Over the past several weeks, Americans from states red and blue, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and from a variety of livelihoods and professions spent countless hours in complex multi-factorial analyses.

In the process, they compared historical data with current conditions, evaluated underlying trends in relation to unique circumstances, and tried to estimate the role chance will play.

This was how millions of Americans participated in “March Madness,” the annual month-long tournaments that determine which teams, out of 96 contenders (64 men’s teams and 32 women’s teams), will be crowned basketball’s national collegiate champions.

Perhaps these analytical skills could be recruited for another cause? Recent research on risk frames in media coverage of climate change suggests they might.

Steroids — in Sports and in Communicating Climate Change

Sports have never played a major role in our national discussion of climate change. Sports Illustrated did make it the cover story for its March 12, 2007, issue. Some have written about the health risks of athletes exerting themselves during heat waves. And during the Sochi Olympics questions were raised about the future viability of winter sports. But sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and food security, not surprisingly, have always trumped athletic concerns.

Yet one frequently used analogy for the risks posed by climate change — weather on steroids — relies on Americans’ knowledge of baseball. The asterisks appended to the now-tainted homerun records for Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa recognize that increasing the concentration of a minor but active ingredient can have dramatic consequences. And that was discovered, it should be noted, as a result of statistical anomalies: So many records falling so quickly aroused suspicions that these performances fell outside the range of natural human variation.

Sports make a brief appearance in Climate Change in the Media, the third major study of media coverage of climate change by James Painter, head of the Journalism Fellowship Program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, England. Betting on sports is one way the average citizen understands “risk” and “uncertainty,” and Painter sees better reporting on risk and uncertainty as essential for effective media coverage of climate change.

Reuters Institute’s Analyses of Climate Change Coverage

Painter arrived at that conclusion, and at his decision to study how media cover “risk” and “uncertainty,” as a result of his first two book-length studies.

In Summoned by Science, published by the Reuters Institute in 2010, Painter examined print media coverage of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. His analysis of some 400 news stories from 24 newspapers in 12 countries — Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam — revealed that reporters rarely explained the science behind the fractious negotiations. Politicians and policy advocates from nongovernmental organizations were also quoted far more frequently than university-based researchers. And in the U.K. and U.S., news of the so-called “Climategate” further complicated the reporting. As a result, public understanding of climate change may have been impaired as much as it was aided by news coverage of the meeting in Copenhagen.

An observation made in the course of writing the first book—only Anglo-American newspapers routinely included climate “skeptics” in their coverage of Copenhagen — prompted Painter to undertake his second, Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism (2011). After first describing different forms of climate skepticism, Painter analyzed 12 newspapers from six countries — Brazil, China, France, India, U.K., and U.S. — during two periods when media coverage of climate change peaked: spring 2007 and the winter of 2009–2010.

Painter found that fewer than 10 percent of the articles about climate change published in Brazil (3 percent), China (8 percent), France (6 percent), and India (6.5 percent) included “skeptical voices.” By contrast, nearly 20 percent of the pieces published in British papers, and nearly 35 percent of those published in American newspapers, allotted space to their views. In right-leaning newspapers from the U.K. (The Telegraph) and U.S. (The Wall Street Journal), many of these skeptical voices were published on editorial or op-ed pages, often without qualifications or opposition. And these climate “skeptics” were given even more space in U.K. and U.S. newspapers in the latter period, during the controversy involving e-mails hacked from a University of East Anglia website.

But despite comparable numbers, the influence of climate skepticism is more limited in the U.K., where both political parties endorse action on climate change, than in the U.S. where, Painter noted, “skepticism has a longer history, is better funded and organized, and is more deeply interwoven into the fabric of politics, ideology, and culture than it is in Europe and the rest of the world.”

A Risk Communication Approach to Reporting

Painter’s new book, Climate Change in the Media, might be understood as a search for best practices for reporting on climate change, given the states of affairs reviewed in his first two books. How does one convey the real risks and uncertainties of climate change to an inattentive public also beset by the messaging of organized interests opposing science or action on climate?

