In the study of climate and environmental communication, content analysis—in all its many facets—has been used numerous times and in various ways. This chapter provides an overview of common research designs and (combinations of) methods, showing that a variety of approaches have been applied, ranging from qualitative, to quantitative, to automated content analyses. In addition, we identify the main constructs employed in media content analyses—with issue attention, actors and sources, framing, uncertainty, or visual representations being of primary concern. Finally, we outline research desiderata that should be considered in future studies.
- Climate Change
- Climate Communication
- Environmental Communication
- Coverage about Uncertainty of Climate Research
Environmental communication has been defined as the “communication about the natural environment and ecosystem, commonly focusing on the relationships that human beings and their institutions maintain with the nonhuman natural environment” (Griffin and Dunwoody 2008, p. 1; cf. Hansen 2017, 2018). A large part of this communication—and especially media representations of the environment—deals with various environmental problems such as energy, pollution, extinction of species, the ozone hole, or population growth. In recent years, anthropogenic climate change in particular has become one of the defining topics in environmental communication (Hansen 2011, 2018; Moser and Dilling 2008). Climate change-related communication and media coverage is decisive for how people perceive this “unobtrusive” but highly pressing issue (Carvalho 2010, p. 172; Corbett and Durfee 2004). Most people do not experience climate change directly and its causes and effects lie beyond their everyday lives. However, media provide important access to scientific information, political and societal debates, risks of, and possible solutions to tackle climate change. As central arenas and actors “in the production, reproduction, and transformation of the meanings” (Carvalho 2010, p. 172) of climate change, news coverage has significantly increased people’s awareness of the problem over the years (Sampei and Aoyagi-Usui 2009). Both environmental and climate change-related communication and media coverage show intersections with various other research fields, such as health communication, communication focusing on controversial technologies such as genetic engineering or nanotechnology, risk communication, and, ultimately, science communication (Hansen 2011; Schäfer and Bonfadelli 2017).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, media and communication research on the environment emerged from various research strands such as environmental psychology, environmental sociology, and environmental communication (for an overview, see Cox 2010; Hansen 2017, 2018; Hansen and Cox 2015). These analyses covered environmental crises and disasters as well as environmental journalists and their relationship to sources (e.g., Dunwoody 2019; Hansen 2018). In contrast, research on climate-related communication and media reporting has started in the early 1990s and increased significantly since the mid-2000s (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014). Over the course of the last two decades, research in the field of environmental communication has developed and diversified considerably (Hansen 2011): Whereas in the early years, studies of environmental coverage had a relatively narrow focus on specific environmental issues, disasters, or events, today research covers diverse topics from the fields of science, medicine, and health —with climate change being the most intensively researched area recently (e.g., Moser and Dilling 2008). Studies assessing media representations of climate change typically deal with questions such as whether media coverage differs between countries, how it develops over time, which topics are embedded in the climate discourse, which perspectives on climate change are covered, and how climate change is presented in textual or visual form (for an overview, see Metag 2016). Various meta-analyses and literature reviews outlined important trends synthesizing the development of the research field (e.g., Anderson 2009; Carvalho 2010; Metag 2016; Moser 2010; Schäfer 2012; Schäfer and Schlichting 2014). Results of these studies show three main trends. First, media coverage of climate change has increased over the last decades (Liu et al. 2011; Schäfer and Schlichting 2014; Schmidt et al. 2013)—albeit there are significant differences in media attention across countries as well as differences in the amount of climate change-related coverage between media outlets (e.g., Hase et al. 2021; Schmidt et al. 2013). Second, the field of research has diversified: Content analyses have examined numerous countries and diverse continents (however with a clear bias towards Western, Anglophone countries; for an overview, see Eide and Kunelis 2012; Eide et al. 2010; Schäfer and Schlichting 2014); also more and more different media types were considered (Metag 2016). Thirdly, the thematic focus of climate change communication has shifted. While in the early 1990s anthropogenic climate change was mainly discussed from a scientific perspective, today political, economic, and social aspects are important issues in media coverage (Anderson 2011; Ivanova 2017). Since most research in environmental communication is dominated by research into climate change communication, this chapter will put emphasis on the latter, implying that climate change communication provides a good proxy for environmental communication overall (see Hansen 2011, 2018; Moser and Dilling 2008).
2 Common Research Designs and Combinations of Methods
Literature reviews of climate change-related media coverage show that studies apply a variety of methods and research designs, including qualitative and quantitative content analysis—both are equally well represented in the literature and remain constant over time. Only few studies combine both research strategies (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014). Case studies, typically focusing on media coverage in a specific national context, have increasingly been replaced by cross-sectional studies that compare different countries or media, as well as longitudinal studies that analyze the development of media coverage over time (Guenther et al. 2022; Metag 2016). Only a few publications combine cross-sectional and longitudinal elements in one study (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014).
