Journalists’ influence on climate change perception—and PR’s important role

Could fear and hope hold the key to building support for public climate change policies? News articles that stir these emotions could influence support for regulations meant to curb climate change, according to a new study published in the peer journal Risk Analysis: An International Journal—and as key liaisons between reporters and their sources, PR is in a perfect position to help spread the word.

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Hope inspires, while fear stagnates

The study, “Is there any hope? How climate change news imagery and text influence audience emotions and support for climate mitigation policies,” found that Americans across the political spectrum are more likely to support policies designed to mitigate climate change after viewing news articles and images that inspire hope. Articles that provoked fear, on the other hand, encouraged people to be more willing to compromise on the issue, particularly conservatives who are less likely to support climate change policies. Anger had the opposite effect, spurring people to stick to their beliefs and remain divided down political lines.

The researchers showed how the media’s editorial choices may influence the public’s emotions and, indirectly, their support for climate change policies. While a majority of Americans support some government policies designed to ease climate change, such as regulating carbon emissions, many don’t view it as a political priority, the researchers write.

“There also are wide ideological gaps in public attitudes toward emissions-reduction policies, particularly those involving new regulations—which liberals tend to support and conservatives are more likely to oppose,” said Lauren Feldman, co-author and associate professor at Rutgers University, in a news release. “Public support for regulation will be a key factor in motivating elected officials to act more decisively to reduce the risk of climate change.”

Vehicles on Road with Traffic Jam Pollution

PR agencies and practitioners play a key role in this process

Public relations professionals should be targeting appropriate reporters with empirical sources of information, science-based multimedia and other hope-oriented components of combating global warming, while eschewing fear-provoking sources and content.

To understand how news articles and images affect people’s emotions about the issue, the researchers recruited 1,575 adults from a national online survey panel. The study participants were randomly assigned to see one of 15 versions of a news article about climate change. Each article contained one of three versions of text, paired with one of four different images or no image.

The news articles emphasized either the impacts of climate change—on weather, the economy, public health and agriculture—or possible actions the country could take to address it, including regulating power plant emissions and investing in renewable energy sources. Some articles addressed both the impacts of climate change and the actions humans can take to stop it. The image options included an aerial view of flood damage, smoke stacks at a generating station, workers installing solar panels on a home, or citizens demonstrating.

Participants rated how they felt after reading the article and viewing the images, ranking their feelings of hope, fear and anger. They were also asked to indicate their level of support for six proposed policies for addressing climate change. In addition, they indicated their political leanings by placing themselves on a 7-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.”

To the researchers’ surprise, the images played little role in influencing participants’ emotions. Only the solar panel image had any significant effect—increasing participants’ hope, relative to the news story with no image. The text of the articles, however, showed consistent, significant effects. Articles that contained information about actions that can be taken to reduce climate change were more likely to inspire hope and decrease fear. In addition, articles solely about actions humans can take also decreased how much anger people felt about the issue.

A globe in a microwave

Media tone can change perceptions

The researchers also examined how these emotions, in turn, influenced support for climate mitigation policies. “Our results showed that fear encouraged conservatives, who are predisposed to oppose climate mitigation policies, to increase their support for such policies, although fear had no effect on liberals,” said Sol Hart, co-author and associate professor at the University of Michigan, in the release. “Hope also significantly boosted policy support among conservatives and, marginally, among liberals. In contrast, anger appeared to reinforce existing predispositions by decreasing policy support among conservatives while increasing support among liberals.”

The researchers say these results continue to support the important role hope plays in motivating support for climate change policies. However, focusing too much on solutions that can impact climate change, thus inspiring hope, can in turn reduce fear, which is an emotion that also boosts policy support, particularly among conservatives.

Feldman said, “These results suggest that emotions play a nuanced role in driving public opinion on divisive risk mitigation policies and that messages that evoke fear, and to a lesser extent hope, may offer the most promising routes to decreasing ideological polarization in public support for such policies.”

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), an interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all who are interested in risk analysis, a critical function in complex modern societies. Risk analysis includes risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and risk policy affecting individuals, public- and private-sector organizations, and societies at a local, regional, national, or global level.


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