, even in the individual markets. We have highs and lows, but the concern has always been there. When we wanted to do the same for climate change coverage and news, we were mindful of the fact that we are talking about, and I think this is important for the listeners as well, that we did not really talk about specific misinformation. We just subjectively assess their opinion about how much they think they come across misinformation or how much do they think the frequency of climate change misinformation is compared to other types of misinformation.

So having said that, I just would like to mention two things concerning the findings. First of all is the concern that people had was the same as in the previous report and this year's report. So the concern has been consistent across two years. What is worth mentioning here is that we tried to compare three different types of misinformation, and one was politics, and the other one was government policies, and the third is climate change. We wanted to see how much difference people would have an opinion about in terms of seeing misinformation across these three types of information. What was a bit surprising for me was we did not see a lot of variation. For example, on an average, almost 25 or a quarter, more than a quarter of our respondents on average come across all three types of misinformation. So having, what does it mean? It means that climate change misinformation is as prevalent as the misinformation about politics and government policies. Now this is kind of varying in a way that, okay, politics being a polarising issue, and people have opinions, and then people have their own identity-based cues. Similarly, government policies are also mired with polarisation.

But climate change, I won't say that it's above and beyond politics, but this is something that we see that is panning out right in front of our eyes. But despite the fact that this is so prevalent of an issue, we still... if people, a quarter of our respondents, across all countries are seeing that issue as prevalent as any other, this is sort of something that we need to look into. And we had some countries where actually misinformation on climate change was perceived higher than government policies and politics. Again, an indication that this is something that journalists as well as the consumers of social media and traditional media should be mindful of.

But I would just conclude by saying one small aspect of the findings. Although we talk about that misinformation is a problem, and which it is, we also need to be careful by making the assumption that how prevalent and how much people come across this. So with that in mind, we ask people how frequently do they think they come across such information? And we asked this same question the previous year as well as this year. So there is not a lot of difference. So around a quarter of our respondents felt that they come across [climate misinformation] frequently. And in fact, this has been the trend across all markets as well. And in terms of the sources that you mentioned, like what Mitali was saying, politicians have been the main source of misinformation whenever people recall where they hear the misinformation from, who are the main sources. And then we have some indications that in the data that people, in terms of platforms, online media platform, social media platforms, and TV news, both have been termed as where people come across climate-related misinformation, but not so much as the individual offline media, newspaper, radio, for example. So there's a lot to unpack when it comes to climate misinformation, but some of the findings were similar to last year's report. And this year, we added a bit more nuance in terms of how we make sense of the findings.

Politics and polarisation around climate change news 

Gretel: As you mentioned, Waqas, public opinion is very polarised based on political ideology on issues like climate justice. And one of the clear insights from the report is that political leaning matters when approaching some of the issues raised by climate change. Mitali, I was wondering if you could give us a few examples of issues in countries where this divide is the most clear.

Mitali: So I think I might, instead of breaking it up into countries, do a sort of more rough difference, which is for lack of a better term, the Global North and the Global South, Gretel, which is, you know, countries like Brazil, India, Pakistan, when we're looking at the Global South, and countries like the UK, France, etc., when we're looking at the Global North. I think, you know, this has sort of come up previously in our conversation, but there is a significant difference between the left and the right in, you know, the developed countries, if you will, or the Global North, if you will, when we're looking at people on the left expressing interest in climate news, compared with people on the right, politically speaking, where, you know, that stood at 40%, whereas for the left, it stood at about 56%.

Again, I would say there are sort of gradients and differences in how they perceive particular challenges. Waqas was speaking earlier about the protests, and you know, how people on different ends of the political spectrum either support or don't support these kinds of protests. But it's interesting what the political view is, with regards to, say, climate change, and its impact on poorer nations and individuals. So those on the left tend to be more supportive of the fact that more needs to be done for the poorer nations, whereas those on the right seem to feel that isn't the case. We didn't find such a stark sort of difference when we were looking at gender, we didn't find such a stark difference when we looked at, say, age, but this did come up in terms of, you know, how much needs to be done for the poorer countries. And again, that is an important conversation to be had. And frankly, I think journalism is the space to have it about what a just transition looks like, what loss and damages look like, what kind of support to countries that are really sort of, in some parts, collapsing with the way climate change is wreaking havoc on them, need. So yeah, lots of interesting little tidbits there.