Painter begins to answer this question by first clarifying what “uncertainty” and “risk” mean in the context of climate change versus how those terms are typically perceived by the public. To do this, he re-draws a distinction between “school science” — “the solid facts and reliable understanding” lay people learned in school, and “research science.”

“The former is about communicating what we already know,” he explains, “the latter about developing and expanding our understanding.”

Uncertainty is inherent in research about a developing global phenomenon like climate change. To the public, however, “uncertainty,” and repeated revisions of models and forecasts, may suggest that science does not yet “know” anything about climate change. Misunderstandings like these, says Painter, led the IPCC to quantify scientists’ levels of confidence in specific claims about climate change; conversely, climate skeptics have found in such misunderstandings ways of “exploiting uncertainty.”

To the challenge of effectively communicating “uncertainty” must then be added the problem of “risk.”

Many people develop their understanding of risk through the odds-making associated with sports and gambling and measures such as buying insurance to protect against “low-probability high-impact events.” This commonsense understanding can be used, according to researchers interviewed by Painter, to frame climate change as a low (but increasing) probability high-impact problem against which society should protect itself.

To succeed, however, efforts to reframe climate change as risk must avoid two pitfalls:

1) The metaphor or analogy for risk is not universally understood by the target audience. (Many Brits, Painter explains, do not understand what is meant by “loading the dice.”)

2) Concern is increased unless ways are offered for the target audience to respond. (Combining uncertainty with catastrophe can lead to apathy or avoidance.)

Reporting (by) the Numbers — The Goal

In the final section of his chapter on risk, Painter reports on interviews he conducted with several journalists regarding the utility of framing climate change in terms of “risk.” Most, he writes, endorsed the approach.

James Painter of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford

But to adopt the explicit risk framework, Painter then explains in his “Reporting the Future” chapter, reporters and news agencies must understand how to interpret and report statistics and the uncertainties and risks they describe. Few reporters, however, come to their trade through mathematics or the sciences, and few journalists receive on-the-job numeracy training.

A further problem in the U.K., Painter adds, arises from the British meteorological tradition of giving deterministic weather forecasts — “It will most likely rain tomorrow” — rather than the probabilistic forecasts common in the U.S.: “There is a 40 percent chance of rain tomorrow.”

To deal effectively with climate change, journalists must teach themselves, and their readers and viewers, how to understand the probabilistic predictions made by climate scientists. Recent advances in visualization techniques and technologies, Painter suggests, can make that work easier.

Reporting (by) the Numbers — The Reality

Having demonstrated the desirability and feasibility of bringing “risk” into reporting on climate change, Painter analyzes newspaper coverage of four climate science “events” in order to assess current levels of “risk” reporting.

For each of six countries — Australia, France, India, Norway, U.K., and U.S. — three newspapers (left, center, and right) were identified and searches were conducted for news articles about (1) the February 2007 release of IPCC Working Group 1 report on The Physical Science Basis for the Fourth Assessment; (2) the April 2007 release of Working Group 2 report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; (3) the March 2012 release of the IPCC’s Special Report on Extreme Weather; and (4) the September 2012 announcement of the record-breaking Arctic sea ice minimum.

Through his searches, Painter gathered 344 articles for analysis. Each article was first analyzed and coded for its frames: uncertainty — words such as “could,” “may,” “likely” or the IPCC’s more precise terminology; disaster/implicit risk — dramatic or dire consequences described without using “risk”; explicit risk framework — the word “risk” is used; and opportunity — the benefits of action (innovation, reduced health risks, etc.) or inaction (avoided costs) are discussed.

Once a frame was identified, its salience and relative dominance were assessed by examining the headline, the body of the article, quotes, and any descriptive, figurative, or connotative language used.

Across all four time periods and in all six countries, Painter found, newspaper reporters defaulted to the uncertainty and disaster/implicit risk frames when reporting on climate change, including them in roughly 80 percent of the articles they filed.

The explicit risk framework, by contrast, appeared in only 26 percent of the 344 articles analyzed. Percentages were higher for stories on IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report on Impacts and on the Special Report on Extreme Weather, probably because of the more frequent use of “risk” within the reports.

