December 16, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich
Climate Change on the Bathroom Wall: How Vice, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post report on environmental issues
This is guest post by Mike S. Schäfer, Professor of Science Communication at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ) and Director of the Center for Higher Education and Science Studies at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. This article was first published in the European Journalism Observatory, Dec 14, 2016.
Shouting protesters are running around, smoke enveloping them, and the camera is as close by as possible: While watching the video, the audience gets the impression of standing right in the middle of a demonstration, as environmental protesters clash with French riot police near the site of the global climate summit in December 2015. The Vice reporter who did the video, Milene Larsson, intended exactly that, to convey the feeling of “getting squished, not able to go to the toilet, nor to find water, and not knowing what was going on. Experiencing it, seeing the reactions of people is helpful in order to understand what drives them onto the streets to protest.”
Digital reporting on climate change
Reporting like this is typical for Vice’s tackling of environmental issues. The site, and its 17 different language versions, has become one of the major providers of news, and of environmental news in particular. New sites like Vice, Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post are prime examples of digital-born online players which have established themselves in the media landscapes of many countries. They have done so by attracting digital natives in particular. While many established legacy media have difficulties attracting young audiences, Buzzfeed, Vice or the Huffington Post offer them issues that are of interest to this generation – like environmental topics – communicated in a way that corresponds to the habits of onliners: They include visuals, report in a more colloquial language, employ unique perspectives and do not shy away from mixing serious reporting with articles that describe “climate change in GIFs” or translate stakeholder quotes into bathroom posters.
But how exactly do these new online players present environmental issues? For the first time, social scientists have now systematically analyzed their reporting, and compared it to the coverage of legacy media. In their study, they have focused on the 21st global Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, where a new international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions was reached.
Digital reporting in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the USA
The research team analysed a sample of approximately 500 articles from France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the USA. They found that in many countries, digital-born players and particularly the a large amount of coverage on COP 21 – clearly surpassing the amount of coverage provided by established broadsheets like the “New York Times” or “USA Today”. And they do so in a way that partly supplants these media: The style of the Huffington Post’s reporting is often straight, and the themes it focuses on largely mirror those of the legacy media, even though HuffPo often includes a positive, constructive spin or a focus on potential solutions ()
Buzzfeed and Vice, in contrast, have more complementary roles compared to the legacy media: They publish fewer articles, but focus on themes and perspectives which would otherwise be neglected in many media. BuzzFeed differs in tone, for example, often employing a more informal, irreverent and entertaining language, whereas Vice tends to focus on different themes and perspectives, such as considerations of global justice around the negotiations, or activist views and immersive reporting from demonstrations and protests. In addition, both visualize their coverage considerably more often, including formats like videos, quizzes or sometimes listicles.
Interestingly, the study found very few instances of climate skepticism – i.e. denial of the existence, man-made causes or seriousness of climate change – in the reporting of legacy media or online players in any of the analyzed countries. Even conservative media paid comparatively little attention to it, and BuzzFeed and Vice, on several instances, made outright fun of climate skepticism.
Still, a number of country differences could be found in the study. There is a the stronger emphasis on the summit in the coverage of Anglo-American media as well as in the coverage of the host country France, for example, and a stronger focus of continental European countries on considerations of climate justice.
Impact of digital media on public debate
But the books overall conclusion reflects upon the relation between the new, digital-born players and established legacy media, and it holds true in all analyzed countries: The results show that BuzzFeed, Vice and the Huffington Post are “beneficial for public debate about complex issues such as climate change, particularly at a time when specialist correspondents on the environment are being reduced in some media organisations” – as they search “for new angles and new ways of covering the ‘old’ theme of climate change and, thus, in sustaining its relevance and interest to a wider public, and particularly to younger audiences.”
About the book: James Painter, Maria Carmen Erviti, Richard Fletcher, Candice Howarth, Silje Kristiansen, Bienvenido Leon, Alan Ouakrat, Adrienne Russell, and Mike S. Schäfer (2016): Something Old, Something New: Digital Media and the Coverage of Climate Change. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.