Want to reach sceptics? Researchers suggest leaving the term ‘climate change’ out of some news coverage

By Denise-Marie Ordway

June 23, 2022

tree head with long nose
Small changes in framing and word choice can elicit significant changes in how science sceptics engage with news of climate change. (freshidea/Adobe)

If newsrooms want climate science sceptics to read and share news about climate change, researcher Renita Coleman recommends they do this: Leave the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ out of their coverage.

“Research seems to indicate those are trigger words for sceptics,” says Coleman, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is what we found would trigger them to stop reading and instantly become hostile, [believing] ‘Oh, that story is biased or that media organisation is biased.’”

Coleman is the lead author of a new paper that investigates strategies to help journalists reach people who distrust science. She and her colleagues conducted an experiment that indicates small changes in how journalists cover climate change have the potential to elicit substantial changes in the way sceptics engage with the news.

In the experiment, after reading a news story that incorporated the three changes below, sceptics said they would likely seek out and share more news about climate change. They also said they would likely take steps to help mitigate its damage.  

  • Replacing ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ with the word ‘weather.’
  • Avoiding mentioning who or what causes climate change.
  • Focusing heavily on solutions, or what the public can do to prepare for or adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Coleman says she’s not suggesting journalists take this approach with all climate change stories. But they should consider doing it with some, she and her coauthors explain in Reaching Science Skeptics: How Adaptive Framing of Climate Change Leads to Positive Responses Via Persuasion Knowledge and Perceived Behavioral Control, published May 19 in Communication Research.

The other researchers who worked on the study are Esther Thorson, a journalism professor at Michigan State University, and Cinthia Jimenez and Kami Vinton, two doctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s not a violation of ethics by any means to not say anything about what causes climate change,” explains Coleman, who, prior to entering academia, worked 15 years as a reporter, editor and designer at newspapers and magazines in Florida and North Carolina. “Every story has things that are left out, right? Leave this out occasionally. Not all the time — occasionally.”

By making these changes, journalists might encourage many more people to read and share their work, she says.

“It’s important to reach these people we’re not reaching,” she continues. “We’re not going to turn people who don’t believe climate change is human-made into believing. But we can get them to want to read more information and talk to other people about it versus shutting down.”

To study the issue, Coleman and her fellow researchers recruited a sample of 1,200 US adults and asked them to read a news article about climate change and then answer a series of questions. They made sure about half the people who participated were climate science sceptics.

The sample included individuals from various demographic backgrounds. Three-quarters were white, 13.1% were Black, 4.3% were Hispanic, 1.5% were Asian and 2.8% identified as ‘other.’ In terms of education, 43% had a high school education or less, 30% completed some college, 16% had a bachelor’s degree and 11% had taken graduate-level courses or obtained a graduate degree.

The sample also represented different political ideologies. Almost 37% of participants identified as Democrats, 26.8% were Republican and 36.7% reported being Independents.

The authors recruited participants using Qualtrics, an organisation that maintains a pool of people representing various demographic backgrounds who have agreed to complete online surveys. The researchers collected response data from Sept. 23, 2019 to Oct. 2, 2019.

For the experiment, Coleman created four news stories about climate change based on actual news coverage. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of them.

Two of the stories focused on high temperatures in Missouri. Two reported on ocean flooding in Orange County, California. Each story pair was visually similar — for example, the articles ran a page long, lacked photographs and purportedly came from The Associated Press. But they differed in terms of framing and word choices. One article in each pair blamed climate change and global warming while the other avoided those terms and emphasised solutions such as preparing for changes in weather and sea levels.

The headlines for each pair were worded differently:

Pair 1

Man-made global warming pushing ocean waters higher, experts say

Experts: Orange County towns must speed adaptation strategies for ocean’s encroachment

Pair 2

With drought and heat waves ahead, Missouri grapples with impact of man-made climate change

Adaptation on the agenda as Missouri grapples with hotter future

After reading their assigned article, participants responded to online questions about the article and their responses to it. One question, for example, asked participants to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I was annoyed by the story because it seems to be trying to influence the audience” and “With this story’s approach people can do something to stop damage from [the issue featured in the story].”

Another question asked participants about the likelihood they would take these future actions:

  • “Endorse spending taxpayer money to address these issues in the ways described in this story.”
  • “Vote for elected officials who support this kind of planning.”
  • “Support efforts the story described to handle [the problem featured].”

After analysing responses, the researchers realised that the framing and language of the news article did make a difference. “Removing any references to what causes climate change reduced perceptions that the news stories were trying to manipulate or persuade readers,” they write.

They add that “removing any references to causes of climate change and emphasising the ability to adapt increased the extent to which people considered themselves efficacious, responding more positively to ideas about working together to protect us all and stop damage, and that plans to adapt can work.”

The authors also note the importance of “emphasising the word ‘adapt’ and its derivatives, which implies adjusting, modifying, mitigating, and revising — all incremental changes that are easier to accomplish than fundamental, transformational change.”

Other scholars have pointed out that the language journalists use — and the repetition of certain words and phrases — can influence audiences’ interpretation of issues. Dietram Scheufele, the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a 2019 interview with The Journalist’s Resource that “journalists have to be very careful, in terms of endorsing one term or the other.”

Scheufele explained that in 2014, White House science adviser John Holdren pushed for a new term to describe the impact that rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are having on the planet. Holden had argued “global climate disruption” captures the phenomena more accurately than do “global warming” and “climate change.”

Coleman and her colleagues’ work builds on earlier research that suggests avoiding the term ‘climate change’ may help generate support for sending humanitarian aid to areas hit by natural disasters. Climate science sceptics who participated in that experiment “reported greater justifications for not helping the victims when the disaster was attributed to climate change,” according to the paper, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2016.

Coleman, Thorson, Jimenez and Vinton note their study has several limitations. A big one: Their experiment involved only two-story pairs.

“Climate change has many specific issues and future studies should create and test more stories on different climate topics,” they write.

Also, their findings apply only to the sample of people who participated, not the US public as a whole.

Even so, Coleman says, the findings offer important insights into how science sceptics engage with and interpret news coverage of climate change. Future research, she adds, could look at how sceptics respond to changes in the framing and language of stories about other contested topics.

Coleman and her colleagues have experimented with similar changes to news articles about vaccines and found that vaccine sceptics responded to the changes in ways similar to how climate science sceptics responded to changes in climate change coverage. The researchers presented their findings at a conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2020.

As scholars continue investigating these issues, Coleman urges news outlets to consider what they might be doing to create a perception among some groups that they are trying to push their audiences to take a certain stance on an issue. Not everyone realises how journalists do their work, she adds.

“We are not [public relations] and we are not advertising, but that’s not something people always get,” she notes. “We need to think a little more nuanced, if you will, about what kinds of things we are doing to make people think we are trying to persuade them when we know we are not.”

If you’re looking for more help covering climate change, please check out our tip sheet on what journalists get wrong and how to get it right and our tip sheet on reporting on extreme weather.

This article first appeared on The Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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