Monday, January 5, 2009

Global Warming or Climate Change? It's ALL Relative If We Ignore Science, Reframe Issues, Redefine Words, Adjust Grammar and Use Symbols and Imagery!

Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press © 2007)

The need for effective communication, public outreach and education to increase support for policy, collective action and behavior change is ever-present, and is perhaps most pressing in the context of anthropogenic climate change. This book is the first to take a comprehensive look at communication and social change specifically targeted to climate change. Creating a Climate for Change is a unique collection of ideas examining the challenges associated with communicating climate change in order to facilitate societal response…”


“There is a remarkable and recurring shape in both art and science. Hogarth, the seventeenths century artist, would have seen it as a “S-shaped" “line of beauty”, and Verhulst, the mathematician, in 1838, as yet another example of rapid but self-limiting growth in the form of logistic equation. And, for me it is a powerful model of how social, behavioral and technological change takes place. So whether we are charting the proportion of the public expressing concern for global warming over time or the number of people, institutions and countries taking action to limit climate change, we hope the eventual path will be “S”-shaped. Such a curve would show a slow increase of climate change risk perceptions, mitigation or adaptation policies, and individual behaviors followed by a period of rapid growth, until finally the rate of growth slowed once a very large proportion (but not all) of people, institutions or countries have changed.”

The chapters in this volume suggest that if we were to plot public awareness of global warming or climate change we are probably high on the curve, although much of public knowledge of causes and solutions may be inaccurate by scientific standards. Yet public concern and political will have not yet turned the corner leading to an adequate response to this threat. And indeed if we use as a criterion specific actions, rather than vague ones such as ‘saving energy’ or ‘helping the environment’ – then it is still very early days.

…Fortunately, there are many examples of such periods of rapid change following years of painful plodding. Recent history suggests that long-term trends in individual behavior can undergo dramatic change…”


Why is climate change not perceived as urgent?

This book highlights stories of success in communicating and action on climate change, while taking a realistic look at the challenges before us…Without doubt, global climate change is a difficult topic to talk about, a tough issue to spark interest among non-experts. First detected and defined by scientists, human-induced climate change has been called by many names: a carbon dioxide problem, an energy problem, global warming an ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ – all abstract, benign-sounding and utterly…uninteresting, at least to most non-climate scientists.

In 1895, Svante Arrhenius, a nobel laureate in chemistry, laid the theoretical groundwork describing how fossil-fuel energy use could result in a warming atmosphere. As early as the 1950’s, scientists in the United States, Europe and elsewhere began to sound the alarm on climate change and potential impacts as they realized how human activities were altering the atmosphere, and therefore potentially the climate, of the entire Earth, but it would be decades before this scientifically defined problem would be more widely recognized and make it into the public and policy agendas. Why was it then and why does it now continue to be, so difficult to make climate change relevant and important in light of the climate’s central role as a life support system?

Lack of immediacy

Carbon dioxide and other GHGs are invisible and at atmospheric concentrations (even rising ones) have no direct negative health impacts on humans as do other air pollutants. Moreover, it has taken a while (in most places) for impacts on the environment to be detected.

Remoteness of Impacts

The impacts of global warming are typically perceived as remote.

Time Lags

…Over time, the accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere will cause large-scale changes such as warming of the ocean and changes in the climatic system that are not easily reversible…The human systems that create these emissions – such as the energy and transportation systems – also change only over periods of decades, making it difficult to reduce GHG emissions instantaneously should society decide to make it a priority…But these lags in the system…also work against making the problem urgent in the eyes of the general public.

Solution Skepticism

…When they are discussed, suggestions such as reducing home energy use or using public transportation can provoke skepticism and resistance as it is hard for individuals to see how alternatives could be made to work or how those small actions could make any discernible difference to this global problem. Similar skepticism – fed by political rhetoric, ignorance and some truth – prevails over international policy instruments such as those codified in the Kyoto Protocol.

Threats to Values and Self-Interests

In the United States, climate change remains a highly contested political issues as proposed solutions and policy mechanisms are viewed by some as conflicting with closely held values, priorities and [e.g., PRIVATE PROPERTY - INDIVIDUAL & NATIONAL ECONOMIC, LEGAL & POLITICAL SOVEREIGNTY] interests such as national sovereignty, economic growth, job security, and the ‘American way of life’.

Imperfect Markets

The economic system of market-dominated capitalism relies on the straightforward notion of supply meeting demand, but it is well known that markets exhibit failures in accounting for externalities such as pollution. These failures currently prevent the market from adequately accounting for externalized damages to the environment (or society).

Tragedy of the Commons

…When GHGs are emitted from anywhere, they affect the climate of the Earth as a whole. Rules about using the atmosphere for the discharge of GHGs are only slowly being defined, while monitoring, accountability, and consequences for ‘overusing’ the global atmospheric commons are extremely difficult to ensure and implement.

Communication and its Impacts on the Public Perception of Urgency

Experience shows that the conundrum of the growing urgency of the problem vis-à-vis the lack of action is compounded by common communication practices of scientists, communicators and advocates in the arena of climate change. Many of these are not unique to the problem of global warmingissues such as uncertainty, complexity, media practices, organized opposition, and people’s mental models often play a role in controversial social issues. Those who are skilled in communicating and moving toward action have found modes of operating that recognize these pitfalls and remain focused on strategies that appeal to the constituencies they are working with.

Uncertain Science as a Political Battlefield

Inappropriate Frames and Mental Models

People absorb new information from preexisting frames of reference or cognitive structures (so-called mental models) to order information. They intimately affect people’s understanding, perceptions and reactions to information. For example, if climate change is reported on TV accompanied by images of weather disasters, the ‘weather’ frame may be triggered. This frame suggests that climate change can neither be caused nor solved by humans, but is an ‘act of God’. By focusing on large scale ‘weather’-like impacts, there is thus a danger that the communication may invoke a sense of helplessness or resignation

Cultural Barriers

There is no clear ‘brand’ or ‘cultural whirlwind’ defining the problem in a way that allows the public to easily relate…

Alarmism and Other Ineffective Ways to Create Urgency

[I]t is difficult for climate change to appear urgent except in cases of catastrophe or disaster…

Cognitive Barriers

Psychological Barriers

Lack of Peer Support

Change is hard simply because it is a break in the routine, habit or tradition. It triggers fear of the unknown, or aversion to risk, or simply resistance to the hassle of having to do something differently. New information, however credible, thus does not easily persuade individuals to act in new ways unless it comes from a trusted source. Generally, personally familiar sources are more trusted than more distant and less familiar sources; those coming from similar circumstances are believed to understand one’s situation better than those coming from very different backgrounds. Often it takes observing the actions by a neighbor, a friend or competing firm to spur action. Many (behavior) change initiatives such as social marketing, weight loss, and rehabilitation programs (to name a few) employ peer support and pressure, mutual accountability, and maybe a greater sense of responsibility to great success.

Organizational Inertia and Resource Constraints

Lack of Political Will and Leadership

…Politicians are not rewarded – and sometimes even punished – for making tough, unpopular choices that have no immediate payoff and may even involve short-term sacrifice. In addition, interest group politics means that interests with the loudest voice are heard, while other interests are not fully represented. What politicians across the political spectrum have been able to agree on is the need for further research – hardly a sign of urgency given that the United States has been researching climate change for more than 25 years…

Technological Barriers

All of the proposed solutions to stabilizing the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted by humans, including improving energy efficiency, decarbonization, sequestration, alternative energy sources, and various geoengineering schemes represent major technological challenges

A Fresh Approach

…For better or for worse, a large share of the responsibility for communicating climate change still falls to scientists and others who lay claim to scientific or technical expertise. Among many of these communicators, the…conviction that (1) climate change is fundamentally a scientific issue, (2) experts understand it and others don’t, and (3) the purpose of communication thus is to educate the ignorant is, in short, still alive and well. Communication on global warming based on these assumptions thus creates an abiding rift between listener and speaker, preventing the listener from truly gaining ownership of the problem because of its alleged pure technical nature and the implicit hierarchy of expert/lay person in which it is approached.

…Climate change simply does not resonate deeply with the general public; it remains disconnected from people’s daily lives, from their more immediate concerns. This suggests, then, that climate change has not been communicated effectively until communicators understand how to bridge this ‘gap of meaning’. To do so…is impossible without understanding the ‘audience’ more fully.

…We have come to see the importance of dialogue, of the genuine exchange among other-than-scientific viewpoints and needs, and the integration of climate change with other-than-climate change concerns. This has led us to a broader definition of communication in support of social change as a continuous and dynamic process unfolding among people that facilitates an exchange of ideas, feelings and information as well as the forming of mutual understanding and common visions of a desirable future.


Media Coverage of Climate Change: Current Trends, Strengths, Weaknesses

Maxwell T. Boykoff and J. Timmons Roberts

United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2007

Background Paper 2007/3


…Through time, mass media coverage has proven to be a key contributor – among a number of factors – that have shaped and affected science and policy discourse as well as public understanding and action. Mass media representational practices have broadly affected translations between science and policy and have shaped perceptions of various issues of environment, technology and risk (Weingart et al. 2000). Within the issue of climate change, two more terms need quick review and clarification: climate change mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation of emissions is the reduction of greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere. (p.1)

Studies have found that the public learns a large amount about science through consuming mass media news (Wilson 1995). In what are conventionally regarded as ‘developed nations’, many polls have found that television and daily newspapers are the primary sources of information (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2006). For instance, a United States (U.S.) National Science Foundation survey of U.S. residents found that television remains the leading source of news in most households (53%), followed by newspapers (29%) (National Science Foundation 2004). In another U.S. poll that asked ‘where did you get your news yesterday’, participants most frequently also cited television (57%), followed by newspapers (40%), radio (36%) and internet (23%) (Pew Research Center for People and the Press 2006). In ‘developing countries’ and more specifically in rural areas, radio has been a principle medium through which climate change news is communicated (Luganda 2005). (p.2)

Climate change mitigation and adaptation both require discussion, and for them the issues for media coverage and its impact differ. Mitigation is the reduction of greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere, and for decades, the only aid to developing countries for climate change was linked to mitigation activities. (pp. 2-3)

… Adaptation to climate change has been defined by Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial activities” (McCarthy et al. 2001). That adjustment can be anticipatory or reactive, planned or grass-roots/spontaneous, public or private. Disaster management can be either based on preparation and prevention or relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction (recovery) (Muller and Hepburn 2006). There is much debate about what counts as adaptation to climate change, how much funding is needed for poor nations to adapt to climate change, and on how much money is available under the Kyoto protocol and other aid mechanisms (e.g. Muller and Hepburn 2006).

The mass media plays a largely unexplored role in the future of climate adaptation aid. We review here previous work that may point the way in assessing the role of media in influencing public opinion on assisting poor nations with adapting to climate change. This background paper surveys how mass media coverage has shaped discourse and action – in complex, dynamic and non-linear ways – at the interface of climate science and policy. Moreover, this work explores influences of media on practices, politics and public opinion and understanding related to climate change. In this production process, the paper touches on political economics of how types of media communications, as well as ownership and structure shape these processes. Moreover, we discuss how cultural differences influence national and regional differences in reporting as well as public and policy consumption of news. (p.3)

THE FIRST PHASE of news production: framing, power and the power of framing

As depicted in Figure 6, the first ‘phase’ of communication is that of the production of news. Media professionals – such as editors and journalists – produce news within a political, economic, institutional, social and cultural landscape. Moreover, news coverage of climate change – both mitigation and adaptation – is produced through journalistic norms and values. In the production of news, stories are partly generated from asymmetrical power relationships, and partly developed through the history of professionalized journalism (Starr 2004). Socio-political and economic factors have given rise to distinct norms and values (Lee 2006), and these that buttress journalistic practices (Bennett 2002). This mobilization of power is complex, and often subtle as well as contradictory. In fact, discontinuities can arise in media coverage through the very professional journalistic norms and values that have developed to safeguard against potential abuses of asymmetrical power (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). Thus, media coverage of climate change (adaptation and mitigation) is not a simple collection of news articles and clips produced by journalists and producers; rather, representations signify key frames derived through complex and non-linear relationships between scientists, policy actors and the public, often mediated by news stories. Framing is a process, and an inherent part of cognition whereby content is constructed – in the form of issues, events and information – to order, organize and regulate everyday life. It can be defined as the ways in which elements of discourse are assembled that then privilege certain interpretations and understandings over others (Goffman 1974). Framing permeates all facets of interactions between science, policy, media and the public. For instance, Roger Pielke Jr. has examined the policy implications of the restricted definition of ‘climate change’ by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Pielke Jr. 2006). The process of media framing involves an inevitable series of choices to cover certain events within a larger current of dynamic activities. These events are then converted into news stories. In recent years, more researchers from fields of environmental sociology, geography, political science and communications have examined framing various scientific issues (Szasz 1995; Jasanoff 2004; Demeritt 2006; Nisbet and Huge 2006). Figure 7 depicts there interactions within journalism. (pp. 9-10)

