Not only in photography do choice of angle and frame decide what we see. Photo by Ludovic Charlet, Pixabay.
Framing of climate change in local newspapers considerably influences how citizens perceive climate change in their living environment. A master thesis entitled “Global climate change in local journalism” takes a closer look at the main source of local media frames: cognitive frames from local journalists. This article summarizes the main results and presents six implications for improving local climate change reporting.
Climate change will affect every country, every city, every little town and inevitably the health and everyday life of humans. Nevertheless, not every citizen is aware of that undeniable fact. One way people learn about and experience local climate change is through reading newspaper articles. The way local journalists report about the topic affects the citizen´s problem awareness and climate-related behaviour. That is why frames – the communication science term for the perspective from which journalists explore a specific topic – are an important research object for understanding public perception and action of climate change. Even though a lot of research analyses frames in national media, e.g., newspaper articles, TV news or Social Media Posts (media frames), little is known about cognitive frames in journalists’ minds, which are the origin of media frames. The master thesis “Global climate change in local journalism – how journalist frames emerge”, conducted in 2021 at the University of Hamburg, tries to shrink this research gap by asking, “Which cognitive frames can be identified?” (A). We also asked, “Which influencing factors determine the cognitive frames?” (B) and “To which types of journalists can the ten journalists be summarized?” (C).
After briefly summarising the main results, this article will focus on six implications for climate change reporting in local journalism that are deduced from the findings of the master thesis.
Method and Frames
Ten interviews with journalists working at local newspapers in different regions of Germany were conducted. A qualitative content analysis yielded eight frames (A) that especially differed in their problem solution. While several frames more or less accept the status quo, some call for scientific solutions, for global collaboration and for lifestyle changes.
Context factors and types of journalists
Which cognitive frames dominate the journalists’ attitude towards climate change is influenced by two main factors (B): First, frames are determined by individual resources, e.g., knowledge, journalistic role perception, range of tasks or sources used for climate change reporting. Second, resources in local newsrooms, e.g., routines, personnel or topic priorities at the news desk, influence how and how intensive journalists can engage with climate change-related topics. Similar context factors allowed us to subsume the ten journalists into three types of journalists (C): The Status-Quo Journalist, the Alarmed Journalist, with a focus on local climate change actions, and the Progressive Journalist, that has more individual and redactional resources than his colleagues.
What else did we find out?
Climate change still is a topic with little priority in the minds of most local journalists that we have interviewed in this study. Typical political or economic topics receive more attention. Local journalists often connect climate change with negative consequences and restrictions for the city and for one´s own life. Municipal economic reasons are often quoted for not claiming local climate change actions.
And now? Six suggestions
- First, journalists must become aware of their role in local and, therefore, national climate change perception. Knowing the impact reporting news has on public climate reality and behaviour might raise their awareness of how they frame local climate change topics.
- Second: Local journalists have to act like watchdogs. Do local authorities do enough to address climate change in the region? Do politicians deliver what they have promised during elections? Do construction projects take climatic change and climate-friendly housing into consideration? Questions that journalists need to ask to fulfil their role as critical reporters.
- If we want journalists to become aware of their role perception and their climate change frames, they need knowledge and information. Climate communication scientists like us can share results and suggestions, offer workshops, or write handbooks. This would be in line with the concept of open science. Furthermore, climate change journalism should be a part of every journalistic education at universities as well as during traineeships.
- One finding that we might already have known before: Local journalists are always pressed for time. That is why newsroom routines need to be adjusted to create time for topic-related and critical journalism. What we suggest: Relevant topics instead of standardized and appointment orientated journalism as well as climate change related articles with value for local readers (e.g., what does one degree more mean for region xy) instead of vague and re-narrating journalism (e.g. what does politician xy in Berlin says about global warming).
- The typical printed news report might not be the best way to address climate change in newspapers. If journalists want to reach out to young people, they have to establish new formats. This could be online articles with headlines that address the reader’s attention, podcasts, social media posts, weekly climate change questions asked by the readers and answered by journalists and/or regional climate change experts, or regular and scrutinizing interviews with regional politicians or persons guiding local climate change actions.
- A written commitment, signed by all newsroom journalists, might enhance the seriousness with that they from now on want to report about climate change.
If you would like to know more about climate change reporting in local newspapers, if you are interested in the research design and the detailed results or if you would like to build upon this master thesis, please do not hesitate to contact the author via susan.joerges[at]web.de. A research paper is currently under review for the open access journal “Medien und Kommunikation”.