Posted by: Dr. Breffni Lennon | June 7, 2014

Public let down by a significant lack of impartiality on the part of media reporting on climate science

Here is an interesting article , recently published in the research journal Environmental Communication, which looks at the role media outlets play in influencing public perceptions of debates taking place in the climate science community. The authors show the subtle, and not so subtle,  linguistic tools used by journalists to engender uncertainty when reporting on climate science research. It should be noted that they also found a curious rise in the use of ‘hedging’ words in US print media that corresponded with the release of the 2001 and 2007 reports released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on those same years. Given that scientific uncertainty had actually markedly decreased in the interim period, these findings suggest that there has been a significant absence of impartiality on the part of the media outlets studied.

I have reproduced the abstract and article details below.

You can read the paper for yourself here.


How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty

Title: How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty

Authors: Adriana Bailey, Lorine Giangol & Maxwell T. Boykoff


Although mass media continue to play a key role in translating scientific uncertainty for public discourse, communicators of climate science are becoming increasingly aware of their own role in shaping scientific messages in the news. As an example of how future media research can provide relevant feedback to climate communicators, the present study examines the ways in which grammatical and word choices represent and construct uncertainty in news reporting about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Qualifying and hedging language and other “epistemic markers” are analyzed in four newspapers during 2001 and 2007: the New York Times and Wall Street Journal from the USA and El País and El Mundo from Spain. Though the US newspapers contained a higher density of epistemic markers and used more ambiguous grammatical constructs of uncertainty than the Spanish newspapers, all four media sources chose similar words when questioning the certainty around climate change. Moreover, the density of epistemic markers in each newspaper either remained the same or increased with time, despite ever-growing scientific agreement that human activities modify global climate. While the US newspapers increasingly adopted IPCC language to describe climate uncertainties, they also exhibited an emerging tendency to construct uncertainty by highlighting differences between IPCC reports or between scientific predictions and observations. The analysis thus helps identify articulations of uncertainty that will shape future media portrayals of climate science across varying cultural and national contexts.


Bailey, A., Giangol, L. and Boykoff, M.T. (2014) How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty. Environmental Communication, 8 (2): 197–215. Special Issue: Media Research on Climate Change: Where have we been and where are we heading?


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