Entman states that, “framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition…” (Entman 1993, 52). Therefore, the construction of meaning and discourse derive through combined structural and agential components. Asymmetrical influences also feed back into these social relationships and further shape emergent frames of ‘news’, knowledge and discourse. These processes take place at multiple scales. For instance, individual journalists must contend with time and space pressures when reporting the news. Many are codified and explicit (such as column inches), while others are implicit and shaped by social convention (time management in covering multiple ‘beats’ sufficiently). These related decisions are made in the context of larger-scale pressures. While some factors like access through ownership and control are more readily apparent, other influences, such as journalists’ training are more concealed. The power dynamics that emerge from these elements then becomes re-embedded in macro-relations, such as decision-making in a capitalist political economy, and again micro-processes such as everyday journalistic practices. Overall, these norms, values and pressures are interrelated and therefore very difficult to disentangle. Multi-scale pressures can be considered in terms of political, economic, social, cultural, ethical and journalistic elements (providing the context for the ‘circuits of communication’ model in Figure 6). (p. 10)

The terrain: Macro-scale influences shaping media representations of climate change

At the macro political-economic level, in recent years media organizations – dominated by developed country organizations – have continued to consolidate. Efficiency and profit increasingly influence news production (Bennett 1996)…Economic considerations have led to decreased mass-media budgets for investigative journalism (McChesney 1999). This has had a detrimental effect on training for news professionals in covering news ‘beats’ (Gans 1979; Bennett 2002). According to research by Dunwoody and Peters, the typical journalist in the U.S. is “even less likely to have majored in science or math than is the average U.S. resident” (Dunwoody and Peters 1992, 208)… This trend has served to affect communications of scientific information when complex scientific material is simplified in media reports (Anderson 1997)… (pp. 10-11)

The level of the story: Micro-scale pressures shaping media coverage of climate change

These issues begin to work across scales from macro-level political economic factors to micro-level processes such as journalistic norms and values intersect with these elements and shape news content (Jasanoff 1996). These include objectivity, fairness, and accuracy. Much as storylines are fueled within science and policy, the mass media play an important role, particularly as the role of translator. Scientists have a tendency to speak in cautious language when describing their research findings, and have a propensity to discuss implications of their research in terms of probabilities. Sheldon Ungar has asserted, “science is an encoded form of knowledge that requires translation in order to be understood” (Ungar 2000, 308). Moreover, scientists tend to qualify their findings in light of uncertainties that lurk in their research. For journalists and policy actors, these issues of caution, probability and uncertainty are all difficult to translate smoothly into crisp, unequivocal commentary often valued in communications and decision-making. For example, in peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, the professional culture of science trains authors to build the case of the research and then place key findings in the results and discussion sections; in professional media reports, journalistic norms instruct reporters to lead with the most important conclusions and discoveries. Therefore, scientific findings usually require translation into more colloquial terms in order for it to be comprehensible. As Weingart et al put it, “the media…tend to translate hypotheses into certainties” (2000, 274). (p.11)

News-production conditions in this first ‘phase’ of the Carvalho and Burgess model interact in important ways with first-order journalistic norms: personalization, dramatization, and novelty. Boykoff and Boykoff call them ‘first-order’ norms, because these factors are significant and baseline influences on both the selection of what is news and the content of news stories (Boykoff and Boykoff 2007). The lens of personalization focuses attention on competition between personalities struggling for power and acting strategically in order to improve their prestige and socio-political leverage. The human-interest story conforms to the idea that news focuses on individuals rather than group dynamics or social processes (Gans 1979). The gaze is on the individual claims-makers who are locked in political battle, and thus structural or institutional analyses are skipped over in favor of stories that cover the trials and tribulations of individuals. As an effect, these stories are seldom linked to deeper social analysis. This connects to dramatization. Hilgartner and Bosk write that, “Drama is the source of energy that gives social problems life and sustains their growth” (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988, 62). Dramatized news tends to downplay more comprehensive analysis of the enduring problems, in favor of covering the movements at the surface of events (Wilkins and Patterson 1987). Aforementioned scientific lexicon does not help the issue conform to this dramatization norm; in fact it makes the ‘story’ less appealing for journalists (Ungar 2000). Moreover, the journalistic valuation of drama can serve to trivialize news content, as it also can lead to the blocking out of news that does not hold an immediate sense of excitement or controversy. However, this norm does not necessarily lead to reduced coverage. In their report entitled ‘Warm Words’, Ereaut and Segnit have posited that presenting news in this dramatized form is most common, and ‘sensationalized’ or ‘alarmist’ reporting “might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’ rather than a constructive message” (Ereaut and Segnit 2006, 14).

An example of a dramatic event that generated tremendous news coverage is Hurricane Katrina. Despite scientific uncertainty that remains regarding links between hurricane intensity and frequency and climate change, this event spurred a ‘wave’ of coverage. In the U.S., Juliet Eilperin reported in the Washington Post, “Katrina's destructiveness has given a sharp new edge to the ongoing debate over whether the United States should do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming” (Eilperin 2005, A16). Considerations of links to implementation of international climate policy in the public domain were fuelled further in this case by comments made by prominent political actors. For instance, Jurgen Trittin – Minister of the Environment in Germany – commented, “The American president has closed his eyes to the economic and human damage that natural catastrophes such as Katrina – in other words, disasters caused by a lack of climate protection measures – can visit on his country” (Bernstein 2005, D5). (p. 12)

Dramatization intersects with the common journalistic attraction to novelty (Gans 1979; Wilkins and Patterson 1987; Wilkins and Patterson 1991). Pointing to the relationship between dramatization and novelty in the mass media, Hilgartner and Bosk assert, “saturation of the public arenas with redundant claims and symbols can dedramatize a problem” (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988, 71). Because of the perceived need for a ‘news peg,’ certain stories are deemed suitable and others are not (Wilkins 1993). Gans asserts there is a “repetition taboo” whereby journalists reject stories that have already been reported in favor of news that is fresh, original, and new (Gans 1979, 169). Stocking and Leonard comment that this “allows persistent, and growing, environmental problems to slide out of sight if here is nothing ‘new’ to report” (Stocking and Leonard 1990, 40). In practice, this feeds into a preference for coverage of crises, rather than chronic social problems. Therefore, when it comes to climate-change coverage, Wilson notes, “The underlying causes and long-term consequences are often overlooked in the day-to-day grind to find a new angle by deadline” (Wilson 2000, 207). So a tension continues between science and mass media: within established storylines of climate change, there is a need for novel ways to portray this story. (pp. 12-13)

In combination, through influences on the selection of news and the content therein, these first order norms initiate and inform a set of second-order journalistic norms: authority-order, and balance (Figure 7). Together, these norms and influences contribute to what becomes news, and media coverage of climate change – both mitigation and adaptation. Previous research has argued that such adherence to these first- and second-order norms to ‘episodic framing’ of news – rather than ‘thematic framing’ whereby stories are situated in a larger, thematic context – and this has been shown to lead to shallower understandings of political and social issues (Iyengar 1991; Boykoff and Boykoff 2007). This episodic framing can then skew media coverage that affects public understanding of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Authority-order bias is a second-order journalistic norm where journalists tend to primarily, and sometimes solely, consult authority figures – government officials, business leaders, and others (Bennett 2002, 48-49). This highlights “the desirability of social order” and “the need for national leadership in maintaining that order” (Gans 1979, 52). Research has shown that through media coverage of climate change, there is often significant acceptance of political and expert voices by the public (McManus 2000). Moreover, the complex issue of public trust in authority figures may feed back into and influence climate policy decision-making (Pidgeon and Gregory 2004; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006, see discussion in ‘third phase’ below). The sometimes explicit but often tacit drive to restore order can then serve to defuse or amplify concern about threatening social issues, even if such effects are not warranted. Since environmental issues (such as climate change mitigation and adaptation) often appear in the news because of a looming or unfolding crisis, this penchant for authoritative – often government – sources is not a trivial matter (Miller and Riechert 2000). However, effects of this journalistic norm become less straightforward when there is overt contestation and ‘dueling’ authorities clash. This leads both back to first-order norms of personalization and dramatization, and to the final second-order norm of balance. Balance is often seen as an activity that carries out the pursuits of objectivity (Cunningham 2003). With balanced reporting, journalists “present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention” (Entman 1989, 30). In coverage of climate science, balance can help reporters when they lack the requisite scientific background or knowledge, or are facing formidable time constraints (Dunwoody and Peters 1992). [ARGUABLY, 'BALANCED' REPORTING NO LONGER EXISTS, LET ALONE, CONCERNING CLIMATE CHANGE/GLOBAL WARMING!] With coverage of climate change, the proclivity to personalize news dovetails in an important way with the notion of balance in that it leads to the scenario of the dueling scientists, who receive ‘roughly equal attention’. (p. 13)

Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) quantitatively explored how the balance norm was applied to anthropogenic climate change in U.S. newspaper coverage. This study found that, over a fifteen-year period, a majority (52.7%) of prestige-press articles featured balanced accounts that gave “roughly equal attention” to the views that humans were contributing to global warming and that exclusively natural fluctuations could explain the earth’s temperature increase. Coverage was divergent from the scientific consensus on this issue in a statistically significant way from 1990 through 2002. These analyses complement findings from other studies of news production and the issue of climate change. For instance, McComas and Shanahan examined ongoing narratives in reporting in the New York Times, and the Washington Post from 1980 to 1995. They found the agenda-setting function of mass media as important, as well as the influences from external factors – such as dramatic events – that shape coverage (McComas and Shanahan 1999). In addition, Antilla examined newspaper coverage in 255 different sources from 2003 to 2004. She found that wire services have played a key role in shaping the ways in which climate change science is framed and discussed in reporting (Antilla 2005). In the UK, Burgess put forward key foundational and conceptual work regarding the cultural production and consumption of meaning via the media (Burgess 1990). Anderson examined these cultural practices through an analysis of environmental stories, as well as their relation to public and policy attention (Anderson 1997). Furthermore, in 2005, Carvalho examined social, political and cultural struggles to frame the climate change issue in UK newspapers. This study examined three ‘broadsheet’ or ‘quality’ UK national newspapers: The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times (Carvalho and Burgess 2005). The authors undertook critical discourse analysis to examine social, political and cultural struggles to frame the climate change issue, and analyzed these framing practices within the constraints of ideological parameters, maintained and perpetuated within the media sources themselves. Other research by Carvalho finds that through multiple feedback processes of communication of climate change risk via the media over time, prominent political actors successfully frame climate risk for their purposes, and align frames with their interests and perspectives (Carvalho 2005). Similarly, Smith examined UK broadcast news media coverage of climate change risk, and the interactions between climate change science, policy, media and public spheres. Through analyses of seminar discussions from 1997 to 2004 by influential actors – such as BBC broadcasters – in these communities, he unpacked and assessed key factors that shape decision-making in the development of news stories (Smith 2005). (pp. 13-14)

THE SECOND PHASE of news in the public sphere: legibility of climate discourse

Figure 6 shows the movements of ‘texts’ or ‘form’ into the second ‘circuit’ of public dissemination. These encoded messages – television/radio broadcasts, printed newspapers/magazines, and internet communications – comprise communications that then compete in public arenas for attention. This coheres with the ‘Public Arenas’ model that can be nested in this second ‘phase’ of communication (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988) in considerations of the increases and decreases in media attention to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Hilgartner and Bosk’s model “stresses the ‘arenas’ where social problem definitions evolve, examining the effect of those arenas on both the evolution of social problems and the actors who make claims about them” (1988: 55). The focus here is on one such ‘arena’ – the mass media – and analytical attention is on “the ‘principles of selection,’ or institutional, political, and cultural factors that influence the probability of survival of competing problem formulations” (1988: 56). (p. 14)

Previous attempts to theorize the rise and fall of media coverage and public concern for ecological issues have relied on Anthony Downs’s ‘Issue-Attention Cycle’. For instance, in mapping the environmental policy-making process, Roberts relies on this model to “provide an explanation of the waxing and waning of issues within the policy environment” (Roberts 2004, 141). More specific to climate change, Trumbo utilizes the ‘Issue-Attention Cycle’ to “present a brief history” of climate change coverage in the news and to “serve as a useful tool” for examining how climate is framed in the media (Trumbo 1996, 274). In terms of ‘agenda-setting’ of climate change discourse through the media, Newell leans on this model as an “all-embracing explanation for the nature of media coverage of global warming”, despite acknowledgement that the model fails to “accurately depict the complexity and challenging nature of the climate change problem” (Newell 2000, 86). (pp. 14-15)

In describing the ‘Issue-Attention Cycle’ Downs posited that public attention to environmental issues moves through five sequential stages.

First is the “pre-problem stage”, when an ecological problem –such as anthropogenic climate change risk – exists but has yet to capture public attention. Downs posits that expert communities are aware of the risks, but this has not yet been disseminated more widely. In the case of media attention of climate change mitigation and adaptation, this might be considered the conditions before 1988, where there were just four stories across forty newspapers in the decade before.

The second phase is that of “alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm”, where dramatic events make the public both aware of the problem and alarmed about it. The aforementioned events of the late 1980s can help explain how there were increased ‘hooks’ for climate change stories.

Third, is the “gradual-realization-of-the-cost stage” where key actors acknowledge sacrifices and costs that will be incurred in dealing with the problem. One could argue that this characterization might coincide with the emergence of a cohesive group – since called ‘climate contrarians’ – that began to challenge scientific findings regarding the presence of an anthropogenic climate change signal.

Fourth, is the “gradual-decline-of-intense-public-interest stage” where, according to Downs, actors become discouraged at the prospect of appropriately dealing with the issue, and crises are normalized through suppression and in some cases boredom. It could be argued that this might coincide with the slight decrease in coverage of climate change adaptation in the mid-1990s (Figure 3) and climate change more generally (Figure 1).

