President Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement dramatically changes the landscape for communicating climate change, disrupting the international accord but also unifying and energizing national and international opposition to his efforts to downplay climate change.
How can climate communicators and activists best respond to this new rhetorical situation?
A good first step might be to assess recent efforts to communicate citizen concerns through civic action. Let’s review front-page media coverage of the three major protests that took place during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency: The Women’s March (January 21), The March for Science (April 22), and the People’s Climate March (April 29).
The key finding? The People’s Climate March – the longest planned and second-best attended of the three marches – received the least coverage. By far.”April Click To Tweet
Its 200,000 participants in Washington, D.C., received less than a quarter of the front-page column inches given to the 100,000 who participated in the March for Science the weekend before – and less than 1/25th of the front-page column inches garnered by the Women’s March (500,000 people) in January.
But first some background.
The three marches
The Women’s March grew out of personal calls to action posted in response to the surprising results of the 2016 election by several women who then quickly enlisted the help of others. Within days, 100,000 people had pledged on Facebook that they would make the trip to Washington.
In early January, another group of women came up with the design and instructions for knitting pink protest hats as a way women could condemn and ridicule Trump’s alleged treatment of women, most notably his lewd comments in the widely reported Access Hollywood video. That idea, too, went viral.
As befit a march by and for women, most of the speakers, signs, and chanted slogans addressed women’s rights and issues, but a small number also addressed environmental issues, including climate change. Gaia, or Mother Earth, symbolically participated in the event.
The astonishing success of the Women’s March spurred the organizers of the March for Science. Because they chose April 22nd as the date for their march, it was necessary to collaborate with Earth Day Network. But the organizers declined an invitation to combine the March for Science with the People’s Climate March planned for the following weekend.
Some 100,000 people turned out for the science march on that very rainy day in Washington. After rallying on the National Mall by the Washington Monument – where they heard testimonials from activists, athletes, business people, celebrities, musicians, politicians, and scientists – the protesters marched down Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol building). As climate change was the problem studied by many of the scientists who helped organize the March, messages backing the science or warning of related adverse impacts filled many of the signs carried by the marchers. And periodically one could spot a pink, or gray, knitted hat with whorls resembling a cerebral cortex: the brain hat.
Planning for the People’s Climate March, according to a story published by Grist, had begun before the November election. April 29th was chosen as the date because it would mark the 100th day of the 45th presidency. Although they failed to persuade the March for Science to join them, the 50 co-sponsoring organizations collaborated among themselves effectively.
After gathering in front of the U.S. Capitol, participants were asked to line up for the march in accordance with their social roles or identities. Filling the eight different phalanxes were indigenous peoples, immigrants, labor organizers, children and parents, scientists and educators, faith communities, anti-corporate activists, and environmentalists.
Shortly after noon, the protesters began the long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Despite the near-record heat, the marchers did not flag. Their costumes, banners, and dancing mobiles caught the eye, and at least two marching bands kept the beat. Most of the signs and chants were about climate change, but some decried attacks on science or called for more support for women in the STEM fields.
With the marchers on the north side of the White House, organizers asked them to be seated – for 100 seconds, one for each of Trump’s first 100 days. That effectively ended the march.
By most estimates, 200,000 people attended the People’s Climate March, making it one of the largest climate protests on record and nearly twice the size of the March for Science (100,000) that had occurred the weekend before.
Three major marches – two, the first their kind, the third among the largest of its. How did newspapers cover these events? And what might this coverage tell us about their scheduling, planning, and execution?
Tallying the Newseum’s front pages
To provide at least provisional answers to these questions, the author of this post compared front-page newspaper coverage of the three marches. The front pages were drawn from the Newseum’s daily collections of newspapers from around the world. The front pages of 230 U.S. newspapers were examined for each march. (See “Note on Methods” for details below.)
The results of these quantitative analyses are summarized in the diagram to the right.
The largest march, at top, the Women’s March, got front-page coverage in the most newspapers (194), and that coverage occupied far more of the front page than any other story. (The net column inches devoted to the Women’s March would have filled 87 of the 230 front pages.) (The net column inches devoted to the Women’s March would have filled 87 of the 230 front pages.)
As one might expect for a march just one-fifth the size, the March for Science got front-page coverage in far fewer papers (105), and the amount of coverage it received was much smaller. (Net column inches for the story would have filled 13.65 of the 230 front pages.)
On the basis of these two marches alone, one might infer a direct relationship: smaller marches receive less, and smaller, coverage.
But the figures for the People’s Climate March immediately confound this logic. A march twice the size of the March for Science was covered on the front pages of far fewer papers (46), and the front-page space devoted to it was less than a fourth of that given the March for Science. (Net column inches devoted to the story would have filled only 3.25 front pages.) More dramatically, the Women’s March, with 2.5 times as many participants, received more than 25 times as many column inches on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers as the People’s Climate March.
One can see this pattern, more or less, on the front pages of the Washington Post, the main paper published in the city where the three national marches took place. The Women’s March occupied most of the front page for January 22, 2017. The 100,000-person March for Science got 16 column inches, including a photograph, below the fold. And the 200,000 people of the People’s Climate March got just nine column inches, and most of that in a non-descript photograph that minimizes the organization and action of the march. [View and compare the Post’s day-after front-page coverage of the three marches.) Nine column inches, it should be noted, is at the high end of the range for front-page coverage of the climate march.
Re-viewing the Newseum’s front pages
Beyond the striking difference in the numbers for the coverage, there are some interesting patterns in the way the three marches were presented on these front pages.
