It’s no surprise that reading news about the ever-worsening climate crisis can be depressing. But a new study suggests that when journalists frame climate stories differently, the effect of those stories can change dramatically. Solutions journalism researchers at the University of Maryland found that news consumers exposed to coverage of solutions felt they could better influence climate change policy and were more likely to support collective action to address it. We talk with lead researcher Kathryn Thier, a former University of Oregon instructor, who was one of the first to teach this kind of reporting in the broader journalism curriculum.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. It is no surprise that reading news about the ever worsening climate crisis can be depressing and overwhelming. But a new study suggests that when journalists write about climate stories differently, audiences can have more positive reactions. Researchers at the University of Maryland found news consumers exposed to coverage of solutions as opposed to just doom, had lower anxiety and were more likely to support collective action to address climate change. Kathryn Thier is the lead researcher on this new study. She spent about seven years as a journalism instructor at the University of Oregon and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.
Kathryn Thier: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. You are a scholar of and a proponent of ‘solutions journalism.’ It may sound self explanatory, but I’m not sure that it is. So I thought we could start there. What does ‘solutions journalism’ mean?
Thier: Solutions journalism is covering credible responses to social problems and these responses really address problems in a systemic or structural way. So they’re really about responses that groups - maybe government, maybe business, maybe nonprofits - take to address social problems. Not individuals doing good deeds, but stories that really investigate and explain how people in groups in our society work to solve social problems.
Miller: Why did you want to study climate journalism in particular through this lens?
Thier: What we know about climate change is that journalists have been warning people about it for a very long time and they’ve been talking about impending doom, as you mentioned. And until very recently, the needle hadn’t really moved, there still wasn’t widespread support for climate change. So some people began thinking instead of telling; instead of getting people to feel like climate change is a problem, maybe just telling them about the problem is actually depressing them both literally and their ability to want to take action. There’s this idea that perhaps if we show people that change is possible, maybe they’ll be more likely to think that they should support climate change because they’ll think that they can make a difference or that groups in our society can make a difference.
Miller: And when you say ‘support climate change,’ you mean climate adaptation or greenhouse gas emissions reductions, different policies that would address the problem?
Miller: How did you set up this study?
Thier: We selected two stories. The first was a story about a town in Connecticut that had undertaken some special action to address flooding caused by climate change. And what happened, as a result, was not only did it address the flooding, but it actually became an economic boon for the town. The area became a park and a place people wanted to go. And it was sort of like a two for one benefit to it. And so we chose that as the solutions news story and then we modified that story to have it only address the problem parts of climate induced flooding. Then we put these online and exposed participants to only one of the two stories, so only the solutions version or the problem version. And then we asked them a series of questions to measure their emotions, their feelings of efficacy, meaning did they feel that climate change could be addressed? And would they support action to address and adapt for climate change?
Miller: What was your hypothesis going in, in terms of how your subjects would respond to these two different articles?
Thier: We actually had several hypotheses, and what was really interesting is that only one of them was supported; people who read the solutions version of the story, did feel more efficacious about the idea that there could be something done about climate change. And that, in turn, led them to support collective action for communities to adapt to climate change. But then some of our other hypotheses about the emotions they might feel, or who – maybe individuals or the government - they might feel being responsible for addressing climate change, did not pan out. Those actually did not lead to more support for collective action to adapt to climate change.
Miller: So the only difference was more of a sense of personal agency?
Thier: Well, personal as well as collective agency. So it was the idea that they, as well as things . . . that it’s possible to address climate change, really.
Miller: Do you think that that would have held true if the solution highlighted in the article had been about reducing emissions, as opposed to adapting to climate change? I mean, those are two necessary policies that collectively we need to all get better at, but they’re different aspects of responses to climate change?
Thier: That’s a really interesting question because some research has considered the idea that maybe talking about adaptation actually lessens people’s desire to mitigate climate change because they think we can adapt their way out of it. However, the research on that is really mixed.