Understanding the climate's impact on health 

Gretel: And yeah, Waqas, the data shows that those in the Global South countries perceive larger effects of climate change in health than those in the Global North. So that difference, like Mitali was mentioning, do we know whether this is related to the way the news media covers the issue in countries such as the UK or the US?

Waqas: I think that I will be careful when I answer this question, because in a way, we can find some information that there is a relationship there, how people consume news on climate change and how they perceive the impacts of climate change on their health. But I'm not 100% confident about if there is a causal relationship between the two. But we do have some indications that consuming news is kind of allowing people to make this connection relatively easier when they consume frequent news on climate change.

Now, the other aspect of the question that you mentioned regarding the larger effects, I think what is very interesting in our report is that the clear segregation of Global South and North where we see countries that have a better health infrastructure tend to believe that the impacts are small, whereas the countries which are developing, they believe that they are suffering from large impacts of climate change on their health. So, that again shows us the importance of the idea of climate justice between the two sets of countries on one hand. On the other hand is that what was striking for me was it takes a lot of cognition and understanding about the issue itself. If people in Pakistan, India and Brazil can make this assessment that climate change is impacting their health significantly. I think it should not depend on the infrastructure in individual countries, but it's the recognition that I felt was very surprising for me to find out among the countries who are not very well known to make this connection on the go. It requires a high level of education, your experience with climate change, your media literacy, your information and your level of education in respective countries. But seeing that this was relatively easily made in the countries like I mentioned, it was something that stood out in terms of the findings of this report.

Every news story has a climate angle 

Gretel: It's important to remind our listeners that this is a pretty unique piece of research. It's also important to stress that it is part of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, an initiative which has hosted 400 journalists from more than 100 countries to enhance the coverage of the climate crisis. Mitali, you've been a practising journalist for over two decades and now lead our journalist programmes, including our climate network. Why do you think this kind of research matters for journalists around the world?

Mitali: So I have spoken a little bit about what the program looks like. I will say that the reason I think it's important is because first and foremost, what I think newsrooms should sort of move away from is the practice or idea that climate is the responsibility of one reporter or one desk, or the fact that there's an extreme weather event. It is a lens and I say that continually, it is a lens that we need to attach to every story that we do. Every sports story has a climate context to it. Every beauty and luxury lifestyle story has a climate context to it. We just need to know how to tell it right and we need to be accurate in our reportage.

I will sort of take a few steps back and say it's been a really fun process doing this research. I think I can say confidently we're the only ones who are doing this kind of research around audience and climate news. And when Waqas, Richard and I, the three authors of this sat down, I think we had a long list of maybe 20 or 30 items that we wanted to put into the report. There was so much that we wanted to say and discuss and then we streamlined it. Waqas has been leading on this report and it's been very fun working with him and Richard on it.

We need to support this kind of work. We need to support the kind of work that is helping journalists tell climate stories the most accurately. We need to know what audiences are looking for and we need to be clear about where impact is possible. And if audiences are turning to newsrooms and journalists in the hope of seeing some kind of positive change from influential parties, including politicians and industrialists, then I think that's a clear enough goal for most newsrooms across the world. We need to build critical awareness and I hope this research is sort of a step in that direction.

I will just finish by saying none of this is possible without the larger team. The Oxford Climate [Journalism Network] team is a fantastic bunch of individuals, very driven and passionate about what they're doing. Our partners, Laudes, who have supported this research report and we are very grateful for that. And the University of Oxford, of course, which sort of encourages this good mix of what we do in terms of bringing the professional world into the research world. And I hope we can sort of continue to do that and it's useful for people across the world.