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How much has digital news consumption affected the public perception of climate change?

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The evolution of technology and, more specifically, increased internet use and the invention of smartphones have led to changes in the media landscape. Digital news now prevails over traditional news formats. More and more people are choosing to stay informed digitally through the various media available, such as social media, news websites and video viewing platforms like YouTube.

Naturally, such an important structural change in the way people receive information is very likely to bring changes in their perception of the most important issues of our time, such as climate change.

Research led by Dr James Painter into the coverage of COP25 in Paris in 2015 showed a clear difference between some of the digital-born outlets, such as BuzzFeed and Vice, and the traditional mainstream media in their coverage of climate change topics.

“For example, Vice and BuzzFeed paid less attention to the details of the negotiations. Vice gave considerably more coverage to the civil society protests and had more of an activist agenda, in tune with some of its younger audience. BuzzFeed paid a lot of attention to visuals and humour in order to promote shareability. In contrast, the Huffington Post followed a much more similar editorial agenda to legacy media like The Guardian”, said Dr Painter.

Another significant change in climate news coverage brought by the digital era in recent years is the rise in specialist climate sites, all digital-born. According to the ‘Reuters Institute Digital News Report’ of 2020, 13 % of those surveyed said that these sites (such as Carbon Brief and Inside Climate News) were a major source of climate news for them, coming just behind the online sites of major news organisations (15 %) and ahead of social media and blogs (9 %).

“We recently interviewed representatives of 14 such sites and found that although they are complimentary to mainstream climate coverage, they carve out their niche authority and distinctive nature by emphasising their scientific expertise and relevance for policy communication. It is also interesting that based on the self-declared role perceptions of the interviewees, traditional, professional journalistic values avoiding overt advocacy still predominate in the sites”, adds Dr Painter.

But to what extent do the above differences in how climate change is covered by digital media affect the public’s perception of it?

Dr Craig T. Robertson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has an interesting perspective: “One of the key factors for the public’s perception of climate change is the level of polarisation in the media environment. 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”. – Read Craig T. Robertson’s interview

Dr Robertson also says that social media and the way that they function intensify polarisation by feeding readers only with news that they tend to agree with 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”.

In terms of digital news consumption, the ‘Reuters Institute Digital News Report’ shows that people who prefer online news sites to major news organisations and specialised outlets covering climate issues tend to think that climate change is much more serious compared to those who prefer radio and print. Television viewers, however, also see climate change as a serious threat.

In addition to polarisation, a series of factors influences the perception of climate change in relation to digital news consumption.

Dr Claudio Morana, Professor of Economics at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Director of the university’s Center for European Studies (CefES) and co-writer of the research paper ‘Climate Change Awareness: Empirical Evidence for the European Union’, states: “In our study, we have investigated the contribution of many potential climate change awareness/concern drivers. We have found a most important role for per capita income, consistent with the public-good nature of environmental quality and the so-called environmental Kuznets curve”. – Read Claudio Morana’s interview

This curve considers the relationship between different indicators of environmental pollution and per capita income. It shows that although environmental pollution increases in the first stages of economic growth, when a higher level of income is reached, economic growth then provides environmental improvement.

Concerning social media’s influence on the public perception of climate change, Dr Morana says: “In our study, we do detect a positive role for social media coverage in fostering climate change awareness, even when controlling many other potential determinants”.

Regarding the correlation between the public perception of climate change and digital news consumption, Dr Morana states that there was probably a positive correlation between the use of digital information sources and people’s attitudes.

Of course, all the researchers agree that the positive impact of digital news consumption on climate change awareness is hampered by the ease with which false news is spread online. But, as Dr Robinson says, the nature of the internet makes this inevitable. “The internet allows everyone to publish and reach an audience. 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”, he said.

However, in general, digital media and the possibilities they offer are helping to increase climate change awareness and slightly boost the public perception of climate change so that people take the problem seriously.

Related content

A scientist’s opinion: interview with Dr Claudio Morana on the public perception of climate change in relation to news consumption
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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