What I think was really going on here is that we gave our participants a very short story. It actually is shorter than most journalism stories and we did that because sometimes if you give people too long a story to read, they don’t really take it all in. So we were sort of balancing the idea that we wanted to keep them engaged. So it’s possible that maybe it just wasn’t a thorough or deep enough story for them to really feel like they had more hope after they read it. The other thing is it’s possible that climate change is one of those issues where people already have pretty strong opinions about it and have a lot of emotions about it and maybe reading just one story is not enough to move them emotionally. Maybe it’s only enough to move their sense of efficacy.
Miller: If you were an editor, what would you want journalists to do with a study like yours? What does it suggest in terms of the best way forward, practically, in terms of coverage?
Thier: I think the first most important thing is that this study, as well as other studies about solutions journalism and other topics, consistently shows that people do feel more efficacious after they read these types of stories, review these types of stories. Our study was the first to link that to policy support for collective action for climate adaptation. But again, we have seen this result of solutions oriented journalism leading to efficacy. And I hope that that would encourage journalists and editors to add some more solutions oriented journalism into the mix, because the whole point of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to make sense of the world and to be civic actors in the world. And if they don’t know what’s working, or what the choices are among what are different ways to address problems, they don’t really have all the information they need. And then they’re not going to feel efficacious, and they might be less likely to actually use that information and go out, and let’s say, vote for candidates who support things they want, or ask their representatives to allocate money to problems they think are addressing. So I think that’s the most important takeaway from this study.
Miller: And just to be clear, you’re not advocating that journalists don’t frankly communicate about the reality of the climate crisis, right? It’s about adding things to that…the clear communication about the crisis?
Thier: Absolutely. I think at this point, journalism has largely moved away from that ‘he said, she said,’ type of false balance with climate change. I think more and more news articles are accurately saying that climate change is real and caused by humans. Even solution stories include information about the problem of climate change and the different effects it causes. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those stories. I’m just saying that when journalists only focus on the negative aspects of climate change, they give an impression, a false impression, that there’s nothing that can be done.
Miller: I’m curious though, because I agree, I have seen that shift in terms of climate coverage over the last decade. But I wonder if the tenets of ‘solutions journalism’ that you’re talking about, present challenges, in a case like this, where the solutions to specific problems - in this case, like climate change - have become so politicized in some ways, that journalists might be afraid of clearly putting them forward because they would be afraid of being seen as biased. In particular, I’m thinking about greenhouse gas emissions reductions. That solution itself has become politicized or has been politicized for decades now.
Thier: Yeah. I think something that journalists should consider is covering a variety of solutions, because you’re right that some solutions have become politicized. And there’s a theory called ‘solutions aversion’ theory which basically says if you don’t like the solution, you’re less likely to believe the underlying facts. For instance, some of my upcoming research is looking at, does a solution for climate change, that is a government backed solution, resonate more with more Democrats and more liberal leaning people, and does a solution that’s more based on market forces, resonate more with more conservative and Republican people. So I do think that it is true that different solutions may be more or less appealing and may even turn off certain groups, but I think that with all types of solutions journalism, not just about climate change, journalists should never say ‘this is the solution.’ They should just report about something that is a solution as well as the idea that it’s not the only solution; it’s one out of many. Especially for a problem like climate change, we’re not just going to make progress against it with cap and trade or just with a regulatory schema, right? So we need all different types of responses to climate change.
Miller: Do these findings suggest anything to you about the coverage of other major issues that we’re facing right now. I’m thinking, for example, about threats to our democracy?
Thier: I do think that something that we found in this study was that when people had a higher sense of hope and higher sense of eco-anxiety and attributed more responsibility for climate change to the government officials, they had more support for that collective response to climate change. And when they had lower responsibility towards individuals, they also had greater support. It wasn’t the story that made them feel that way, but I think what that tells you is that news audiences have these emotions inside them, they have these feelings of attribution of who’s responsible for problems inside of them. And I think that journalists need to think really carefully about how they frame their stories, what information they put in their stories - all of it should be accurate - [and] to really think about, ‘it’s not just what you put, it’s how you frame it.’ In so many instances, we know that issues make people emotional, and so I think journalists, again, really need to keep that in mind as they’re thinking about how they’re constructing their stories.
Miller: Kathryn Thier, thanks very much.
Thier: Thank you so much.
Miller: Kathryn Thier is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. She was a journalism instructor for about seven years at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Catalyst Journalist Project.
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