Finally, fifth is the catchall “post-problem stage”, where the formerly ‘hot’ issue “moves into a prolonged limbo – a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic reoccurrences of interest”. In this stage, Downs covers all possibilities when he states that the issue “once elevated to national prominence may sporadically recapture public interest” (1972, 39-41). Scholars have analyzed media coverage of climate change through this model, periodizing media coverage of global warming into distinct phases (e.g. Trumbo 1996; McComas and Shanahan 1999). This cycle is argued to be “rooted both in the nature” of the problem and in the “way major communication media interact with the public” (Downs 1972, 42). (p. 15)

This ‘natural history’ framework is useful perhaps in considering the intrinsic qualities of the issues themselves that influencing these ebbs and flows of coverage. Yet, the Downs model does not capture the contested terrain upon which ‘alarm’ and ‘costs’ are determined and contested, nor does it account for the non-linear factors that shape dynamic interactions between climate science, policy and the public via the mass media (Williams 2000). Logan and Molotch (1987), describe the “easy news” and the “hard news” to report upon (“if it bleeds, it leads”), and the difficulty reporters face when raising issues which might threaten their advertisers or owners’ news. Dunlap argues that environmental issues have not conformed to Downs’ Issue-Attention Cycle, since the problems have worsened, new problems have arisen, and most importantly, professionalized social movement organizations have been built to keep them alive (1992). Critics have also made the point that cycles may have both sped up in recent years, as well as become less apparent (Jordan and O'Riordan 2000). Moreover, cross-cultural research has found evidence that while the Downs model appears to hold in some contexts, it does not hold in others (Brossard et al. 2004). In sum, this model is left wanting in that it is too partial an explanation, as well as too linear and rigid an interpretation, of the messiness multiple internal as well as external factors shaping climate science-policy/practice interactions. In terms of media coverage influencing public attention, understanding and engagement, it does not account for how the aforementioned journalistic norms such as personalization, dramatization and balance could under gird what becomes news, rather than just the issue itself. Therefore, the entrenched use of this Downs model has been detrimental in considerations of how these media representations are constructed, thus contributing to possible impediments to greater climate change mitigation and adaptation in the public purview. (pp. 15-16)

Considering the ‘Circuits of Communication’ and ‘Public Arenas’ models together enables examinations of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors – as well as dynamic and non-linear influences – that shape media coverage of both mitigation and adaptation. This helps move analyses beyond static representations to more accurate analytical lenses for understanding current trends, strengths and weaknesses in media coverage of climate change – both mitigation and adaptation.

In this ‘Public Arenas’ model, there is accounting for dynamic and competitive processes to define and frame the ‘problem’, and understanding of the institutional arenas that serve as “environments” where social problems compete for attention/grow (like the contexts described in the ‘Circuits of Communication’ model). Furthermore, there is acknowledgement of the ‘attention economy’ (Ungar 1992) that brackets the quantity and quality of all aspects of climate change coverage at a given time. There is also consideration of how various political, institutional and cultural factors – as well as actor networks, or ‘claims-makers’ – compete for the framing and selection (as well as de-selection) of mitigation and adaptation considerations. Media studies researchers have asserted that, “Journalists are less adept at reporting complex phenomena… (and) have difficulty reporting stories that never culminate in obvious events” (Fedler et al. 1997, 94). Moreover, journalists often focus reporting on events, which thus underemphasize these ‘creeping’ stories as well as the contexts within which they take place (Dunwoody and Griffin 1993). While scientific insights regarding complex issues such as anthropogenic climate change and adaptation evolve over years and decades, through journalistic norms and pressures, media take ‘snapshot’ selections from this steady stream of enhanced understanding, thus providing truncated interpretations. This feeds back into the production ‘phase’ of the ‘circuits’ model, where challenges such as time-scale are not compatible with news conventions (Carvalho and Burgess 2005). Above all, thinking through how these models account for these processes should be useful in considerations of increased media coverage of climate change coverage (including adaptation) in the last two years, as well as the crucial role that mass media plays in public understanding and engagement with the climate change issue.

Amid this increase in coverage in the last two decades, it has only been in recent years that media coverage of climate adaptation has increased substantially. Figure 3 shows results from a search using the keywords ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ and ‘adaptation’. This was conducted in forty of the most influential English-language world newspapers (congruent with Figure 1) (see Table I). There were increases evident during the times of the IPCC assessment reports in 1990, 1995 and 2001, as well as during the times of the UN FCCC in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Outside of Europe and North America, coverage of climate change or global warming and adaptation is considerably lower. Moreover, coverage that does appear in many of the newspaper outlets are often reproduced news stories from Europe and North American sources. For instance, most coverage that appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun was repurposed material from the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times in the US, as well as the Independent from the UK. Further distinguishing between what are conventionally considered ‘developing’ countries, from this initial sampling of forty newspapers, there is scant coverage of climate change/global warming and adaptation over the last two decades. (p.16)

THE THIRD PHASE of personal engagement with climate change via mass media

Figure 6 shows the third ‘phase’ of communication in the Carvalho and Burgess model, which focuses on the consumption of news media coverage of climate change – both mitigation and adaptation – in the personal sphere. This is a phase where these public discourses permeate and integrate to varying degrees into personal understanding and behavior. William Ruckelshaus – first US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator – has said, “If the public isn’t adequately informed [about climate change], it’s difficult for them to make demands on government, even when it’s in their own interest” (Ruckelshaus 2004). But how this information is interpreted and translated into decisions and potential behavioral change is complex, dynamic and contested. (p.19)

In theorizing interactions at the science-practice interface, researchers have considered three main ‘waves’ of engagement (Collins and Evans 2002).

The first wave of interactions was that of a ‘deficit model’ approach to understanding interaction. This perspective posited that poor choices and actions were attributed to ‘deficits’ of knowledge and information to make the ‘correct’ choice. The approach was associated with norms and ideals of science as open, universal and objective practices. However, this set of ideal interactions is much more complicated in practice.

Since the 1950s, this view has been critiqued (within science studies) for being too simple a characterization of the dynamic interactions between science and policy/practice. However, in the policy and public spheres, there are residual impulses such as the stated reliance on ‘sound’ science in order to make decisions, as well as the stated pursuits to eliminate uncertainty as a precondition for action.

The second wave of engagement is considered the wave of ‘democracy’. Ulrich Beck examined the democratization of the science-practice interface, particularly in his book ‘Risk Society’ (Beck 1992). There he posited that there are common ‘bads’ in our risk society as well as common ‘goods’: techno-economic development itself could actually increase problems in practice rather than solve them. He called for more non-state actor/policy/public engagement and feedback into the processes of science (or ‘upstream engagement’) in order to more properly account for and deal with the contested spaces of (public and private) engagement with science.

The third wave is called the ‘normative theory of expertise’. It is similar to the second wave in terms of the democratizing commitments, though it further maps institutional boundaries between formalized science-policy/politics and the lay public. This theoretical move seeks to delineate the variegated roles of generally legitimized and authorized ‘experts’ vis-à-vis specialist ‘experts’ in the field in question. In other words, in the case of climate change, this modeling seeks to clarify which groups and institutions may be ‘authorized’ speakers on climate science, while others are not (Collins and Evans 2002). (pp. 19-20)

Research on public understanding of climate change has burgeoned in recent years. A subset of this work has examined how media representations of climate change influence ongoing science practice interactions. A salient focus has been on representations of uncertainty. Scientists often have difficulty placing the uncertainty associated with their research into a familiar context, through an appropriate analogy; in other words, “translating error bars into ordinary language” (Pollack 2003, 77). Scientific uncertainty has entered debates regarding action, sometimes serving to inspire inaction (Demeritt 2001); it is an inherent element in all scientific inquiry.

A study of US newspaper and magazine coverage from 1986 through 1995 – in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times and unspecified magazines from the popular press – found that uncertainty was consistently prominent theme in reporting. It concludes that uncertainty “was used to help construct an exclusionary boundary between ‘the public’ and climate change scientists” thereby contributing to deferential citizens and diffused public involvement through acceptance of the need for ‘more research’ (Zehr 2000, 85). In practice, the mass media have effectively amplified uncertainty through coverage of climate contrarians’ counter-claims regarding anthropogenic climate change (Wilkins 1993; Zehr 1999; McCright 2007), without providing context that these claims have been marginalized in the climate science community (Schneider 1993; Dunwoody 1999). Clearly, this can distract from further engagement with climate adaptation issues.

Research by Corbett and Durfee (Corbett and Durfee 2004) examined coverage of climate change with a focus on uncertainty. Through an experiment design of three newspaper story treatments – controversy, context and control (neither context nor controversy) – they found that greater contextualization within climate science stories helps to mitigate against controversy stirred up through uncertainty. Thus, reader perceptions were affected by the sometime subtle characteristics (mentioned in the ‘first phase’ above). In regards to public understanding of climate adaptation, this information on how content impacts reader comprehension is useful. (p. 20)

Connected to content, a number of polls have queried reader comprehension of climate change. For instance, Bord, O’Connor and Fisher conducted a survey to investigate links between knowledge of climate change causes and behaviors (2000). Through 1,218 surveys, they found that increased understanding also increases people’s stated intentions to do something about it. Providing greater texture to analysis of public perceptions and actions in regards to climate change, a study of beliefs and attitudes about the severity of climate change was undertaken in 1997 and 1998 (Krosnick et al. 2006). Through telephone interviews of 1,413 adults, they found that beliefs were a function of three main factors: possible relevant personal experiences (e.g. exposure to weather disasters), perceived consequences of climate change (e.g. relative vulnerability) and messages from informants (e.g. scientists via the mass media). Through this empirical research, the authors put forward a mechanism linking knowledge and action: “knowledge may have increased certainty, which in turn increased assessments of national seriousness, which in turn increased policy support…knowledge about an issue per se will not necessarily increase support for a relevant policy. It will do so only if existence beliefs, attitudes, and beliefs about human responsibility are in place to permit the necessary reasoning steps to unfold” (Krosnick et al. 2006, 36-37).

Among a number of important research projects carried out in this area by Leiserowitz (that I anticipate he will outline in his associated background paper), a 2006 national survey in the US sought to examine climate risk perceptions via affect, imagery and values. Through 673 surveys, he found that respondents perceive climate change as a moderate risk, melting glaciers and polar ice were the most prominent images associated with climate change, and bipartisan support for GHG reduction policies at the international and national levels (Leiserowitz 2006).

However, the study found a disconnect between broad support for policy action and support for policies that could potentially curb individual behaviors related to GHG emissions (such as higher gas prices), and this was influenced most strongly by values (from egalitarian to hierarchical and individual to communal). He concluded that “messages about climate change need to be tailored to the needs and predispositions of particular audiences; in some cases to directly challenge fundamental misconceptions, in others to resonate with strongly held values” (Leiserowitz 2006, 64).

This association with values was also a strong feature that influenced views of the 1997 debate on climate mitigation action. Surveys of 1,413 adults found that despite about half of respondents seeing television news coverage of climate change debates on Kyoto action in 1997, few of their opinions on the issue changed (Krosnick et al. 2000). Furthermore, a psychological study of 76 experimental subjects found a preference for mitigation of GHG emissions (“undoing the effects of global warming”) over adaptation measures (“providing…economic assistance”). There was also a demonstrated preference for helping people in one’s own country before people in other countries (Baron 2006, 146). These studies provide important evidence on the critical need for accurate information and active education of the populace to facilitate climate adaptation, keeping in mind the aforementioned complexities. Furthermore, these studies point out the importance of perspectives and preferences in determining which climate mitigation and adaptation strategies may be more readily accepted, and therefore more successful. (pp. 20-21)

Other studies have investigated the kinds of engagement that people have had with climate information…Connected to this, a number of polls have also explored public understanding of climate change more generally. For instance, an MIT study found that climate change is poorly understood overall. Through a 17-question internet survey, 1,200 participants responded to questions regarding climate change, and more specifically, mitigation technologies. In ranking ‘high-priority’ environmental issues for the public, ‘global warming’ ranked sixth (Herzog et al. 2005).

Within this issue, Yale University conducted a poll regarding connections between energy technologies and climate change. Through 1002 interviews, the poll found that [] an overwhelming number of respondents (93%) stated that they want government to work on breaking the links between energy use and environmental harm (Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies 2005).

In 2007, the Nielson Company conducted a poll of 25,408 internet users across 46 countries, where they asked participants questions that referred to global warming. Three key limitations may have affected and pervaded responses: 1) varying levels of acquiescence, 2) differentiated cultural interpretations of the term ‘global warming’, and 3) different socio-economic and educational levels of internet users in each country that may deem these response sets unrepresentative of larger public understanding in various countries. Nonetheless, the responses provide insights into public understanding and engagement with climate change, and the scope of the poll is unparalleled. The survey asked ‘what is your biggest concern’ as well as ‘your second biggest concern’ in ‘the next six months’? It also asked the question ‘have you heard or read anything about the issue of global warming?’ and, ‘from what you have heard or read about global warming, what do you think is causing it?’ Overall, Latin Americans and Europeans were found to be the most aware as well as the most concerned about climate change. On the other side, North Americans were reported as the least aware and least concerned (The Nielsen Company 2007). (pp. 21-22)

Lorenzoni and Pidgeon’s findings concur with the Nielsen results. Through analyses of fifteen years of climate-change perception polling and research, they found that despite concern for climate change, it is an issue of lesser immediate importance than other daily issues. From this evidence, they state, “a risk communication strategy based on providing scientifically sound information alone…will not be sufficient in itself. Perceptions of climate change are more complex, defined by varied conceptualizations of agency, responsibility and trust. Successful action is only likely to take place if individuals feel they can and should make a difference, and if it is firmly based upon the trust placed in government and institutional capabilities for adequately managing risks and delivering the means to achieve change” (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006, 88).