More recently, studies have investigated online climate change communication, for example in social networks (e.g., Kirilenko and Stepchenkova 2014) or blogs (e.g., Fløttum et al. 2014). In order to analyze climate-related online communication, automated content analysis is often used, due to the large amounts of available data. Typical approaches of computational content analysis are text mining and dictionary approaches (e.g., Ivanova 2017). Recently, probabilistic topic modelling with latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) has also been applied as a form of unsupervised machine learning. LDA models use algorithms to identify latent thematic structures in large text corpora based on word occurrence and distribution (e.g., Hase et al. 2021; Keller et al. 2020; Kirilenko and Stepchenkova 2014). Most content analyses, however, still employ human coding (Metag 2016).
Various researchers use content analysis in combination with other methods. For example, studies combine manual content analysis with representative survey data (e.g., Feldman et al. 2012) to understand the relationship between the content of climate change coverage and the beliefs about global warming of the recipients. Furthermore, studies have combined manual content and social network analysis in order to investigate online communication about climate change between polarized groups (e.g., Williams et al. 2015).
3 Main Constructs Employed in Media Content Analyses
Existing research on media representations of climate change reveals diverse research subjects and issues, thus demonstrating that the analytical spectrum has expanded compared to early research. First, the studies have analyzed more and more different countries. Overall, European countries such as Germany (e.g., Schäfer 2016), Denmark (e.g., Eskjær 2016) or Switzerland (e.g., Bonfadelli 2016) received the largest share of scholarly attention. North American countries’ media coverage of climate change is analyzed almost as frequently as that of European countries (for the United States, see Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; for Canada, see Young and Dugas 2012). In contrast, Asian countries—India, the Middle East, China, Japan—received as little scholarly attention as Latin American or African countries. As countries of the Global South are significantly under-researched but often more affected by the impacts of climate change, their media coverage has recently been increasingly analyzed (for India, see Billett 2010; for Brazil, see Painter and Ashe 2012). Second, researchers have studied more and more media, such as climate change coverage in print media (for elite press coverage, see Billett 2010; for tabloids, see Boykoff 2008) or on TV (e.g., Boykoff 2007; Painter 2011) as well as social media depictions of climate change (e.g., Tandoc and Eng 2016).
Despite this diversity of the research field, the following common analytical constructs can be identified:
The overall amount of climate change-related coverage: Several studies, mostly single-country case studies, focusing almost exclusively on industrialized countries, have explored the amount of climate change-related coverage. Individual studies have examined media attention for climate change in countries such as the United States (e.g., Boykoff and Boykoff 2007), Australia (e.g., Farbotko 2005), Canada (e.g., Ahchong and Dodds 2012), Germany (e.g., Weingart et al. 2000), France (e.g., Brossard et al. 2004), the UK (e.g., Carvalho and Burgess 2005), and China (e.g., Yang 2010). Comparative studies mostly cover industrialized nations, though emerging economies or non-industrialized countries are also examined (e.g., Corfee-Morlot et al. 2007; Hase et al. 2021; Schmidt et al. 2013). Both individual and comparative studies have shown that media attention for climate change has increased in many countries since the mid-2000s.
The representation of different actors or sources in media reporting: Research so far has identified the common actors in reporting on climate change. Much focus has been on climate change advocates compared to climate skeptics (e.g., Metag 2016; Painter 2011). The discourse usually involves scientists, (transnational) institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), politicians and especially green parties, (conservative) think tanks, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, celebrities or prominent activists, news agencies, but also industrial actors like Exxon Mobil or Shell (e.g., Anderson 2009; Schäfer 2015; Schäfer and O'Neill 2016; Schlichting 2013; Schmidt et al. 2013). In early years of the debate, the lobbyist group Global Climate Coalition also appeared frequently. Researching different actors and their viewpoints is important as they all actively seek to establish their particular perspectives on the issue. Media attention for climate change has strongly fluctuated over time and peaked around specific events (e.g., Hase et al. 2021; Schäfer 2015). Hence, research regarding the sources of media reporting has extensively tried to identify what triggers media coverage about climate change. Scholars have concluded that international events (climate summits, such as the Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the UNFCCC), scientific reports such as the IPCC assessment reports, NGO public relations efforts, extreme weather events, but also concerts and movies (e.g., An Inconvenient Truth) are substantial drivers of media attention (e.g., Anderson 2009; Moser 2010; Schäfer 2012; Schäfer et al. 2014; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Peaks during COPs are probably related to the high stakes and the prominent political actors involved in the international negotiations (Schmidt et al. 2013).
