Do the media treat the crisis like a crisis?

One of Greta Thunberg’s biggest criticisms is that the media are not reporting about climate change enough. For example, she said in a recent interview on German television: „Unless the media and the people in power and those with a platform start treating the crisis like a crisis, we won’t be able to achieve this collective will of people wanting to change things.” She also criticised that the media too often report about herself and not about the topic of climate change itself (see also her recent interview with the New York Times Magazine).

Thunberg’s reasoning is that if newspapers, tv and radio covered the climate crisis in a similar way as, for instance, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis or past financial crises, people (both “normal ones” and those in power) would naturally feel a greater urge to act accordingly. In modern democracies, the press is considered to be the fourth power in state, after all. I wondered: How much truth is there to this? Isn’t climate change already quite regularly in the headlines? On the other hand, the coronavirus indeed seems to be covered more extensively.

I wondered: How much truth is there to this? Isn’t climate change already quite regularly in the headlines? On the other hand, the coronavirus indeed seems to be covered more extensively.

Figure 1: Usage of climate-related terms in English-speaking online news articles over time per million words. Data from the News on the Web Corpus, which collects about 300,000 articles per month.

Using data from the website www.english-corpora.org, I analysed how much certain terms have been used in English-speaking online news articles over time (Figure 1). This reveals that climate change is covered in a very “spiky” way around important events, for example the UN climate conferences at the end of each year (especially the one in Paris in 2015) or Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017. While editors deem such large political happenings “newsworthy”, events that revolve more around the science (e.g. the release of IPCC reports in 2014, 2018 and 2019) do not clearly show up in the graph.

Two more things are noteworthy about Figure 1 (well, in fact a lot more, but I don’t want to make this blogpost too long): In 2019, there is a continuous increase peaking in September. These were the months when Fridays For Future became more and more active, culminating in a global climate strike in that September. Then, at the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the media forgot about global warming for a while. In recent months, that is changing a bit again as Fridays For Future becomes more active again and the topic has been brought back on the agenda by an anomalously severe hurricane season and a presidential race in the US where climate change was at least a side topic.

Figure 2: Usage of coronavirus-related terms in English-speaking online news articles over time per million words in comparison to climate-related terms (see Fig. 1). Data from the News on the Web Corpus.

Finally, let’s take a look at how this compares to the press coverage of the coronavirus pandemic (Figure 2). See those little red lines at the bottom? Those are the same lines as in the previous graph. Clearly, the pandemic is dominating the news even more than the climate crisis did when the Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015.

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