Thus, the issue of public trust in governance emerged as an important feature of climate change action. Moreover, there is an inherent difficulty in dealing with the issue of climate-change adaptation action when the costs are often concentrated and the benefits diffuse, relative to other daily concerns. This is supported by further risk perception research (e.g. Leiserowitz 2005; Lorenzoni et al. 2006) and more recent work on costs and benefits at the University of Purdue Climate Change Research Center (Patchen 2006). These contemporary projects are reminiscent of foundational sociological work across many issues by scholars such as Theodore Lowi (Lowi 1972). This is also mentioned at the beginning of this section. (p.23)

Within this contested space, it is useful to briefly consider non-state actors, or ‘claims-makers’ that seek to frame the issue in particular ways. It is worthwhile to seek to understand how non-state actors have gained greater discursive traction through the media, and, as a result, have significantly affected public understanding. These actors can range from ‘contrarians’ to environmentalist NGOs, all seeking to shift discourses on climate change via the mass media in both particular and general ways.

An early analysis of claims-makers in the press examined coverage in five U.S. newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal – from 1985 through 1995. The study found that over this period, scientists became less dominant sources of information reported in the news (Trumbo 1996). This movement of sourcing from scientists to other actors is consistent with associated studies (e.g. McCright and Dunlap 2003). In the US context, via the aforementioned survey data in 2002 -2003, Leiserowitz found that the interpretive community dubbed ‘alarmists’ only demonstrated a more prevalent demographic of being ‘young’. Meanwhile, those dubbed ‘naysayers’ – who believed that anthropogenic inputs to global warming are negligible and over-hyped in the media – were found to be largely male, Caucasian, Republican, individualist, hierarchical, and religious . The same pattern has been found in the U.S. for acceptance of risk of all sorts (Kaloff et al. 1993). Of particular interest is that naysayers reported to rely on radio as their main source for news (Leiserowitz 2005). In this work, Leiserowitz also acknowledges that these arenas of claims-making and framing are “an exercise in power…those with the power to define the terms of the debate strongly determine the outcomes” (Leiserowitz 2005, 1441), and then calls for a more democratized discourse, perhaps akin to the aforementioned interventions of Beck (1992). (pp. 23-24)

Research by McCright and Dunlap has focused on the opposition movement dubbed ‘contrarians’ or ‘sceptics’ (McCright and Dunlap 2000; McCright and Dunlap 2003). This opposition speaks out stridently against the aforementioned consensus in climate science, and through this privileged access and power, has amplified uncertainty on human contributions to climate change by constructing the argument that human’s role is negligible. Freudenburg (Freudenburg 2000) discusses embedded power and leveraged legitimacy enabling privileged constructions of ‘non-problematicity’ in environmental issues more broadly.

In their research, McCright and Dunlap examined three major counter-claims: 1) the evidentiary basis of global warming is weak/uncertain/flawed; 2) global warming will have substantial benefits; and 3) climate policy action will do more harm than good. They also examined links between contrarians and conservative think tanks, anti-environment movements and carbon-based industry. They focused on five prominent contrarians – S. Fred Singer, Robert Balling, Sallie Baliunas, Richard Lindzen, and Patrick Michaels. They juxtaposed their influence with the work and influence of five prominent climate scientists – Stephen Schneider (Stanford University), F. Sherwood Rowland (University of California-Irvine), Bert Bolin (former chair of the IPCC), James Hansen (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies), and Benjamin Santer (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). Among their results, they found that in the early and mid-1990s, these ‘contrarians’ gained increased visibility in seven major newspapers – the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and Newsday. Furthermore, findings showed that these dissenters successfully developed legible and competing discourses to disempower top climate science, and effectively gain a foothold in national and international discourse on the causes of climate change (McCright and Dunlap 2000; McCright and Dunlap 2003).

To date, there is little peer-reviewed work that has examined how climate NGOs have influenced climate change discourse via the mass media. [???]

However, a key study of NGOs in debates on environmental science and knowledge inform the case of climate change. For instance, researchers conducted twenty-one semi structured, in-depth interviews with UK NGOs around the issue of waste – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, Green Alliance, Women’s Environmental Network, Forum for the Future, the National Society for Clean Air, the Environmental Services Association, Business in the Environment, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, and the Paper Federation. Their findings show that while NGOs still rely on the authority of science, the more contemporary spaces of science-policy interactions (see above on ‘the second wave of science studies’) allow for greater NGO access as legitimate claims-makers. In drawing lessons from their case-study, the authors make the point that across other environmental issues, “many challenges are not strategic but contextual…expertise built around one boundary does not automatically transfer to another” (Eden, Donaldson et al. 2006:1074, emphasis added). This analysis, along with others (e.g. (Yearley 1996) help illuminate ongoing challenges as well as opportunities facing traditional as well as emergent actors in the arena of media and climate science-politics. (p. 24)

More specific to climate change, Newell has examined the role of environmental pressure groups in shaping the climate policy terrain. He focused on the Climate Action Network, which is a consortium of over sixty NGOs such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense. He found that environmental NGOs “constitute an important force for political change by helping to overcome social inertia and bureaucratic resistance to policy (action)” (Newell 2000, 152). As this NGO voice has grown, some scientists and journalists have raised concern in recent months regarding NGO movements that push climate change discourse in the media beyond the parameters of what science can currently claim. This has been characterized in various ways such as ‘catastrophism’ by Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK (Hulme 2006) or ‘alarmism’ in the IPPR report ‘Warm Words’ (Ereaut and Segnit 2006) or ‘climate fundamentalism’… However, (perhaps to justify ‘alarmist’ NGO work to motivate action) previous work has revealed the effectiveness of such movements. A study of media coverage of global warming – in the New York Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, Time, Newsweek, the Economist, Science, Nature, and the New Scientist – from 1987 into the early 1990s found that “social scares…accelerate political demands, (and) can be important sources of social change” (Ungar 1992, 497). Thus, the terrain of science, policy and the public via in the media in the issue of climate change – both mitigation and adaptation – remains a dynamic and contested one. (pp. 24-25)


Overall, in the milieu explored in this document, it has been important to investigate mass media’s portrayal of climate change/global warming mitigation and adaptation. It has also been worthwhile to consider the role of media coverage as it relates to science and policy. In discussing mass media influence, Bennett has said, “Few things are as much a part of our lives as the news…it has become a sort of instant historical record of the pace, progress, problems, and hopes of society” (Bennett 2002, 10). The survey above aims to help make sense of current trends, strengths and weaknesses of media representations of climate change, and thus assist in identifying and supporting potentially effective links that can be made to ongoing challenges of climate change mitigation and adaptation communications, as well as human development pursuits with the UNDP.

This paper set out to raise a series of questions and point a few directions in beginning to answer them: What role do the media play in influencing personal, national, and international action to address climate change? How much has the media covered climate change, and what is driving changes in that coverage? How do climate change stories come to be reported, and who gets cited as legitimate sources in those stories? What influence do the media play in forming public opinion? And a new awareness is to grow of the need for large amounts of foreign aid to help poor nations adapt to climate change, then what role can the media playing in mobilizing that aid? (p. 33)

The core of the paper uses Carvalho and Burgess’(2005) framework of the “three phases” of news production, public discourse, and media consumption and personal engagement with climate change. In the first phase we described how large-scale economic and political factors shape the production of news, as well as the norms and needs of journalists, editors, and producers such as novelty and balance. In the second phase, we described how climate news stories compete (often weakly) with other more immediate issues for public attention, and how this leads to their marginality in national budgets, as public officials face voters concerned with local issues like crime and jobs. Anthony Downs’ “Issue Attention Cycle” would lead one to expect climate change to quickly rise and fall as a hot news story, but the issue continues to garner huge amounts of coverage, and there is significant debate in the “Public Arenas” about what the scientific findings mean. The third phase examined citizen knowledge and engagement with the issue of climate change, and the influential role of climate ‘sceptics’ in paralyzing action. Even without uncertainty about the human causes of climate change, people are often demobilized by feelings of isolation, hopelessness, powerlessness and lack of public trust in government to effectively address the issues. We then examined the history of foreign aid for climate change, and reviewed a series of studies on how reporting on disasters drives aid agency budgeting. (pp. 33-34).

One could summarize from this review that the media has at times kept the issue of climate change alive, but has also limited the extent to which real change in the organization of society and foreign assistance have been called for. To put it plainly, the press has been quite reformist in its portrayal of the needed action on climate change, when the scientific projections suggest the issue may call for truly revolutionary changes. The difficult position of the media in capitalist society is that commercial news outlets require huge amounts of advertising to pay their salaries and other expenses, and the greatest advertisers are for automobiles, real estate, airlines, fast food, and home furnishings. To create demand for real mitigation of climate change emissions would require the media to repeatedly and insistently call for truly revolutionary changes in society, precisely away from consumption of the products of their advertisers. By comparison, creating pressure for the allocation of significant resources for adaptation to climate change will be relatively less threatening to the system that supports these media outlets. Whether that allocation will include sending funds to poor nations, of course, remains to be seen. To date in the studies and analyses outlined above, in some cases the media has been demonstrated to actually have played a role in hampering accurate communications about climate science to policy actors and the public via the media (e.g. Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). However, in other cases the role of mass media in communicating climate science, mitigation and adaptation has been mixed or more positive (e.g. Boykoff and Boykoff 2007). Thus, through the rich and broad range of studies outlined in this background paper, one can conclude that many challenges as well as opportunities lay ahead. Throughout the paper, we have sought to provide insights and details that substantiate this ultimate point.

There are clear needs for further research in this arena of climate science-media policy/practice, as mentioned throughout this background paper. There are numerous areas where this can (and should) be pursued. For instance, there simply needs to be more research specifically examining media coverage of climate change adaptation. To date, the aforementioned studies in this background paper have focused on either climate change generally or climate change mitigation (forexample coverage of diminishing human contributions to climate change). Moreover, there is a clear need for more of this work to be extended into other countries, such as China, India and Brazil. Boykoff has examined U.S. and UK media coverage of climate change, and this survey notes other prominent studies also undertaken in the U.S. and UK, as well as countries such as Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand. However, analyses of media coverage in key countries in ongoing UN international climate policy negotiations can help to clarify ongoing impediments as well as enhance actions. There appears to be a new impulse of scientific and press coverage on the need for massive foreign assistance for adaptation to climate change, growing in part from the April 2007 release of the second Working Group of the IPCC’s report on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability (IPCC WGII 2007). For instance, Revkin’s New York Times article ‘Poorest Nations Will Bear Brunt as World Warms’ has recently drawn greater media attention to the issues of inequality, climate change, adaptation and human development (Revkin 2007a). This was the case also with the follow-up piece entitled, ‘The Climate Divide: Wealth and Poverty, Drought and Flood: Reports from Four Fronts in the War on Warming’ (Revkin 2007b). The question is whether this new understanding of the need for adaptation will result in sustained and effective media coverage of the issue, increases in citizen action, NGO activity, national policymaker initiatives, and international agreement.

Overall, the tools gained from the mapping of the terrain and the literature in the field of media coverage of climate change will help to identify key trends, strengths and weaknesses. It has been a challenging task for mass media to effectively cover this complex issue of climate change. As outlined throughout this document, there are external and internal pressures at multiple scales, both in the public and the private spheres over time. While reporting on the physical science has improved in recent years, coverage of the complex biological and human processes and activities (such as adaptation) is just emerging. Moreover, while coverage has focused on technical aspects (such as carbon sequestration), it has been more difficult to effectively cover moral, ethical and cultural issues. However, given the increase in quantity of climate change coverage overall, there are more spaces for quality coverage in these arenas. Many of these pressures and factors have proven contradictory (for example dealing with consumption questions amid corporate capitalist media organization pursuits) but some can be optimistically viewed as complementary (such as increased public attention on the issue and thus greater individual and well as collective engagement with the challenges therein). This background research aims to assist in the challenges of grappling with ongoing and interacting human environment issues, such as climate change, adaptation and human development.


Warm Words: How Are We Telling the Climate Story and Can We Tell it Better?

By Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit

The Institute for Public Policy Research (August 2006)


…This report was commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) as part of its project on how to stimulate climate-friendly behaviour in the UK. Putting in place effective policies to achieve that is clearly essential, but so too is the use of effective communications. Today in the UK, more stakeholders, including every type of media outlet, the Government, environmental groups and companies, are discussing or communicating on climate change than ever before. But what impact are these stakeholders having? Are they helping or hindering efforts to achieve behaviour change? Will producing more of the same communications do the job, and if not, how could the way climate change is communicated be improved? To help answer those questions, ippr commissioned Linguistic Landscapes to analyse current UK constructions and conceptions of climate change in the public domain, using some of the tools and principles of discourse analysis and semiotics.

…In academic research, discourse analysis methods are hugely varied, ranging from macro-scale cultural or historical analyses to micro-level dissection of how everyday conversations work. Linguistic Landscapes selects tools and concepts from across this range as appropriate for the given project, and puts them to work to answer key questions for businesses and other organisations. Its methods are essentially qualitative, and so do not involve numerical analysis. They are a combination of art and science: interpretative, while also evidence-based and systematic.