The opportunity frame appeared in only 11 percent of the articles about the three different IPCC reports, and in these articles the opportunity was usually found in avoiding action on climate change. In the articles on the disappearing Arctic sea ice, however, “opportunity” appeared far more frequently (43 percent) and in a positive sense: an ice-free Arctic could open up new shipping lanes and new terrain in which to explore for gas, oil, and mineral deposits.

In the sixth chapter of Climate Change in the Media, Painter and a series of co-authors re-analyze the data in six separate “Country Studies.” In his co-authored study of U.S. newspapers, Painter again found that uncertainty and disaster/implicit risk were the default frames (81 percent), with risk appearing in only 27 percent of the 55 articles gathered from The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. The numbers for opportunity, however, were higher for the U.S. papers, because The Wall Street Journal published so many articles on business opportunities afforded by an ice-free Arctic.

More Numbers, Better Infographics

In his conclusion, Painter returns to the skill sets needed to effectively report on climate change with the explicit risk framework. Here, in condensed form, are his recommendations:

  • Include details about uncertainties and confidence levels on news websites.
  • Use more infographics to explain key concepts about risk and climate change.
  • Use probabilistic forecasting in weather forecasts.
  • Expand coverage of climate change in outlets such as business magazines, where “risk” is already part of the language.
  • Advise scientists to stress, early in interviews, what is widely agreed on, and only then discuss uncertainties. (“They should also try to explain that uncertainty does not usually mean ignorance,” Painter adds.)
  • Increase resources for IPCC press and communications staff.
  • Continue research on the public’s responses to different expressions of risk.

Brookings’ ‘Nudges,’ IPCC’s AR5, Nate Silver’s 538, and NCAA Brackets

Painter’s clearly written and well-referenced* study makes a strong case for adopting the explicit-risk framework while documenting how far even prestige print news outlets are from realizing that goal.

Other researchers and lines of evidence seem to be converging on similar conclusions.

  • A recently released Brookings’ report on news media also stresses the need for numeracy, smart statistical analyses, and effective infographics. And, the authors argue, an audience for in-depth news and commentary exists that could, if empowered by some simple innovations, “nudge” news producers in directions that would facilitate democratic deliberations.
  • Among the more numerate of the new politics and policy websites is Nate Silver’s 538.com. The furor aroused by Roger J. Pielke, Jr’s first post is providing an object lesson in statistical analysis, one that may ultimately promote more sophisticated thinking about the risks and uncertainties related to climate change.
  • The new Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report from the IPCC will also promote the language of risk. According to one preview, the report uses “risk” more than 5,000 times. (One of Painter’s next big projects will analyze how, in six countries, the three new IPCC reports are covered by television news. He made the switch from print, Painter explained in an exchange with The Yale Forum, because television” is the most used and usually most trusted source of news (and usually science news) in most countries where [he has] seen surveys done.” Painter offers an early assessment of the 2014 IPCC impacts report here.

But to help Americans understand that climate change must hereafter be a factor in their plans for the future, it may be necessary to allow also for more complexity.

Americans’ enthusiasm for March Madness indicates a willingness to engage complexity — and risk and uncertainty. Perhaps like Warren Buffet, some philanthropist could offer an annual prize (albeit one with fewer zeros) for a perfect climate “bracket,” a prediction of that year’s global annual temperature based on an initial lineup of positive and negative vectors. In this way, Americans might better understand that CO2 is unlikely to win every time. In some years, the atmospheric warming effects of CO2 might lose to industrial aerosols, to El Niño/La Niña circulation patterns, to ocean mixing, to changes in solar output, or even to volcanoes.

But as with those teams with proven recruitment programs and winning traditions, annual increases in CO2 concentrations each year make it a perennial “very likely” choice to reach the semi-finals, and, often, the championship game.

Until the rules are changed.

*See also How the Media Report Scientific Risk and Uncertainty: A Review of the Literature by Teresa Ashe (Reuters Institute, October 2013).

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...