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Tone of reporting on climate change has become increasingly urgent since the nineties

21 March 2024

The terminology used by newspapers in reporting on climate change has undergone significant changes from 1995 to 2019. Newspapers from different parts of the world are employing terms that convey a growing sense of urgency. However, much of the reporting on this global phenomenon remains focused on the causes and solutions within national borders. This is revealed by research conducted by Stijn Eikelboom, MSc, Dr Marc Esteve Del Valle, and Prof Malvina Nissim from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen, which they are publishing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Text: Marjolein te Winkel

The researchers collected newspaper articles published between 1995 and 2019 in the week before and the week after the annual United Nations climate conferences. This resulted in a dataset of 43,572 articles from seven different newspapers with various editorial stances, from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.


The analysis of the dataset shows that the reporting in newspapers on climate change becomes more urgent over the period studied: from a more descriptive tone, with words like 'greenhouse effect', 'carbon dioxide', and 'global warming', to terms like 'climate crisis', 'climate emergency', 'tipping point', and 'global heating'. Researcher Stijn Eikelboom states, "Over the years, issues such as fracking, oil drilling, and oil sands have become more prominent in the news. Additionally, attention to measures like 'electric vehicles', 'renewable energy', and 'emission reduction' have become more evident."

Left vs. Right

Furthermore, the research shows clear differences in reporting between newspapers with a left-wing stance and those more right-leaning. Left-wing newspapers cover climate change more frequently than their right-leaning counterparts. Additionally, the newspapers differ in identifying causes and proposed measures. Esteve Del Valle explains, "Left-wing newspapers cite fossil fuels as the cause of the climate crisis and see energy conservation as the solution. Right-wing newspapers point to airplanes as the cause and mention emission taxes as the solution."

Close to Home

Finally, the analysis revealed that in reporting on climate change, journalists primarily choose topics close to home. Australian newspapers cite mining as a significant cause of climate change, British newspapers highlight air travel, and in Canada, oil extraction from oil sands is a significant cause. "We see specific economic and political contexts reflected in this terminology," says Esteve Del Valle. "Australia is the world's largest producer of iron ore and bauxite, and the second-largest producer of gold. Oil extraction from tar sands in Canada is very large-scale and highly profitable. And London has the world's largest airport, where many flights converge and transfers take place. So despite climate change being a global phenomenon, the way journalists report on it is strongly limited to national borders."

Supervised Machine Learning

For the analysis of the many newspaper articles, the researchers used supervised machine learning: a principle of artificial intelligence that automatically detects patterns in large amounts of data. By using predictive algorithms, the researchers were able to reveal topical and terminological differences between articles that might otherwise go unnoticed. “It is nice to see how in this era of very large models, classical interpretable machine learning algorithms can still serve very well the purpose of supporting the linguistic analysis of textual data,” says Nissim.

Master's Thesis

At the core of the research was Stijn Eikelboom's Master's thesis, which he wrote to complete his degree in Information Science studies. He then collaborated with his thesis supervisors, Marc Esteve Del Valle and Malvina Nissim, to write the paper that has now been published in PLOS ONE. Eikelboom graduated in 2021 and subsequently started working as a lecturer in information science at the Faculty of Arts. He recently began a new position as a Junior Operations Engineer at the Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO), where he is responsible for the continuity and availability of several applications related to student finance.

More information

The paper titled 'Learning from climate change news: Is the world on the same page?' is available for reading on the PLOS ONE website.

Last modified:02 May 2024 2.41 p.m.
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