…Semiotic analysis is a related research approach – another desk-based method with roots in the academic field. Again, through systematic analysis and informed interpretation, this approach allows us to understand cultural meanings and cultural change, and the ways these are encoded and decoded through communications of all kinds.

Together, the discourse analysis and semiotic approaches enable us to map structural patterns in communications and in other discussions of climate change, and to assess their implications for connecting with mass audiences.

Objectives and scope of the study

The objectives Linguistic Landscapes was asked to meet for this study were to:

● provide top-line analysis of the dominant discourses or ‘voices’ evidenced in popular media coverage of climate change and in communications designed to change relevant attitudes and behaviours, as well as the norms, values and lines of argument that go with them

examine who these communications are targeting – implicitly or explicitly

look, to a degree, at public discourse (for example, in chat rooms, jokes, popular language) and also at ‘competing’ discourses around climate change

explore the unspoken backdrop to different sets of communications approaches – for example, what is treated as true, obvious and unproblematic versus what is marked as contentious or contested

explore where these discourses might connect or clash with other discourses and value systems, helping or hindering the public’s understanding of the issues and attempts to change attitudes and behaviours

examine patterns in the detail of language and communications that might help explain why they fail to connect with popular imagination and consciousness at an effective level

● explore, on this basis, how communications might need to develop, in order to most effectively communicate the issue of climate change

● provide broad guidance towards codes, concepts, discourses and tonality that could frame a new and more effective means of communicating climate change to the public. (pp. 5-6)

Executive Summary

An Overview of the Discourse

The research found that the climate change discourse in the UK today looks confusing, contradictory and chaotic. For every argument or perspective, whether on the scale of the problem, its nature, seriousness, causation or reversibility, there is a voice declaring its opposite. The conclusion must be that the battle is not won: climate change is not yet an issue that is taken for granted. It seems likely that the overarching message for the lay public is that in fact, nobody really knows.

Nevertheless, we may be coming towards the end of this period of disputation and uncertainty. Although the climate change discourse is still very unstable and in flux, some streams emerged through this study as dominant or stable enough to capture.

It is possible to identify several distinct linguistic repertoires on climate change in the UK today. Repertoires are systems of language that are routinely used for describing and evaluating actions, events and people. They offer different ways of thinking and talking and act as different versions of what can be considered ‘common sense’. They are important because they are resources that people can draw on as they try to make sense of an issue and what it means for them.

There are three groups of climate change repertoires in the UK. There is an ‘alarmist’ repertoire, which is fundamentally pessimistic and is in a category of its own, as well as two groups of ‘optimistic’ repertoires – one that includes repertoires that assume ‘it’ll be alright’ and a more pragmatic set of repertoires that assume ‘it’ll be alright as long as we do something’.


Climate change is most commonly constructed through the alarmist repertoire – as awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control. This repertoire is seen everywhere and is used or drawn on from across the ideological spectrum, in broadsheets and tabloids, in popular magazines and in campaign literature from government initiatives and environmental groups. It is typified by an inflated or extreme lexicon, incorporating an urgent tone and cinematic codes. It employs a quasi-religious register of death and doom, and it uses language of acceleration and irreversibility.

The difficulty with it is that the scale of the problem as it is shown excludes the possibility of real action or agency by the reader or viewer. It contains an implicit counsel of despair – ‘the problem is just too big for us to take on’. Its sensationalism and connection with the unreality of Hollywood films also distances people from the issue. In this awesome form, alarmism might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’. It also positions climate change as yet another apocalyptic construction that is perhaps a figment of our cultural imaginations, further undermining its ability to help bring about action. (p. 7)

Settlerdom and British Comic Nihilism

‘Settlerdom’ (named after the ‘settlers’ attitudinal typology devised to describe people with sustenance-driven needs) is one of two significant optimistic but ‘non-pragmatic’ climate repertoires. It rejects and mocks the alarmist discourse – and with it climate change – by invoking ‘common sense’ on behalf of ‘the sane majority’ in opposition to ‘the doom-mongers’. It dismisses climate change as a thing so fantastic that it cannot be true and reflects a refusal to engage in the debate. It is seen most clearly in the broadly rightwing popular press, but is also likely to be the stuff of pub conversations. It is significant because it is immune to scientific argument and its prevalence underlines that the task of climate change agencies is not to persuade by rational argument but to develop a new ‘common sense’.

‘British comic nihilism’ is another evasive rhetorical repertoire. Its rejection of climate change is whimsical, unserious, blithely irresponsible – a sunny refusal to engage in the debate, typified by comic musings on the positive possibilities of a future with climate change. It is currently marginal, seen in just a few places in the middle-class press and radio. But it is potentially important because it is a very British repertoire (self-mocking and contrary, dealing with adversity and threat by use of humour) and a very middle-class one, which could be important if agencies choose to address a middle-class or professional audience. (pp. 7-8) [IS CLASS-BASED POLITICS IN THE OFFING??]

Small Actions

‘Small actions’ is the pre-eminent ‘pragmatic’ optimistic repertoire, and, along with alarmism, is the most dominant of all the climate repertoires, prevalent in campaign communications and mainstream popular press. It involves asking a large number of people to do small things to counter climate change. The language is one of ease, convenience and effortless agency, as well as of domesticity, seen in reference to kettles and cars, ovens and light switches.

The problem with it is that it easily lapses into ‘wallpaper’ – the domestic, the routine, the boring and the too-easily ignorable. It can be lacking in energy and may not feel compelling. It is often placed alongside alarmism – typified by headlines like ‘20 things you can do to save the planet from destruction’. But this contrast can also be used to deflate, mock and reject alarmism and, with it, climate change. Bringing together these two repertoires without reconciling them, juxtaposing the apocalyptic and the mundane, seems likely to feed an asymmetry in human agency with regards to climate change and highlight the unspoken but obvious question: how can small actions really make a difference to things happening on this epic scale? (p. 8)

Conclusions and Recommendations

Many of the existing approaches to climate change communications clearly seem unproductive. And it is not enough simply to produce yet more messages, based on rational argument and top-down persuasion, aimed at convincing people of the reality of climate change and urging them to act. Instead, we need to work in a more shrewd and contemporary way, using subtle techniques of engagement.

To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken. (p. 8)

Treating climate change as beyond argument

Much of the noise in the climate change discourse comes from argument and counter-argument, and it is our recommendation that, at least for popular communications, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. This must be done by stepping away from the ‘advocates debate’ described earlier, rather than by stating and re-stating these things as fact.

The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken. The certainty of the Government’s new climate-change slogan – ‘Together this generation will tackle climate change’ (Defra 2006) – gives an example of this approach. It constructs, rather than claims, its own factuality.

Where science is invoked, it now needs to be as ‘lay science’ – offering lay explanations for what is being treated as a simple established scientific fact, just as the earth’s rotation or the water cycle are considered… (p. 25)

…The disparity of scale between the enormity of climate change and small individual actions should be dealt with by actually harnessing this disparity. Myth (which can reconcile seemingly irreconcilable cultural truths) can be used to inject the discourse with the energy it currently lacks.

…Rather than offering the public a good solution, this juxtaposition of the apocalyptic and the mundane seems in fact to highlight the unspoken but obvious question: how can small actions really make a difference to things happening on this epic scale? This approach perhaps offers the reader some semi-humorous ways to not worry, or tokenism, rather than ways to feel good, powerful, and active.

Some recent and current climate-change campaigns for personal behaviour change can also be seen as effectively (if unconsciously) disempowering and distancing audiences…

… It is clear, then, that current communications aiming to inspire domestic climate-friendly actions can easily come up against problems, even those seeking to build progressively on consumer feedback…However, inspiring such actions is critical for tackling climate change. So we need to ask how ‘small actions’ can better be presented to the British public. (pp. 25-26)

Opposing the enormous forces of climate change requires an effort that is superhuman or heroic. The cultural norms (what we normally expect to be true) are that heroes – the ones who act, are powerful and carry out great deeds – are extraordinary, while ordinary mortals either do nothing or do bad things. The mythical position – the one that occupies the seemingly impossible space – is that of ‘ordinary hero’. The ‘ordinary heroism’ myth is potentially powerful because it feels rooted in British culture – from the Dunkirk spirit to Live Aid. (p. 8)


…More generally, the challenge is to make climate-friendly behaviours feel normal, natural, right and ‘ours’ to large numbers of people who are currently unengaged, and on whose emotional radar the issue does not figure. The answer is not to try to change their radar but to change the issue, so it becomes something they willingly pick up, because it means something valuable in their own terms. This can be achieved by shaping communications in several key ways, including:

Targeting groups bound by shared values and behaviours rather than by demographics – making desired climate friendly behaviours feel simply like ‘the kinds of things that people like us do’ to large groups of people.

● Reflecting the fact that a large proportion of the population have esteem-driven needs – they want to feel special and are accustomed to achieving this through what they do and buy, rather than what they do not do or do not buy.

●Working on the basis that people increasingly trust other people more than governments, businesses and other institutions.

● Using non-rational approaches like metaphor as well as more rationalistic approaches to enable people to engage emotionally and make desired behaviours appear attractive.

Ultimately, positive climate behaviours need to be approached in the same way as marketeers approach acts of buying and consuming. This is the relevant context for climate change communications in the UK today – not the increasingly residual models of public service or campaigning communications. It amounts to treating climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be sold. This is, we believe, the route to mass behaviour change. (pp. 8-9)

……Working within today’s cultural context: the real challenge

More broadly, we strongly suggest it is not enough simply to produce yet more messages to convince people of the reality of climate change and urge them to act. We need to work in different and more sophisticated ways, harnessing tools and concepts used by brand advertisers, to make it not dutiful or obedient to be climate-friendly, but desirable.

Specifically, climate-friendly actions need to be made to feel attractive and compelling in terms that make sense to people today. Doing so means working within the cultural norms, value systems and communication contexts that are meaningful to large sections of the population. (p. 27)…


The Representation of Nature on the BBC World Service


Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, Volume 22, Issue 1, Pages 1–27 (9/4/2002)

ISSN (Online) 1613-4117, ISSN (Print) 0165-4888, DOI: 10.1515/text.2002. 003 , 09/04/2002


This article takes a critical discourse approach to an investigation of the representation of nature in BBC World Service radio. Presuming a weak form of the Whorfian hypothesis, whose current evaluation in linguistics is discussed at some length, it uses systemic functional grammar and tools for computing collocations to interrogate the COBUILD Direct/Bank of English BBC World Service subcorpus. Firstly, having established a rough hierarchy of power among participants in the clause, it investigates the relative power of ten classes of natural ‘objects’, discovering that weather, and disease are the most powerful and plants and minerals the least. It finds nature frequently marginalized as ‘environment’ rather than involved as a participant. It then proceeds to look at the typical collocates of the natural objects selected, demonstrating the importance of economics, politics, and warfare to the representation of nature, which is largely seen as passive and exploitable. It argues that, due to the anthropocentric nature of news values, nature is typically recognized as powerful when the processes are open to human perception and are perceived as a threat to humans. A brief comparison is made with Wordsworth’s The Prelude which is shown to involve different representations, where nature is more communicative, reflecting a different genre and an oppositional ideology.


The question I wish to look at in this article is how patterns of choices of lexicogrammar in a corpus of material from BBC World Service radio represent nature and the power of nature. How helpful or harmful might this representation be to those interested in raising levels of ecological awareness and action, as compared with, for example, the representation of nature in Wordsworth’s The Prelude? The effect of the BBC’s representation of nature in structuring thinking and action will presumably depend on the extent to which it is resisted and on how widespread the BBC’s reach is.

The concept of nature is, of course, quite variable and controversial: it is a linguistic and semantic category, which itself constructs the world of material things into the natural and non-natural or man-made. ‘Nature is what man has not made, though if he made it long enough ago—a hedgerow or a desert—it will usually be included as natural’ (Williams 1983: 223). This problem of ontological categorization itself illustrates that the world of our experience does not come to us in ready-made unproblematic categories, and that language mediates between our thoughts and perceptions of the world and its external reality. This assumption is based on the Whorfian hypothesis, in at least its weak form, namely that the language we speak predisposes us to perceive, think (and act) in certain ways, and makes it more difficult to perceive and think in alternative ways. Since such a hypothesis underlies this present piece of research I will begin with a discussion of the position of Whorf in recent linguistic theory and in critical discourse analysis.

Language, thought, and action

The Whorfian hypothesis (Whorf 1956) has gone out of fashion in mainstream North American linguistics (cf. Pinker’s superficial rejection in The Language Instinct [1994: 59–66]). In the Chomskyan movement the mainstream agenda has been to isolate semantics, by insisting on the autonomy of syntax (Chomsky 1965), to emphasize the commonalities of different languages, and to search for the universals of their grammar. For some, however, the more fascinating question might be why different humans, who have the same brain structure, the same cerebral cortex, more or less the same bodily structures, should speak different languages (Steiner 1975). A celebration of the diversity of languages, which seems inextricably linked with biodiversity (Mühlhäusler 1996), and a recognition that they construct different versions of ‘reality’, encourages a renewed interest in and a re-evaluation of Whorf’s views. Renewed interest has been shown in anthropological linguistic circles, as is evident from publications such as Gumperz and Levinson (1996). And there have been more or less successful attempts to defend, explain, or reclaim the hypothesis by John Lucy (1992) and Penny Lee (1996).

