The untold story: climate change sinks below the headlines

A report shows how Europe and US mainstream media coverage of climate change is scarce, incomplete and does not give voice to the victims

Despite being the biggest threat facing humanity, climate change fails to reach the headlines in mainstream European and United States news outlets, according to research published last week and funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).


The study tracked how many times articles on climate change, agriculture and migration appeared on the front pages and TV headlines in Italy, France, the United Kingdom and United States. The research covered two periods of fourteen days each, two months before and two months after the Climate Change Conference that took place in December 2015 in Paris, COP21.


The conference, in which world leaders come to a shared agreement on how to tackle climate change, generated a peak in reports. However, the scenario was very different before and after, with the topics predominantly relegated to specialist sections.


Study results: news coverage of the selected topics on international media © Gloria Schiavi
Study results: news coverage of the selected topics on international media © Gloria Schiavi


The study also revealed that the media failed to highlight the cause-effect relation that exists between climate change and issues such as migration and food insecurity.


A drought or a flood destroying a season’s crops can leave small-holder farmers around the world with nothing to live on, and eventually drive them away from their homes. IFAD estimates that 60 million people worldwide face severe hunger because of El Niño and millions more because of climate change.


dry earth
The untold story of climate change © Scott Olson/Getty Images


On the other hand, articles about migration were mainly linked to stories of conflicts and the refugee crisis in Europe, says Sam Dubberley, the report’s lead researcher.


Agriculture was hardly touched upon, and when it was, it was mainly when French media covered domestic farmers’ protests. In the UK there was no mention of climate change in any of the media analysed, while the US had the most articles: just four stories.


The untold story of climate change © Sandra Mu/Getty Images


Media can learn some lessons from this study. One is that reporters should strive to dig into issues and provide a more complete picture, and clearly explain, in particular, the real consequences of climate change on people’s lives. Second, that the audience wants to hear positive, constructive stories that offer solutions. They also feel that victims’ voices are often neglected, as journalists too often focus on interviewing academics and experts instead.

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