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A scientist’s opinion: interview with Craig T. Robertson on the public perception of climate change in relation to news consumption

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Dr Craig T. Robertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


To what extent do you believe that climate change coverage in digital media is different compared to traditional media?

Craig T. Robertson: Digital media opened the opportunity for a lot more specifically focused climate change reporting media projects. Digital media draw a lot of attention and drive the conversation more on climate change, I think. The digital media revolution gives the opportunity to more voices to get on this topic and present some really in-depth reporting that major news outlets maybe haven’t done.


Do you think that fake news about climate change is easier to spread via digital media?

Craig T. Robertson: These are the two edges of social media. The internet allows everyone to publish and reach an audience, contrary to the traditional media where it was very hard to create a radio or TV station. So, people who don’t know anything about climate change or who are malicious also publish climate change news online. This is the inevitable outcome of democratising publishing. Especially for climate change, there are some coordinated campaigns online from people that try to undermine climate change.

On the other hand, we should take into consideration that a lot of fake news comes from people on the top, like presidents, prime ministers, etc. And when they say something it gets covered by traditional media as well, because of the significance of their role.


To what extent do people in Europe want to read climate change news?

Craig T. Robertson: It varies a lot by country. Our research reveals some interesting differences between countries. We see more interest in places like Greece, Portugal and southern European countries in general. Potentially that’s because the audiences there see the repercussions of climate change in their daily life. If your country is on fire it is easier to make the connection in your mind and realise the dangers of climate change. In contrast, in Nordic countries, people express much less interest in climate change news, despite the fact that for other topics they pay more attention to the news compared to the rest of Europeans.


Do you think that media polarisation is an important factor for the public perception of climate change?

Craig T. Robertson: Polarisation in the media environment is one of the key factors for the public’s perception of climate change. In countries like the USA, we see that people on the right wing of the political spectrum do not take climate change seriously or they do not even believe that it exists. Of course, conservative media form this opinion to an extended degree.

Moreover, social media, and the way that they function, intensify the polarisation by feeding the users only with news that they tend to agree on in advance. On the other hand, in countries like Greece and Portugal, where climate change effects are more obvious, we see a wider consensus on climate change, even if there is significant polarisation on other topics.


How much do people trust digital media on climate change issues and how much do they trust traditional media?

Craig T. Robertson: It also varies a lot by country. There are some really traditional media markets, such as Japan, where there is not as much social media news consumption. In other countries, though, the situation is completely different. I think it is something correlated to the trust that exists in traditional media in every country in general and the percentage of the people that choose digital news consumption for every topic, not only climate change.


Do you believe that the volume of climate change news has increased in digital media compared to traditional media?

Craig T. Robertson: Inevitably it did. First of all, you can’t even compare the amount of content that exists on the internet with television, radio, etc. There are more opportunities for people to publish and inevitably there is more content. Whether there is good quality content is another question. That’s where traditional news outlets can play a key role, by producing a good quantity of information that is reliable.


Is there any direct correlation between the public perception of climate change and digital news consumption?

Craig T. Robertson: It’s hard to say which direction the relationship would go. If you are interested in a topic, you would go and consume more news about this topic. Inevitably, it is coming down to how the topic is covered. People will pay attention to the topic if the country is on fire. When it’s not, they are going to pay less attention. Probably it goes both ways, I think.


How do people think climate change should be covered?

Craig T. Robertson: We have some data in our report that show that there is a strong percentage of people who want journalists to cover the topic in terms of saying that governments and big businesses need to do something other than the focus being on individuals having to do something. There is all this reporting focus on individual responsibility, but it seems that the audiences have a different perspective.

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