While Whorf was suffering neglect in theoretical linguistic circles, he was nevertheless being kept alive from the 1970s onwards in critical linguistics (e.g., Fowler, Hodge, Kress and Trew 1979; Hodge and Kress 1993) and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1989; Fowler 1991; etc.). Here his theory is transposed from an account of how different languages structure our thinking and construct or express our ontology/ideology, to a demonstration of how choices from within the resources of a single language do the same (e.g., Fowler 1991: chapter 5). This perspective on linguistic relativity builds on the recognition that, while Whorf intended his theory to be about the structure of language, ‘theoretically prior is a linguistic relativity that has to do with the use of language’ (Hymes 1996: 114).

That the Whorfian hypothesis applies to intra-linguistic use as well as across languages, explains the fuss over ‘political correctness’, and why feminism fights linguistic and discoursal battles as well as political ones (e.g., Cameron 1985; Coates 1986; Threadgold 1997). Examples of language use as a site for cognitive and ideological struggle can often be found in metaphorical language use (Goatly 1997: 131À133; 155À157). A particularly disturbing example of linguistic metaphors attempting to affect thinking and thereby justify behavior comes from descriptions of street children in Rio, Brazil:

Street children’…are often described as ‘dirty vermin’ so that metaphors of ‘street cleaning’, ‘trash removal’, ‘fly swatting’, ‘pest removal’ and ‘urban hygiene’ have been invoked to garner broad-based support for police and death squad activities against them. (New Internationalist 10/1997, p. 21)

Lately, linguists reassessing the linguistic relativity hypothesis in Gumperz and Levinson (1996) have also recognized that it need not be confined to cross language comparisons but operates within the same language. For example Kay (1996) demonstrates how the semantics of English, as evidenced by the syntax of English allows each speaker to take a variety of perspectives on every separate instance of the commercial event frame. Such a frame can be perspectivized with the buyer as agent (buy, pay), the seller as agent (sell), or no agent (cost). (1996: 104) From a more sociolinguistic perspective Gumperz suggests: Different social networks in the same society, city or street are likely to yield different meaning systems, provided they persist over time and become ‘institutionalized’.

The simple association of one tribe, one culture, one language, which was implicit in the older Humboldtian and Sapir-Whorfian traditions, then breaks down. We can have speakers of the same language fractionated by interpretive subsystems associated within distinct social networks in complex societies, and conversely, we can have social networks that transcend cultural and grammatical systems to create shared interpretive systems beneath linguistic diversity (Gumperz 1971, referred to in Gumperz 1996: 361). There are, according to this view, both centrifugal forces leading to a diversification of meaning systems, and compensating centripetal forces allowing meaning systems to operate across linguistic subcultures. Which of these meaning systems comes to have cross-cultural significance is a matter of institutional and political power, the power of elites, and their associated cultural capital (Bourdieu 1991). In this article I concentrate on the BBC World Service, an exemplar of a discourse which transcends local, subcultural, and indeed cultural systems to create a ‘shared interpretive system[s] beneath linguistic diversity’, by virtue of its institutional power, its elite status and its associated cultural capital.

Why the BBC World Service?

For most people in this world the source of information on global events and developments is radio and newspapers, with television and latterly the Internet important only in the rich world. The availability of newspapers (with wider distribution networks than books) and of the radio, which travels via satellites and airwaves, makes them staple information providers (Goatly 2000: 247). The BBC World Service, though many of its radio broadcasts are in languages other than English, boasts 140 million regular listeners worldwide. It has built up an enviable reputation as reliable and relatively ‘unbiased’. One of its key aims is ‘to deliver objective information’, pace Whorf. It also claims to be ‘the world’s most widely trusted international radio network’ (BBC webpage). If this is indeed the case, it means that listeners are likely to lower their critical guard when listening to the BBC, in ways in which they would not if listening to, for instance, Voice of America. So the influence of the BBC is considerable in its construction of ‘reality’, which is one good reason why analyzing its representation of nature could be an interesting and important project. What are the institutionalized meanings or ‘shared interpretive system’ by which, through its habitual uses of language, its fashions of speaking, this elite institution represents and constructs nature?

A practical reason to use the BBC world service data is that COBUILD Direct, the corpus of 56 million words of English run by Collins and Birmingham University in the UK, has a subcorpus of BBC World Service material, which makes data collection and analysis easier (COBUILD Direct). This sub-corpus has two-and-a-half million words, gathered between April 1990 and August 1991.

Why lexicogrammar, and why systemic functional grammar?

The choice to look at lexicogrammar rather than purely lexis has to do with its latency. We are usually, as language users, much more aware of the vocabulary choices we make than of the grammatical choices (Silverstein 1981). Because grammar remains at this unconscious level it is much more likely to convey latent ideology, an ideological stranglehold which joins hands with commonsense, and which is therefore more powerful and potentially dangerous.

The discussion of grammatical categories is relevant because, on the Whorfian view, it is the underlying conceptual distinctions built into these categories that may, by virtue of their obligatoriness, repetition and unconscious nature be especially inclined to induce distinctive habits of thought. (Levinson 1996: 135)

Though we are dealing with language in use, and the choices that this involves within a single language, so that ‘obligatoriness’ is less strong, certainly the elements of repetitiveness and unconsciousness are entirely relevant to the grammatical meanings in our corpus.

The grammatical or ‘transitivity’ model which I will be using for analysis is that of Michael Halliday (Halliday 1994), the prime mover in systemic functional grammar (SFG). There are two or three reasons for adopting this grammatical model for the analysis of my corpus. Firstly critical linguists and critical discourse analysis practitioners are on the whole sympathetic to systemic functional grammar, with its highly developed notions of social context or register. Language is here seen as both constitutive and reflective of aspects of the context such as field (activity/subject matter), tenor (interpersonal roles and positions of participants in the discourse), and mode (the rhetorical role the language is playing in the interaction, including the choice of medium and channel). One branch of systemic functional linguistics associated with Jim Martin has developed a hierarchy in which phonology is an expression of lexicogrammar, lexicogrammar is an expression of semantics, semantics an expression of register (context of situation), register of genre (context of culture), and genre of ideology (Martin 1992: 494À497).

Secondly, systemic functional grammar is relatively favorable to the Whorfian hypothesis, though Halliday gives more stress to societal influences than Whorf did. Given the importance of register to his linguistic theory, Halliday’s own view on Whorf is that society mediates between worldview and language in ways which Whorf did not recognize. For example he endorses Bernstein’s view that places the emphasis on changes in the social structure as major factors in shaping or changing a given culture through their effect on the consequences of fashions of speaking. It shares with Whorf the controlling influence on experience ascribed to ‘frames of consistency’ involved in fashions of speaking. It differs [from] Whorf by asserting that, in the context of a common language in the sense of a general code, there will arise distinct linguistic forms, fashions of speaking, which induce in their speakers different ways of relating to objects and persons. (Bernstein 1971: 123, quoted in Halliday 1978: 25) For Bernstein, as for Halliday, there is a dialectical relationship between language, society and thought. Fashions of speaking on the one hand reflect changes in social structure and on the other induce particular kinds of social and physical action.

Hasan, following Halliday, has demonstrated how fashions of speaking, selectively patterned uses of language resources, can form constellations which create a consistent semantic frame, which in turn reflect or generate an ideology, for instance of woman’s work. Important is her contention that it is not isolated linguistic features which relate an ideology, but patterned clusters of them or constellations, just as for Whorf it was such configurative rapport which reflected an ontology (Hasan 1996: 146–147). Fashions of speaking about nature on the BBC, and the ideology or ontology they represent are precisely the issue in this article.

Thirdly, Halliday’s grammar, rather like case grammar, is particularly useful for our purposes, because he sees an intimate, though not unproblematic, relationship between the grammar and the semantics of the clause. For him the grammar encodes, ideationally, through its lexical verbs, four basic types of process, with the subjects and objects/complements of these verbs referring to corresponding participants, as in Table 1 (Halliday 1994: chapter 5). This article concentrates almost exclusively on material processes. So let us look at an example for analysis:

(1) ActorProcess AffectedCircumstance

a. A Palestinian bomb killedtwo Israeli tourists on a beach.
b. The Russians left yesterday.

Roughly speaking, we can think of a power hierarchy with actors in transitive clauses like a Palestinian bomb in (1a) represented as the most powerful, actors in intransitive clauses like the Russians in (1b) as next most powerful; and ‘affecteds’ like two Israeli tourists in (1a) as the most passive and least powerful. Circumstances, e.g., on a beach in (1a), seem neutral and marginalized (See Figure 1).

Table 1. Processes, meanings, and participants

Process type
Material Action, event or happening

Actor and affected

Sensing, feeling, thinking
Senser and phenomenon

Sayer, target, receiver, verbiage

Being and existing
Token and value

Of course Figure 1 is rather a crude hierarchy, and the type of verb involved varies a great deal in the amount of power or powerlessness it ascribes to the actor and the affected. If we rewrote (1b) as (2), according to the grammatical hierarchy the village would be as powerless as the two Israeli tourists in (1a), which is clearly out of step with the semantics of the verb leave. In what sense can the village be seen as much affected by the Russians leaving it? Still, with this caveat, the hierarchy gives us a serviceable guide to relative power, and I have made allowances in my analysis by discounting material processes of location like (2) when calculating affecteds.

(2) The Russians left the village yesterday

Research questions

This current research is framed by five questions, the last two enshrining hypotheses:

1. Are natural ‘objects’ represented as powerful or not in the lexicogrammar of the clause? The kind of power I have in mind is calculated purely in terms of the hierarchy in Figure 1. (This is a more limited concept of power than that used in sociolinguistic analysis. Poynton [1985], for example, conceived of social power as having the dimensions of force, authority, status, and expertise. Power of natural objects is confined to the first of these dimensions.)

2. Which classes of natural objects are seen as most powerful in the lexicogrammar of the clause? To answer this question, nature is somewhat arbitrarily classified into insects, birds, land animals, aquatic animals, disease, plants, water, land and landscape, weather, and mineral substances. At least this gives us a chance to be more specific in our findings than in the more general question 1.

Figure 1. Power hierarchy in material process clauses

3. What do collocations tell us about the typical lexicogrammatical patterns in which particular natural objects figure? Question 3 takes us to an even more specific level than question 2, giving the opportunity to look in detail at the most common collocations (and colligations) of specific lexical items, and to identify clichés of nature.

Having researched these questions I address two supplementary questions in an attempt to explain some of the patterns observable in our answers to the first three.

4. Are natural objects only depicted as powerful to the extent that they impinge directly on humans?

5. Are the processes most frequently mentioned those which are easily noticeable and comprehensible by the human perceptual apparatus?

Questions 4 and 5 clearly relate to the question of news values, and how they affect the choice of news stories involving nature. From my personal ideological perspective, news values are becoming increasingly suspect, reinforcing, as they do, commonsense attitudes to nature (Gramsci 1971) beyond which we need to move if we are to survive ecologically.


I selected roughly two hundred examples of concordance lines for each of the following categories, using the lexical items listed, though aquatic animals, birds and insects could not be found in quite those quantities. (The total number of concordance lines for each category is given in parentheses).

insect, fly, mosquito, wasp, bee, mite, tick, bug, flea, louse, blackfly, larva. (140)

bird, chicken, parrot, penguin, pigeon, poultry, goose, duck, blackbird, ostrich, fowl, pheasant, magpie, martin. (140)

Land animals:
animal, horse, cat, lion, dog, elephant, rat, monkey, wolf, cow, chimp, chimpanzee, kangaroo, mouse, fox, deer, rabbit, pig. (230)

Aquatic animals:
fish, whale, shark, cod, shellfish, mussel, oyster, herring, dolphin, jellyfish, crab, lobster, plankton, salmon, newt, clam, perch, coral, seal, turtle, sea creature, toad. (138)

pox, flu, influenza, measles, virus, bacteria, germ, tuberculosis, parasite, cholera, worm, screw-worm, malaria, hepatitis, HIV. (202)

plant, tree, bush, flower, forest, woods, rose, grass, shrub, algae, vegetable, fruit, wheat, rice, straw, vegetation. (217)

flood, ice, lake, ocean, pond, river, sea, stream, tide, water, Pacific. (188)

Land and landscape:
land, bay, beach, continent, earthquake, field, hill, island, mountain, mudslide, avalanche, peninsula, plain, bush, valley, volcano. (242)

weather, rain, air, cloud, fog, hail, hailstorm, snow, sun, lightning, thunder, wind, atmosphere, typhoon, gale, shower, storm, spell, depression. (205)

Mineral substance:
clay, coal, iron, oil, rock, sand, earth, soil, mud, metal, stone. (206)

Concordance lines that were not long enough to show participant function were discarded. The remaining lines were then classified according to which of the syntactic-semantic categories the natural element belonged in, namely:

AC actor in intransitive clause

ACT actor in transitive clause

AF affected

PC prepositional complement (as part of noun phrase)

CC circumstantial prepositional complement

PM premodifier

Collocational patterns for the most frequent lexical items were observed, and these were recorded if any significant patterns were noticed.

Results and discussion

Question 1: Are natural ‘objects’ represented as powerful in the lexicogrammar of the clause?

In the BBC World Service subcorpus, the lexicogrammar of the clause on the whole represents nature as powerless or marginal. As Figure 2 shows, in transitive material process clauses, natural elements count as affecteds (in 15.2 percent of cases) more than twice as often than as actors (6.4 percent). The following example would be typical, with three natural participants as affecteds:

(3) The delegates wanted Africa to look at its own resources, both where feed was concerned and using native breeds of bird. Dr Nwosu, also from Nigeria, said that during the colonial period and immediately after that, the policy had been to import exotic breeds, not only of chickens, but also other livestock like cattle, to improve animal protein.

