Content analysis of TV news coverage from 2001 to 2010, reflecting six basic narrative lines, shows striking on-air differences between cable coverage on Fox and CNN and broadcast news on ABC and other traditional networks.

Stories of climate change told by Fox and CNN began to differ dramatically from those told by traditional television network news during the decade from 2001 to 2010. By 2009, the crucial year both for congressional action on climate change and for the global negotiations in Copenhagen, the divergence was almost complete.

On Fox the dominant climate change story had become some variation of a “Hoax” narrative: climate change is a fraud foisted on the public by scientists, the UN, and liberal elites and the media. If Fox were one’s only source of information, it would have been nearly impossible to even imagine that climate change was real, let alone an issue society should do anything about.

On CNN, a potpourri of narrative lines did battle: “Hoax” stories, “He Said/She Said,” and “Don’t Kill the Goose,” on one side; “Climate Tragedy” on the other; and “Policy Game” reporting on the fortunes of climate risk-management initiatives. (See sidebar for a description of the narratives.)

If CNN were one’s only source of news, it would have been hard not to be confused.

And on the traditional ABC, CBS, and NBC networks, a curious thing happened. Although each had provided extensive coverage of climate change in 2006 and 2007 — a huge majority of them with some variation of a “Climate Tragedy” story — they all but stopped covering climate change in 2009. If one of these networks were one’s only source of news, it would have been perfectly reasonable to imagine that somehow climate change was no longer an issue.

In a recent study conducted at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, I analyzed the narrative content of television news coverage from 2001 to 2010. Rather than simply categorizing news accounts as pro, con, and neutral, the objective was to see what stories they told: What were their plots? Who were the villains, victims, and (potential) heroes? What was their meaning?

The premise of the study is that we humans are, whatever else we are, story-telling animals: We make sense of, form beliefs about, and establish our stances on issues such as climate change less on the basis of reason or experience and more on the basis of the stories we subscribe to. Moreover, the news media are, whatever else they are, purveyors of story, always on the lookout for a narrative angle that will capture the attention of viewers, listeners, or readers.

Based on an initial content analysis of a sample of news stories, six basic narrative lines appear to encompass the frames that most stories fit into. Keyword searches of transcripts on Lexis-Nexis allowed identification of instances of each narrative type and tracking of their frequency over time for each of four networks: Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and ABC. (The research included only stories that were aired, not those that appeared only on network websites. Because the patterns of coverage at NBC and CBS were nearly identical to those of ABC, the research focused on only the one traditional network.)

The results were striking.

On ABC, “Climate Tragedy” dominated, with most stories about the impending disaster and about what we should do about it. As Figure 1 shows, the network gave considerable play to these stories in 2006, the year Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, and even more in 2007, the year the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its strongly worded report on climate change and shared the Nobel Prize with Gore.

Figure 1
Figure 1

But in 2009, the year of “cap and trade” in the U.S. Congress and of the December Copenhagen climate summit, ABC was AWOL, airing only a fraction of the stories it had broadcast two years before. (CBS and NBC had strikingly similar patterns of coverage.)

The pattern of stories on Fox, shown in Figure 2, provides a stark contrast. In the early years of the decade, Fox had barely attended to climate change. In 2007, though, its coverage increased substantially, perhaps triggered by the IPCC report and the accolades showered on Gore. But its mix of stories was predominantly of the “Hoax” narrative, a story in which climate scientists (in cahoots with the UN, liberal elites, and Gore) were cast as the villains. And in 2009, unlike ABC (and also unlike CBS and NBC), Fox continued to shout “Hoax!” culminating in a frenzy around “Climategate,” the story about hacked e-mails among climate researchers that climate “skeptics” by and large interpreted as showing those scientists “cooking the books.”

Figure 2
Figure 2

CNN, the other major national source of television news, might be characterized as going for maximum conflict. As can be seen in Figure 3, in 2006-2007, CNN told both the “Climate Tragedy” story and the “Hoax” narrative (the conservative firebrand Glenn Beck was then on CNN). Again in 2009, when it offered extensive coverage before and during the Copenhagen summit, CNN’s favorite formula involved pitting the two narratives against each other. Leading up to the December summit, for example, it ran with four consecutive nights of “Climate Change: Trick or Truth?”

Figure 3
Figure 3

What difference might the differing mix of stories have made? It seems quite likely that they contributed to the remarkable shift in public opinion (toward decreasing concern over climate change) in the latter part of the decade, particularly among those on the right of the political spectrum who were more likely to be Fox viewers.

After peaking in 2007, the year IPCC issued its most recent assessment and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, Americans’ belief in climate change headed downward. By the crucial year of 2009, with the Congress debating nationwide “cap and trade” carbon dioxide emission legislation, the percentage agreeing that “there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming” had dropped from 77 percent to only 57 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Even more problematic in terms of the politics and what has become a full-fledged split between Democrats and Republicans, only 35 percent of Republicans agreed with the “solid evidence” premise, down from 62 percent. And only 18 percent of Republicans said they believed warming was substantially caused by human emissions.

Why the dramatic drop? The “Great Recession” that began in 2008 almost certainly played its part. In economic hard times, combating climate change, as with addressing most other environmental problems, becomes a lower priority, and not acting is just plain easier to justify if one rejects that there is a problem in the first place.

But the economic downturn cannot account for the growing partisan divide, a divide that had become particularly glaring in the context of the past several months’ presidential primary campaigns. Part of the shift in public opinion, and particularly the collapse of belief among Republicans, was likely driven also by the impact of an increasingly partisan media and the different stories they told.

Six Climate Change Narratives

The study tracked the prevalence over time of six basic narratives on four networks — ABC, CNN (as broadcast), Fox News, and MSNBC — using elaborate keyword searches of Lexis-Nexis.

The Climate Tragedy: A story of impending disaster, in which we (or big energy) are the villains, scientists and environmental advocates the potential heroes.

He Said, She Said: A conflict story about the contest between scientists: some say that humans are altering the climate, some say we aren’t, inaction is the prudent path.

Don’t Kill the Goose: A story in which climate change may be happening (most likely from natural causes) but the real threat is regulation.

Hoax: A tragic story in which climate science is part of a conspiracy (along with liberal elites and the UN) to empower government, and the heroes are those who expose them.

The Denialist Conspiracy: A story about those who tell the Hoax story, in which they are part of a right-wing conspiracy (funded by energy interests and wealthy ideologues).

The Policy Game: A story about the contest over policy, similar to “horse-race” stories in elections, in which the reader/viewer is encouraged to take a rooting interest.

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Frederick (Fritz) Mayer is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. He can be reached at