TV dwells on disaster in covering climate science : study

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2014 7:02 PM

OSLO (Reuters) - Television news tends to focus on disasters such as droughts or floods in covering scientific findings about climate change, an approach that may exaggerate pessimism about the subject, according to a new study.

The review of coverage by leading television news shows in Australia, Brazil, Britain, China, Germany and India found that they most often framed reports about the science of global warming in terms of crisis.

The report, by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, said disaster scenarios were played up over themes of scientific uncertainty, risks of global warming or opportunities for solving the problems.

"For television, which is driven by pictures and the need for strong, engaging narratives in a short space of time, disaster-type approaches are going to be very attractive," author James Painter told Reuters.

Some scientists say the media focus on disaster may warp public understanding of climate change and complicate decision-making on effective solutions. A Yale University study in July found that only one in 10 Americans understand that more than 90 percent of scientists blame man-made emissions, rather than natural variations in climate, for causing global warming.

Television news is often the most trusted media. The news bulletins in the Reuters study, including the BBC in Britain, CCTV-1 in China and Jornal Nacional in Brazil, reach a combined daily average audience of about 50 million people.

The study examined reporting of three U.N. reports on climate change in the past year that included the finding that it is least 95 percent probable that human activities have been the main cause of global warming since 1950.

Scientists who wrote the reports focused more on how to manage risks of global warming than on disaster, Painter said. In a 32-page summary for one of the reports about the impacts of climate change, for instance, the word "disaster" occurs 14 times and "risk" 231 times.

Other research indicates that viewers can feel helpless when presented with impending catastrophe, Painter said.

"Emphasizing more hopeful messages, such as the opportunities of low-carbon development, is also seen by some scholars as more ‘helpful’ for personal engagement from some sectors than a narrative of catastrophe or disaster," it said.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Mark Heinrich)