(In these and subsequent examples the verb indicating the process is both italicized and underlined and the noun phrase referring to the participant is underlined. Circumstances of place are shown by italics without underlining.)

As actors in intransitive clauses they are represented even less often (4.4 percent). As well as being acted upon more than acting, nature is also marginalized, being a circumstantial element, very often part of a circumstance of place (shown in italics without underlining).

(4) At least a quarter of a million king penguins live on Macquarie Island. In fact, over 70 percent of these circumstantial elements are adverbials of location or direction. This is a favorite category when talking about nature—nature as the environment, the setting in which the important actions are performed by other actors. The word environment itself betrays such an attitude, with humans as central and nature as peripheral (Goatly 2000: 278).

Question 2: Which aspects of nature are seen as most powerful in the lexicogrammar of the clause?

Figure 3 shows the relative percentages of actors in transitive clauses, actors in intransitive clauses, and affecteds, for each category of natural elements. The general pattern is clear. Weather, disease and aquatic animals are the most active; insects, land, and water are moderately active and powerful, relative to the other categories; and birds, plants and Figure 2. Relative frequencies of natural elements in syntactic-semantic categories minerals are extremely passive. But let us look at each category in turn in more detail.

Weather emerges as extremely active, not only because of the high number of weather actors in transitive clauses, but also because of the low number of affected weather participants. Weather is represented as though it is a law unto itself, avoiding being affected by, for example, humans.

This is a rather naive representation of nature—human activity is causing the global warming which is affecting the weather. It might also be noted that weather is one of the natural elements, as well as disease, that modern city dwellers find it difficult to isolate themselves from. By contrast, they may go for days or weeks in the concrete jungle without experiencing seas or rivers or mountains. Closer inspection suggests that weather as a transitive actor often affects humans in more or less disastrous ways; lightning strikes people, typhoons kill people, rain ruins sporting events: (5) Rain has continued to interrupt play at the three men’s tournaments taking place in Britain.

Disease also poses a threat to humans, but, as Figure 3 makes clear, the number of disease elements that are affecteds is much higher than is the case with weather. These to a large extent represent humans ‘fighting back’ against viruses, bacteria and HIV, with verbs like kill, get rid of, control, and deal with figuring prominently. It is also noticeable how the power of disease is often minimized by the choice of verbs like contract, suffer from, carry, and catch which grammatically represent the disease as affected rather than an actor.

(6) Over a thousand haemophiliac patients contracted the AIDS virus after using contaminated blood. Figure 3. Percentages of transitive actors, in transitive actors affecteds Compare this with (6) The AIDS virus infected over a thousand haemophiliac patients. This gives a different perspective on disease in a way similar to the different perspectives on commercial transactions investigated by Kay (1996). Turning to fish and aquatic animals, we note that five out of the fifteen actors in transitive clauses are sharks, and their affecteds are humans.

(7) An underwater fisherman was attacked and eaten by a shark near the island of Elba. Sharks, like wolves, have a bad press. The number of shark attacks on humans is minuscule, compared with the attacks of cars on humans, and yet, partly because of films like Jaws, belonging to a long line of archetypal fictions featuring hostile sea creatures such as Grendel in Beowulf and Moby Dick (Bodkin 1934), their effects on humans are magnified out of all proportion. Analysis of the processes in which aquatic animals are affecteds is significant here. Most processes are hostile to these animalskill, catch, and hunt mostly directed at whales and turtles; a few are neutral, involving human observation—seek out, follow, track; and a few are friendly, but perhaps patronizing—protect, rescue, adopt.

Hostility to aquatic animals is overshadowed by hostility to insects— witness the large number of affecteds here, often the victims of verbs like destroy, kill, fight off, eliminate, devour, and trap. The main foes are those insects implicated in disease, mosquitoes and tsetse flies making up the most common transitive actors because they are vectors of malaria and sleeping sickness.

(8) Sleeping sickness caused by a parasite transmitted by the tsetse fly also threatens millions. Land animals which are transitive actors also tend to be those which are threatening to humans if not human life, such as wolves, elephants, lions, and guard dogs.

(9) A keeper at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire has been killed by an elephant.

Animals which are affecteds, are often, like insects, treated with hostility, especially those regarded by farmers as pests, such as kangaroos, with the verbs kill, shoot, destroy, and cull, prominent. However, unlike insects, many of these animals are exploited for human benefit: people grow, feed, raise, and train them so that they can use them. We might remark that animals, birds, and water (and minerals) are the only categories in which intransitive actors are as frequent as transitive ones. Transitivity is probably privileged over intransitivity in the news, since some actor has to make a noticeable impact for its action to be newsworthy. So with animals these intransitive actions do not occur in news items but in feature programs. And they mostly involve verbs of motion or locomotion.

(10) We go out to the nests where the pygmy chimpanzees have slept. We are then there when they get up in the morning. They usually get up very slowly, and if it’s raining they like to stay in bed for a long time. They will then often head for a fruit tree.

Landscape is generally viewed as completely passive, but the three major exceptions are the transitive actors—earthquakes, mudslides, and to a lesser extent volcanoes.

(11) An earthquake in Peru yesterday is estimated to have killed between sixty and a hundred people. These, like disease and insects, are seen as active in proportion to the human threats they pose. Land is often depicted as a political entity or territory, which explains the remarkable numbers of verbs such as control, defend, give up, divide, partition, or reunify applied to the affected peninsulas, valleys, continents, islands, and land in general.

(12) Kim Il Sung may be tempted once more to try to reunify the peninsula.

What is noticeable from Figure 3 is that actors and affecteds together account for only fifteen percent of the clauses. Circumstantial prepositional complements comprise, by contrast, thirty-six percent. If, in general, nature tends to be marginalized as the ‘environment’ in which things take place, then this is especially so for land and landscape. So the adverbials of location and direction are particularly common with this category.

(13) But Mujahadin rebels are still close and roam at will in the valley as soon as darkness falls.

Water too is passive, except for floods, a further threat to human life, instances of which account for all the transitive actors.

(14) Fifty people are now known to have been killed by floods in the southern province of Hunan.

The low proportion of actors and affecteds for water (15.5 percent) is not due to their frequency in circumstantial adverbials, as with land, but rather to their prevalence as premodifiers (39 percent), for instance in names like the River Thames.

Birds are represented as very ineffectual, though their movements and dying are encoded regularly in intransitive clauses. They have the highest frequencies as affecteds (24 percent), where we breed, feed, and keep them so that later we can kill or shoot and then eat or consume them.

Plants are constructed as even more passive than birds, being unable to move about in the way that birds and animals can, which gives them a very low score for intransitive as well as transitive actor roles. They are pretty regularly affecteds as well, as we typically grow, cut (down), and use or eat them.

Lastly, mineral substances are the most ineffectual and passive of our classes, though this would change if we had, with equal validity, placed mudslides and earthquakes in this category. As it is, there is only one example of a mineral transitive actor, How can iron kill snails?, with the question mark suggesting some surprise or doubt. Coal, oil, iron, and metal feature as prominent affecteds, valuable to the humans who use, burn, and work them.

Question 3: What do collocations tell us about the typical grammatical patterns in which particular natural objects figure?

Having looked at the general transitivity patterns for the different classes of natural elements, we can now take each class in turn, and observe any significant collocations for individual members of each class.

Mineral substances

The collocations for oil and coal throw up some similarities. Produce and production are common collocates of both. Semantically this gives a false picture. Presumably both coal and oil are produced by the pressure of sedimentary rocks, not by humans who simply extract them from the soil. Burning collocates frequently with coal suggesting its primary human use, and prices with oil, indicating its fundamental importance as a commodity, whose value has important economic effects.

The use to which stones are put is, by contrast, building as in laying a foundation stone, or throwing during political disturbances.

Soil is of some interest, because, in the same way as we noted with land earlier, it is often paired with a national adjective—German, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Indian—as though it stands for political territory rather than as a mineral in its own right.

Mud collocates significantly with slides, only literally significant when a danger to humans (contrast the metaphorical slinging, its most common collocate).


The production collocating with poultry is a more accurate use of the word than with oil and coal, and generally applies to eggs. Feed, keeping/keepers attest to the farming for later human consumption, which applies to birds generally.

It is not surprising then that the most significant collocate of bird is killed.


The strong interest in the active potential of disease organisms can be explained when we note that the most important collocates of virus are infect/infection aids/HIV, human, and spread/contracted. Reciprocally, the frequent collocates of HIV are virus, aids, and infection/infected. In the same pattern bacteria collocates most significantly with infect and patient, and hepatitis with vaccine, suffering, and infection. This supports our earlier suggestion that it is their life-threatening nature which prompts the recognition of diseases’ power.

Of course bacteria can be used for human purposes just as birds and plants are, but this time as a weapon. The highly significant collocate of germ is warfare, and the five most significant collocates produce the cliché phrase Iraq carrying out germ warfare experiments.

Cholera’s collocates give us a similar stereotyping—outbreak, epidemic, and Latin America.


Whales come across very much as victims, with killed and killing and hunting the most statistically significant collocating verbs or nominalizations.


Animal itself collocates most importantly with breeding and livestock, underlining the importance of farming, and rights. We have yet to talk about plant rights—if animals are to be pitied because they are dumb, how much more are plants to be pitied, generally dumb, defenseless, and without even the ability to run away. But any popular political movement on behalf of nature has to start with animals (preferably those with big eyes like baby seals). The World Wide Fund for Nature had to begin as the World Wildlife Fund, with its panda logo.

The collocates of dog show a predictable pattern. Dangerous is very prominent, presumably highlighting danger from dogs to the public, while trained, watch, and sniffer indicate the uses which humans make of dogs.

Horse pairs up very significantly with racing and race, suggesting the interest in sport on the BBC. I found in an earlier study of the Times (Goatly 2000: 287) that dogs and horses were the most frequently mentioned animals, indicating that the most important contact with animals for city dwellers is in this domesticated form. Horses are also connected with money, hence the prominence of back (verb) as a collocate. Mice collocated with diabetic, gene, liver, and molecule, pointing to their role in medical research and experimentation.

Land and landscape

The most common collocates of land include return, dispute, forced, rights, ownership/owners, claims. Obviously land has become a territory, commodity, and a possession occasioning battles. Particularly bitter are the fights between indigenous societies such as Indians, who traditionally had no concept of land ownership, and who had their land taken away by colonizers/settlers/invaders with highly developed notions of property. It is instructive to note the difference in meaning between land rights and animal rights. Golf is quite a significant collocate too, suggesting the kinds of use the white invaders finally made of the land they possessed.

Peninsulas are land areas especially prone to territorial conflict—mainly the Jaffna and Korean peninsulas. Bases, troops, division, nuclear, and stronghold attest to this as collocates. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with valleys which collocate with explosions, bomb, strike, and security. The collocates of beach were skewed by a number of repetitive reports about a PLO raid and bomb attack on a crowded Israeli beach in Tel Aviv. Quite apart from this particular story, the collocates palm, resort, and coconut suggest stereotyping as a holiday destination. The most common collocate on reinforces the evidence that features of landscape are typically complements in prepositional phrases functioning as adverbials. Island and mountain too are particularly significant in this respect with on and the highly predictable collocates.

Earthquake participates in a number of semi-fixed expressions as indicated by the statistical t-score of between 5.6 and 3.5 for victims, toll, killed, hit, struck, devastated, and shook. This projects earthquakes as one of the most powerful of natural phenomena, along with floods and typhoons. Typically earth is a metaphor for solidity, terra firma, and the psychological as well as the physical shock of having the ground move beneath one’s feet is considerable.

Volcanoes are portrayed as less powerful since their most typical process collocates are erupting and eruption, in their denominalized form intransitive verbs.


With trees the news is mixed. Cut and down are the most common collocates, but grow and planting are prominent especially in the compound tree-planting. Economic interests associate them strongly with crops and fruit. On the other hand fixing and nitrogen are welcome reminders of their active role in the wider ecosystem. And the rather surprising communicating raises our awareness that communication is not confined to animals and humans—Gaia, the earth goddess, has communicative potential quite apart from us (Lovelock 1979).

The picture is a bit bleaker with forests where destroyed is common along with the cliché destruction of tropical rain forests, though this is balanced by management and sustainable. Resource, value, output, crops, and products again emphasize the economic perspective. Nottingham reminds us of sporting preoccupations.

The collocates of fruit also underline human control and use with growing and eat. But trees and bear/bearing suggest the expression fruit-bearing trees, which confer some power of production on trees, though not fruit.

Wheat with production, growing, hundred, tons, suggest cultivation and its economic measurement as the major focus. Rice like wheat is seen in terms of production but to a greater extent than wheat is associated with food. Both are mentioned extensively in relation to convoys carrying supplies as part of relief efforts.


Water, if clean, is represented mainly as an essential human resource— supply, supplies, drinking, running, and sanitation. Issues of pollution, purification, and contamination seem paramount.

Floods give us the set expression people have died/been killed by floods in China which accounts for its eight most statistically significant collocates. Caused, affected, and triggered underline their power as actors, sometimes Instigators in chains of events.

Ice collocates with sea level and melting suggesting a further area of ecological concern on the Antarctic continent, besides rainforests and whales. Hockey is another reminder of modern affluent society’s obsession with sport.