Front-page coverage of the Women’s March typically included three features, all of which are visible in the front page from the Washington Post:
1) a large photograph of the immense crowd in Washington, typically a version of the scene shown here, with the Capitol Building in the background,
2) a smaller, more intimate photograph of a participant in another locale, and
3) comments and/or photographs that highlight the protesting womens’ pink protest hats.
With these three elements, coverage of the Women’s March offered shock-and-awe at the size of the crowd, a sense of solidarity between the people in the capital and people participating in the protests in other locations, and a biting – or at least ticklishly nibbling – sense of humor.
For the Washington Post, of course, national stories are also often local stories: What takes place on the National Mall is simultaneously something that takes place in a local borough, so to speak. With that caveat, the Post’s front-page coverage of the March for Science is typical; most newspapers covered the local protests and only mentioned, but did not depict, what had happened in D.C.
The range in scale was quite broad. One or two newspapers gave the story half-or-more of the front page; many offered only small notices of the story, sometimes in the form of the brain hat. (See the pink brain hat in the bottom right corner of The Hutchinson News from Kansas.) Some newspapers blended coverage of the science march with their coverage of local Earth Day activities.
While conveying messages of concern for the integrity of science in the current political climate, some accounts also questioned whether science and politics can be separated. Like Earth Day itself, the March for Science was most often covered as a local observance of an international celebration.
In the far fewer papers that addressed the People’s Climate March on their front page, most of the coverage was also minimal. As with the March for Science, stories including a photograph usually dealt with a local event. One can see this in the front page from The Times of Trenton (NJ). (See the small photo near the bottom of the front page. Note, too, how the image of President Trump at his Harrisburg rally dominates the page.)
The heat of that April day in some parts of the country, including Washington, often led to “first-weekend-of-the-summer” human interest stories. The Washington Post editors seem to have had that angle in mind when they chose the photograph of heat-bedraggled marchers at the end of the day. An online gallery indicates that the editors could have chosen a photograph that captured the visual delights and spirited play of the march. (View three of the author’s own photos: Photo 1 shows one of the marching bands, Photo 2 shows some of the day’s color, and Photo 3 shows the 100-second sit-in.)
A challenge and an invitation
The final cell in the diagram comparing coverage of the three marches shows that Trump’s Rose Garden withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement got coverage on nearly as many front pages in the sample as did the Women’s March, but it was accorded much less space. One can see this on the front page of Oklahoma’s Tulsa World; the story fills only a row of column inches near the top of the page.
Accompanying the climate story on many front pages that day were publicity stills for Wonder Woman. In contrast to Trump’s “America First” message, but in keeping with many signs at the Women’s March, Wonder Woman embraces and embodies an ethic of universal care and respect. The film would go on to break box-office records that weekend.
Two very different views of America and climate change are now contending in the public sphere, perhaps more vigorously than ever before. How, when, where, and with what message should activists and communicators respond? And with what ends in mind? More mainstream media coverage of the issue?
These are the issues Yale Climate Connections hopes its readers will explore. Put simply, how do you explain the findings reviewed in this article – the meager coverage given to the People’s Climate March in particular? Give us your take on those questions.
Respond by following this link to this brief Survey Monkey questionnaire. Or copy and paste questions from the sidebar below into an e-mail to the author (msvoboda @ gwu.edu). Or simply e-mail relevant comments.
Later this summer, Yale Climate Connections will incorporate these responses, along with comments solicited from other researchers, in a second post on the three marches. What lessons can be learned from the well-organized and well-attended but poorly covered People’s Climate March for communicating climate change in the post-Paris age of Trump?
1) Were you surprised by these results? Why or why not?
2) Do the findings reported here square with what you observed in other media aimed at the general public (i.e. not topically or politically selected blogs, newsletters, talk shows, etc.)?
3) In your view, can front-page newspaper coverage (still) provide a useful proxy for, or a representative sample of, American media coverage as a whole?
4) How would you explain the decline in coverage from the Women’s March in January to the People’s March at the end of April? Select all that you feel apply.
o competing news stories
o march/protest fatigue
o media bias/disinterest
o fatigue with climate change
○ actions taken by Trump
○ date selected for the event
○ proximity to the March for Science
○ the number of people in attendance
○ other: ______________________________
5) What lessons do you think activists or communicators who want to respond to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accords could learn from these findings – as you interpret them?
Note on Methods: In line with the initial plan to tally the front-page coverage offered by all 600+ American newspapers in the Newseum’s daily collection, all of the newspapers from the states beginning with letters A through F were examined for the March for Science. When it became clear that the analysis could not be completed before the Newseum deleted that day’s pages to make room for the next’s, three newspapers were selected to represent each of the remaining states. This resulted in a total of 230 newspapers. This somewhat unorthodox procedure was followed again with the People’s March for Science and the Women’s March, even though Newseum had saved the front pages for the latter in its archive for historic news events. (The Newseum did not consider the other two marches, or Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accords, sufficiently newsworthy for that honor.) Because not every newspaper submits its front page to the Newseum every day, there is some variation in the sets examined for these four dates, but the author estimates that this is less than 5%. Once a front page was selected for analysis, it was searched for a story, photograph, or small notice of the event in question. If one or more of these was found, a rough measure was made to determine what fraction of the front page was filled by the coverage of the event. These fractions were then tallied to arrive at an estimate of the total number of front pages, out of the 230, that would have been filled by the column inches allotted to that event.