The UK comes second for the number of articles published on climate change since 2004, according to data from the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO).
Based on the average number of articles published in each title tracked since 2004 when MeCCO began collecting the data, only Australia tops the UK when it comes to the amount of column inches dedicated to climate change.
(We used an average since MeCCO tracks more publications in some countries than others.)
MeCCO, which is led by researchers at the University of Colorado, monitors print and broadcast sources in 59 countries to track the amount of attention being paid to the climate issue. Print coverage, which in some cases also includes digital articles, covers 54 countries.
Of these 54 countries tracked for print coverage, more than half increased the number of articles they published on the topic in the last five years.
Leading the way for increase in coverage are three emerging economies: Argentina, South Africa and Brazil. The six UK outlets tracked (The Guardian, Mail, The Telegraph, The Mirror, The Times and The Sun – and their Sunday editions) stepped up coverage by 37% from 7,999 to 10,983 articles in the same period.
Although the database doesn’t track what stance an outlet takes, the position and tone are of course crucial, says Max Boykoff, MeCCO lead investigator.
“It’s not just whether climate change is explicitly in an article or not of course, but it’s how it is characterised and it is whether it’s treated with disdain or enthusiasm, which are just two among many emotional registers.”
He adds: “More media coverage isn’t always better. Depending on the sources that they’re coming from more media coverage can actually do a fair bit of damage – confusing and propagating misinformation or poor information.”
While media coverage intersects with other types of attention (e.g. social media posts), when it comes to mainstream coverage there are signs that press attention is evolving in the right direction.
In a piece of research submitted for publication, Boykoff and a team of academics looked at the past 15 years of coverage of climate change in mostly prestige legacy media sources in five countries, including the UK and the US. They found a “maturation” in the way these sources covered climate change.
As reported by Press Gazette in February this year, there has also been a sea change in the way right-leaning UK tabloids, which had in the past been associated with climate change denialism, report on climate. This has in part been driven by polls showing that climate is an increasingly important issue for readers.
The Sun, which has published pieces by climate sceptics such as James Delingpole, is one title that has both stepped up the total amount of its coverage and the number of articles acknowledging that climate change is a serious issue.
Natasha Clark, the Sun’s political correspondent who has been appointed to focus on environmental issues ahead of this year’s COP 26 summit in Glasgow, says this reflects bigger changes in society.
“It’s not just The Sun as a paper that has come on a journey with climate change,” she says. “It’s Britain, the world and the public that has changed.
“Jeremy Clarkson, who’s one of our columnists, has written before for us about how he’s personally changed his mind on how important climate change is. That sort of sums up how our readers have realised more and more about how important this is.”
Last year the title launched a Green Team campaign intended to help readers understand how they can help the planet.
“[The Green Team campaign] was in response to some polling we did for our readers which showed that they’re much more interested in the environment than perhaps we thought, and we thought that this is something that we need to essentially reflect more in our coverage.”
Although digital growth is driving the business strategy and the news brand’s digital audience is younger, climate is not just something that appeals to younger readers, believes Clark.
“All of our readerships are showing more of an interest in the environment and climate change,” she says.
But she acknowledges that the Sun’s readership is still on a journey. As a result, she says the publication “will always want to highlight the variety of voices” on climate change.
Nevertheless Clark says the title has made efforts in recent years to bring on board green-friendly commentators such as Chris Packham and Ben Fogle.
“I think it’s important that we try and highlight new voices and green friendly voices especially from people that people have heard of,” she says.
The Daily Mail, which has previously been criticised for climate coverage which has included articles by veteran climate skeptic, the late Christopher Booker, says it is also putting a focus on the environment.
Among the green-friendly initiatives the paper highlighted to Press Gazette are its Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign tackling plastic waste and its annual Great British Spring Clean where hundreds of thousands of volunteers sign up for litter picks.
One UK outlet that has taken an unequivocal stance on climate change has been The Guardian.
“Both the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner and former editor Alan Rusbridger have been clear that the climate crisis is the defining story of the era,” says Alan Evans, head of environment at Guardian News & Media. “Accordingly, as an organisation, we have committed to giving the crisis the attention and prominence it demands.”
The title published 44,116 articles on the subject since 2004 according to MeCCO (more than any other UK outlet tracked) – including one every three hours on average in 2020 according to its own data.
Among its most impactful pieces of coverage, says Evans, has been its climate data dashboard launched last year which includes up to date metrics for key climate indicators.
Unlike many news organisations, where climate might be covered by an environmental correspondent, The Guardian, says Evans has made a firm decision not to silo its environment coverage.
“It is an important strand that runs throughout all our reporting, including politics, business and culture,” he says.
The title also regularly runs environment stories on its front page – both print and online – and two years ago was something of a trailblazer among mainstream media when it eschewed the term climate change for what it terms the “more appropriately urgent” “climate emergency”.
And the urgency makes a difference, says Boykoff.
Our analysis of data from MeCCo and Pew suggests that when it comes to shaping public opinion, increased reporting on climate may play a role. Of ten countries for which we had data on the percentage of the public that reported climate change to be a major threat and MeCCO data on amount of coverage, nine reported an increase in both metrics between 2013 and 2020.
Although Boykoff cautions that bridging the gap between content and how it shapes attitudes comes with pitfalls, media is an important part of galvanising action.
“Media is such an important part of these conversations and moving from conversation to action and engagement,” he says. “Without doubt, media coverage has influenced this motivation to act and engage more over time.”
But while media attention to climate change might be expected to grow over time as the issue becomes more urgent, press attention has been inconsistent – falling from a high in 2009.
In all regions of the world climate coverage peaked in 2009, the year of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In December alone – the month of the summit – 12,800 articles were published.
Overall data suggests that coverage rises to coincide with key climate related events.
Coverage for example rose after autumn 2006, coinciding with the release of former US vice president Al Gore’s book and documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.
After that coverage declined – rising in 2019 to only fall again with the Covid crisis. In 2020, the number of articles worldwide focused on climate was 62,655 – down 23% on the 2019 figure.
But with many countries – in the global North at least – vaccinating their populations and emerging from lockdown climate stories have reappeared on editors’ agendas. The extinction rebellion protests in the latter part of 2020 provided an impetus for renewed coverage.
“If you look back to the period of 2007 and 2008, that was a period where the IPCC reports were getting a lot of attention, where Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Prize and we’re back at those levels of coverage,” says Boykoff.
In March 2021, the 54 tracked outlets published 6,574 stories on climate change – up 38% on March 2020. In the US the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan and its links to tackling climate change were widely covered.
But while climate might be back on the agenda this year, overall Boykoff believes that media and society fall short of dealing with the issue adequately.
“As a global society we are still failing to grapple with the real scale of the intersecting challenges that we face when it comes to considerations around climate change,” he says.
Photo: Leon Neal/ Getty Images