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Turn up the volume and turn people off

Alan Miguel Valdez, Brigitte Nerlich, Nelya Koteyko consider global warming and climate change.

Alan Miguel Valdez, Brigitte Nerlich, Nelya Koteyko consider global warming and climate change.

It is often assumed that greater media coverage translates into increased public interest, but a recent exploration of the web search habits of the British and American public related to global warming or climate change suggests otherwise. The agenda-setting power of the media seems to be more limited. Media coverage is not always a proxy for public interest, and patterns of public interest and patterns of media coverage show more interesting cross-overs than one might expect.

News and web searches

To carry out our research, we turned to Insight for Search – a Google tool that analyses trends in search queries through reports on popular queries in different countries. Search patterns on both sides of the Atlantic were compared with article counts for the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ in print media, focusing on articles sourced from online databases of the New York Times and the Guardian between 2004 and 2011.

Results show that news volume does not always match web search volume. We found, as in previous research, that press coverage peaked around 2006 and 2007 both in the New York Times and the Guardian, following a series of prominent announcements and events. This was matched by a peak in public interest (as measured by web search volume) in early 2007. However, this relationship between public and media interest did not persist over time. Although the count of articles related to climate change and global warming remained high for almost two years, public interest waned almost immediately.

2009 provided a second opportunity to observe the interaction between media coverage and search activity. Surprisingly, the media outpouring surrounding the Copenhagen summit and climategate had no discernible effect on searches for ‘global warming’, and in the case of ‘climate change’ it caused only a minor spike followed by the lowest levels of public interest since 2004.
Overall, the spikes in media volume in March 2007, December 2007 and December 2009 were certainly reflected by spikes in public interest. However, in crying wolf fashion, each successive media spike, no matter how loud, produced less of a reaction in the public, presumably reflecting increasing climate fatigue.

Two years after climategate, press coverage still seems to insist on increasing the volume but the message may be falling onto deaf ears.

Changing the terms

Our initial assumptions, based on a simplistic model of the agenda-setting power of the media in which increased publication volume translated into increased public interest, proved false. Another aspect of our research, however painted a more nuanced picture.

Previous research has shown that ‘global warming’ is the preferred term in the US and ‘climate change’ the preferred one in the UK. Our research found that those preferences are not straightforward. As of January 2004 (the year in which Google started recording search patterns), the public on both sides of the Atlantic used the term ‘global warming’ at least twice as often as ‘climate change’. The supposedly British preference for ‘climate change’ was only true for news media, and only by a small margin. However, as the Guardian gradually increased its preference for the latter term, the British public followed suit, and today the popularity of both terms is nearly balanced. Meanwhile, the New York Times persisted in using both terms on an almost equal footing while, similar to what was going on in 2004, the average web user in the US today is roughly four times more likely to use the term ‘global warming’ instead of ‘climate change’.

Taken together, our results seem to suggest that traditional newspapers may have limited short-term power to generate interest in climate change and global warming, but they may still influence the framing of those issues over time.

This research was supported by the ESRC/ORA fund.

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Alan Miguel Valdez
Alan Miguel Valdez is a research student at the Department of Design and Innovation, The Open University
Brigitte Nerlich
Brigitte Nerlich is the Professor of Science, Language, and Society and Co-Director of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham
Dr Nelya Koteyko
Dr Nelya Koteyko is in the Department of Media Studies, University of Leicester
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