Climate Change & the Sociopolitics of Newspaper Reporting

Climate change at the core

SDSU postdoctoral researcher Dave Ferris is in Antarctica retrieving ice core samples as part of the National Science Foundation’s West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Ice Core Project. (Photo: Argus Leader)

A couple weeks ago, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader published a lead story entitled “Hint for state’s climate future: think Kansas,” the gist of which seemed to amount to, “Climate change isn’t so bad! Look, warmer winters!” I then proceeded to deconstruct the story, arguing that it cast the man-made nature of climate change in the “sphere of contention” (see the original post for more on that).

In their most recent report on climate change, entitled “Climate change at the core,” the Argus whipped out another classic weapon of journalistic obfuscation yesterday, one I’m going to call the “frame game.”

First, the meat of the story, about a team of SDSU researchers (led by Jihong Cole-Dai, the husband of Fast for the Earth co-founder and SDPJC ally Phyllis Cole-Dai) investigating the history of climate change through Antarctic ice:

Most people in the scientific community believe that greenhouse gases and the activities of humans have changed the climate system, “and we’re not really in a natural climate system anymore,” Twickler said. “I think it was Bob Marley who said, ‘If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.’ Now we are understanding our past much better.”…

All of those details are important in understanding where the planet’s climate goes from here, Cole-Dai said.

“If the climate of the Earth changes, how will it change? Will it change one place first and another place later, and how fast? And what impact will greenhouse gases have?” he said. “Using our findings, the forecasters should be able to build their explanations and have a much more accurate forecast as we move into the future.”

Those three short paragraphs, which form the story’s kernel of newsworthiness, are buried more than halfway through more than four online pages. “We’re not really in a natural climate system anymore.” That’s a pretty big deal. Huge, even. But the story is presented as a human interest piece, a charming day in the life of environmental chemists at work in an Antarctic wonderland.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a human interest piece per se. But it’s an awfully incongruous way to present looming global climate change, especially for a newspaper that recently tried to cast a positive spin on the very same phenomenon.

Or maybe it’s actually not very strange at all.

According to Wikipedia, framing is “the social construction of a social phenomenon often by mass media sources, political or social movements, political leaders, or other actors and organizations. It is an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases.” Framing is hugely important; a famous psychological study found that a single clear-cut situation can elicit hugely differing responses from an observer, depending on whether it is framed in terms of a gain or a loss, for instance.

In this case, the Argus Leader has framed global climate change as a human interest story, roughly equivalent to the birth of the first baby of 2013 – a pleasant and even informative read, but hardly real news worthy of serious analysis. I’m happy to read about Dr. Cole-Dai’s scientific work, and I’m awfully glad he’s doing it. And the work he’s doing is indeed newsworthy, for the light it shines on earth’s climate history and implications for its climate future. But unfortunately, in this round of the Argus Leader’s frame game, real newsworthiness loses.

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About sdpeacejustice

The SD Peace & Justice Center connects a grassroots network of South Dakotans working for social justice and against violence and oppression.
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One Response to Climate Change & the Sociopolitics of Newspaper Reporting

  1. Pingback: Obama golfs while climate burns | A Mighty Flood of Justice

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