The framing of climate change: Respective studies have analyzed how climate change is presented in news coverage or policy papers, which aspects are emphasized, or which responsibilities and possible solutions are derived. Studies have examined, for example, how stakeholders—scientists, industry, policymakers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—communicate their positions on climate change or which aspects and perspectives of climate change journalists select for media coverage (for an overview, see Schäfer 2016; Schäfer and O'Neill 2016; Schlichting 2013). In her meta-analysis of industry actors’ climate change communication, Schlichting (2013) identified three successive phases over time, each characterized by a dominant master frame: scientific uncertainty of climate change (early to mid-1990s), socio-economic consequences of mandatory emission reductions (1997 to early 2000s), and industrial leadership in climate protection (since mid-2000s). Engesser and Brüggemann (2016), in turn, focused on journalists’ framing of climate change and identified five frames: industrialized countries’ economic policies, sustainability, technological optimism, emerging economies’ responsibility, and global ecological discourse. In contrast to studies that have investigated the framing of climate change by stakeholders and journalists, a larger number of framing analyses focused on media coverage; hence, media frames. In addition to formal-stylistic frames, most scholars have examined issue-specific or topical content-oriented frames in climate change reporting, such as the generic frames conflict, human interest, responsibility, morality, Pandora’s box and economic consequences (e.g., Dirikx and Gelders 2010), or they have identified issue-specific frames (Billett 2010; Engesser and Brüggemann 2016; for an overview, see Schäfer and O'Neill 2016).
Uncertainty in climate change coverage: Although scientific uncertainty accompanies all scientific issues and thus also climate change, in climate change communication uncertainty deserves special notice. Discussing the uncertainty of climate change research, sometimes even referred to as the ‘scientific uncertainty frame’ (Schlichting 2013), was sponsored by industrial actors such as those from fossil fuel companies, conservative parties and organizations to highlight points where scientists disagree and to cast doubt (Metag 2016). As a consequence, the existence and the anthropogenic origin of global warming were (and in some cases are still) publicly questioned. Based on the journalistic norm of balance, different viewpoints were often represented in the media as if both sides were equally valid (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004) and accordingly journalistic reporting amplified uncertainty even more and encouraged political inaction (Anderson 2009; Moser 2010). Recent studies do not find this kind of balanced reporting anymore.
Visual representations of climate change: Scholarly interest in the visualization of climate change has grown over the last years (e.g., Guenther et al. 2022). These studies focused mainly on traditional media coverage in newspapers, newsmagazines and on television. Online content or fictional and entertainment formats, however, are rarely examined (for an overview, see Metag et al. 2016; O'Neill and Smith 2014). Content analysis studies of climate change imagery have explored a variety of visual themes, such as visual representations of impacts, threats, and causes of climate change (e.g., Lester and Cottle 2009), (untouched) nature (e.g., Rebich-Hespanha et al. 2015), (well-known) individuals (e.g., O'Neill et al. 2013), graphics and models (e.g., Schneider 2012), and carbon emissions and energy issues (e.g., Rebich-Hespanha et al. 2015). Visual representations of climate change have been analyzed for different countries (for Canada, see DiFrancesco and Young 2011; for comparative analysis of newspaper imagery, see O'Neill 2013; for the UK, see Smith and Joffe 2009). These studies have revealed that similar images are often used in climate change coverage across different countries and media outlets.
4 Research Desiderata
Future researchers interested in climate change coverage could work on the following common points of criticism regarding recent research in this area (e.g., Anderson 2009; Metag 2016; Moser 2010; Schäfer 2012, 2015; Schäfer and O'Neill 2016): First, the scope of comparative studies needs to be expanded, especially in terms of countries (e.g., the Global South), media (e.g., there is a lack of research on television as well as fictional media and popular culture), time frames, focus (text vs. visuals, multimodality), and respective indicators; second, there needs to be more research on social media (e.g., not just Twitter) and online media such as blogs; third, methodologically, automated content analyses will allow to work with larger text corpora; lastly, fourth, more mixed-methods research is recommended to include more points of the climate change communication cycle, for instance, combining content analysis with audience research (Feldman et al. 2012), and especially regarding long-term effects of media exposure. So far, research on environmental communication has primarily focused on the sub-theme of climate change, therefore future research should address other environmental problems, such as energy or pollution, as well (Hansen 2018; Moser and Dilling 2008).
Relevant Variables in DOCA – Database of Variables for Content Analysis
Generic frames: https://doi.org/10.34778/2p
Issue attention: https://doi.org/10.34778/2q
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Mahl, D., Guenther, L. (2023). Content Analysis in the Research Field of Environmental & Climate Change Coverage. In: Oehmer-Pedrazzi, F., Kessler, S.H., Humprecht, E., Sommer, K., Castro, L. (eds) Standardisierte Inhaltsanalyse in der Kommunikationswissenschaft – Standardized Content Analysis in Communication Research. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-36179-2_18
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