Ocean is identified as a geographical area—Indian, Pacific, Comorros but is also mentioned in terms of its ecological and meteorological significance with circulation, surface, model, temperature, and carbon dioxide.

Similarly sea prompts ecological questions—rise, level, air—but also commercial interest port, crude, and oil.


The most significant collocate of weather is bad, and poor is also frequent. This illustrates two points. News is generally bad. But, more seriously, the value judgment in these attitudes is probably that of a modern city dweller in a temperate climate, where rain and other precipitation mean bad weather, and what is desirable is as much sun as possible.

This attitude is highlighted by the collocates of rain which emphasize its adverse effect on sport, suggesting the set phrase Cricket matches/play affected/delayed by rain. Rain’s very frequent pairing with forest and destroy/destruction and with acid highlight further environmental concerns.

The atmosphere, as might be predicted for a semi-scientific term, collocates with terms indicating a scientific awareness of environmental problems—carbon dioxide, gases, into the upper atmosphere.

Question 4: Are natural objects only depicted as powerful to the extent that they impinge directly on humans?

Around 46 percent of the affecteds are nonhuman. The remainder are either humans or parts of the human body (34 percent), places of human habitations like houses, cities, and other demographic areas (9 percent), and human activities, especially sport or rescue efforts affected by the weather (11%). However, a closer look at the forty-six percent of nonhuman affecteds shows that fourteen percent of these are involved in processes which cause other natural elements such as disease (AIDS, malaria) with their adverse effects on humans. This means that two-thirds of the affecteds directly or indirectly involve humankind.

We saw earlier, when discussing question 2, that a major determining factor in which categories of nature are represented as powerful seems to be the direct negative effect that they have on people. This explains why storms, lightning and typhoons, diseases, sharks, lions and elephants, and mudslides and earthquakes get noticed and reported in all their life-threatening potential.

What ideological implications does this have? Well, it confirms certain news values, not surprising since news comprises the majority of the BBC World Service’s output. Presumably anthropocentrically stressing disastrous effects on humans makes the natural phenomena more relevant and conforms to the value of negativity (Galtung and Ruge 1973; Bell 1991: 156–157). But in addition it stresses unexpectedness, so that the everyday normal and beneficial natural processes disclosed by science are largely ignored.

Unfortunately the sway of these values over news selection has two results. Firstly it tends to depict the power of nature as hostile to human beings. And, secondly it fails to recognize or celebrate the beneficial power of, for example, mineral substances and plants. Photosynthesis, for instance, gets overlooked, a very powerful and beneficial provision of oxygen. Or we might look at the importance of certain algae in contributing to the sulphur cycle by producing dimethylsulphide. Minerals, we are discovering, do much for us too. The inorganic opaline skeletons of diatoms, fall to the sea-bed when the diatoms die, and thereby control the amount of silica in the sea by adding about 300 million tonnes to the ocean bed each year. (Lovelock 1979: 88)

Question 5: Are the processes most frequently mentioned those which are easily noticeable and comprehensible by the human perceptual apparatus?

Returning to the concordance data for all the natural elements which have powerful positions in clauses—namely actors in transitive material process clauses—not only are they anthropocentric in the sense that humans are directly or indirectly affected in the majority of cases, but also the processes recognized are largely those which are open to unaided human perception. While the production of dimethylsulphide by algae and the photosynthesis of oxygen by plants are just as vital to the ecological process as volcanoes and earthquakes, they receive little recognition. This is because they are either colorless, odorless gases such as oxygen, or ones which, while not odorless, are limited to geographical areas beyond everyday experience. Processes which are imperceptible to the average urbanite are ignored or marginalized.

Geographical proximity, another news value, operates here (Bell 1991:157). Disease and weather cannot be escaped. Even though we might attempt to avoid the latter through air- conditioning, central heating, or dehumidifiers, it is not entirely possible. And, paradoxically, the attempt at isolation from the weather might lead to disease—Legionnaires’, or others associated with the sick building syndrome.

This naive and commonsense attitude to nature, especially in the news and weather sections of the BBC world service, is unfortunate. We could have a more educated attitude to nature, in which we raise awareness of the not-so-obvious effects of natural elements, and which allows us to see natural elements as communicating with us—these material processes might be re-coded as phenomena or verbiage in verbal processes, detectable by more and more sophisticated measuring instruments—the extensions of our nervous systems (Bateson 1975). The development of scientific measuring instruments giving us feedback is the kind of technological advance we need, rather than the advances made in the technologies which encourage us in a vain attempt to ‘dominate’ nature.


The ‘frames of consistency’, or stereotypical patterns of representing nature in the BBC can be summarized as follows:

1. The BBC shows nature as more acted upon than acting, with the exception of weather, and also marginalizes it as an ‘environmental’ circumstance, especially landscape features such as mountains and islands.

2. The most frequent depiction of nature as powerful is when it is (a) hostile to human life and human purposes, e.g., weather, disease, and earthquakes; (b) accessible to human perception.

3. This power is transitive power—to be worth reporting, natural actors in the news need to make an impact.

4. The most frequent depiction of nature as powerless is when (a) it is being exploited by humans (e.g., mice, birds, wheat, rice, coal, oil); (b) it is being fought against by humans (e.g., insects).

5. Areas of ecological concern and awareness include the state of the atmosphere, rising sea levels, and forest destruction. The human orientation towards nature in points 2 and 4 of our summary actually calls into question the culture–nature distinction.

As Bill McKibben points out in The End of Nature: ‘We have changed the atmosphere and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence’ (1990: 54). When nature is not threatening human life then it is categorized, processed or valorized by humans into cultural rather than natural categories. The categorization was most evident in relation to land/sea area, where peninsulas, for example, were seen as political entities rather than physical ones—the Jaffna peninsula, or the Korean peninsula—and singled out because they are sites of long-running conflict. The processing of oil and coal with the frequent collocate production suggests they count as much as cultural products as natural ones. To what extent are rice and wheat, after centuries of genetic improvement by hybridization, let alone in the era of genetic modification, natural any more? Our obsession with them and with changing them is presumably in proportion to their value for us. Oil prices are of abiding interest precisely because of their role in the human economy. The extent to which we have modified, exploited and used raw nature, like no other species before us, suggests that natural objects are becoming, at least for the moment, but a subset of cultural objects.

The bipolar distinction of nature and culture, a manifestation of the Whorfian hypothesis, expresses ideological as well as economic value. Finding a suitable label as an alternative to nature is in itself an ontological problem: environment has connotations of marginality with humans taking center stage; and ecology is equally anthropocentric if we trace its etymology back to the word for home (Williams 1983: 111).

Comparison with Wordsworth’s Prelude []

The representation or construction of nature (culture) that we have on the BBC World Service is governed by human connections and news values. But in other contexts without these generic and ideological imperatives, nature can be represented quite differently. To demonstrate this I will make a brief comparison and contrast with Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude (1850 version) (Goatly 2000: chapter 10). This clearly belongs to a different genre, a different ideology and ontology of nature which arose in the Romantic movement as a reaction to the widespread urbanization of the Industrial Revolution and the Newtonian ontology which made it possible. In these different genres with different meaning potentials reflecting a different culture, ideology, and ontology, we can see an illustration of Martin’s theory of planes of expression (1992: 494–497). Genres express an ideology within the context of culture. Within early nineteenth-century culture, the genre of the epic poem, with nature as its subject matter (Field), expressed a then emergent ideology of celebration of the powers of nature, which opposed the increasingly dominant ideology of the power of industrialization.

Table 2. Comparison of actor proportions in the BBC data and The Prelude

BBC Prelude

21.5 %
54 %

9.5 %
20 %

7.5 %
12 %

6.5 %
8 %

2.5 %
15.5 %

A comparative perspective, summing up the findings, can be gained by looking at Table 2. This shows the relative frequencies with which members of the classes of natural elements figure as actors (as a proportion of all the times they are mentioned).

Nature (quite apart from the fact that it is mentioned much more frequently in The Prelude than in the BBC data) comes across as roughly twice as powerful in terms of the likelihood of the natural elements being encoded as actors.

In both texts, weather and animals are the most powerful elements (as disease is not mentioned in The Prelude comparisons cannot be made). Water and landscape are relatively more powerful in the BBC subcorpus, largely because of floods, earthquakes, and mudslides. On the other hand, plants have more relative power in The Prelude.

If we look at the figures in more detail, giving a breakdown of transitive and intransitive actors (Figure 4), we see that The Prelude considers intransitive actors worth mentioning whereas the BBC favors transitive actors. In order to get into the news, actors have to make an impact and, as we have seen, this usually means impacting on humans. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is more likely to be interested in what nature does, even if its actions do not carry over beyond the actor.

Figure 4. Relative power of transitive and intransitive actors

Sensers, phenomena, and sayers

So far we have been concentrating on material processes. But an important contrast between the BBC data and Wordsworth’s The Prelude is in the area of mental and verbal processes. In a sense they are linked: by careful perception of nature (a mental process) we may pick up signals which count as verbal processes—bearing in mind that Halliday counts any symbolic process, even such as clocks telling the time, as verbal (Halliday 1994: 140).

In the BBC data, the incidence of sayers is negligible. In the clause samples I found only one—trees that talk to each other—though remember that communicating occurred four times as a collocate of plants/trees, probably in this same feature program. Nature as a phenomenon occurs in only a tenth of one percent of our BBC clauses, and most of these are cognitive processes, only a quarter of them being perceptual. Only three clauses see natural elements as sensers (0.015 percent): the damp conditions the mites love, to make the birds think they are part of a much larger [colony?], and bacteria learn more and more to biodegrade.

Contrast this with the much higher figures in The Prelude, especially for animals/birds and water (Tables 3 and 4). For instance, the regularity with which water communicates is startling:

And when at evening on the public way I sauntered, like a river murmuring And talking to itself when all things else Are still.
The wild brooks prattling from invisible haunts

Table 3. Animals and birds as mental and verbal participants in The Prelude


10.7 %
4.6 %
19.8 %

Table 4. Bodies of water as mental and verbal participants in The Prelude


5.8 %
1.2 %
4.6 %

The sands of Westmoreland, the creeks and bays
Of Cumbria’s rocky limits, they can tell
How, when the Sea threw off his evening shade
the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice!
Indeed, inhibiting water’s powers of communication is almost sacrilegious:

The famous brook, who, soon as he was boxed
Within our garden, found himself at once,
As if by trick insidious and unkind,
Stripped of his voice and left to dimple down
(Without an effort and without a will)
A channel paved by man’s officious care.

We are getting near to the heart of Wordsworth’s philosophy here, with his autobiography of a discoursal relationship with nature. He is by his own admission a spoiled child in daily intercourse

With those crystalline rivers, solemn heights,
And mountains, ranging like a fowl of the air

To sum up, water and to a lesser extent animals/birds in The Prelude are much more serious communicators than their counterparts in the BBC data. The idea that nature can speak to us and that we should be receptive to its messages as sensers can give us another trajectory for our scientific and technological advances, perhaps a more positive one than when technology is used to enhance our material power as actors. Scientific measuring instruments convey messages from nature which may lead to a more reciprocal relationship. Will we respond to messages about the ozone layer and global warming which nature is sending us?


The article has attempted to show that the consistent language choices within a particular language might have the same kinds of effect on cognition that different languages are said to have under the Whorfian hypothesis. The BBC, with its high cultural capital, institutionalizes an interpretative system which has a significance transcending local, subcultural and cultural systems. The article has illustrated the BBC World Service’s typical ‘fashions of speaking, which induce in their speakers different ways of relating to objects and persons’. (Bernstein 1971: 123, quoted in Halliday 1978: 25)

The unconscious repetitions in the BBC World Service radio content of patterns of transitivity structures and collocations—Hasan’s constellations of linguistic featuresconfer a certain reality on, or construct a position for, natural objects, one which predisposes us to relate to nature in a certain way.

First, nature is represented as relatively powerless vis-a`-vis humans, more acted upon than acting. The participant ‘nature’ represented in the news has human cultural imprints all over it. These are particularly economic (agricultural), in which nature is an exploitable commodity, and military, in which nature is a territorial possession. These express consumer capitalist and militarist ideologies.

Second, untamed nature is constructed as a threat to humanity. Both these representations can be seen as a more general consequence of the fact that news ideology privileges the human, is manifestly anthropocentric.

Wordsworth’s fashion of speaking is rather different, since his emergent ideology is a reaction against the forces of industrial capitalism whose social and environmental consequences were beginning to be seen in the nineteenth century.

We have discovered from an analysis of his transitivity structures that nature is not only more powerful, but more talkative, a companion and a teacher—it/she does not have to have economic use or territorial significance to be valuable.

In the dialectic between fashions of speaking and fashions of practice, linguistic representations can both induce action or be used to justify it, as we saw with the metaphors for street children and the actions of death squads. Marginalizing and economically exploiting nature, and defending ourselves against its power are the acts which are justified or induced by the representation of nature on the World Service radio, which at the moment broadcasts a daily World Business Report and only one weekly program on the environment. By contrast, Wordsworth’s linguistic representation induces us to celebrate nature’s power, perceive its intransitive activities and processes, and listen to it.


An earlier version of this article was presented as a paper at the 12th World Congress of Applied Linguistics (AILA) at Waseda University, Tokyo in 1999, as part of the Symposium on Ecolinguistics.

Andrew Goatly is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English in Lingnan University, Hong Kong, having also taught in universities in Rwanda, Thailand, and Singapore. He has published widely in stylistics and critical discourse analysis, most notably with two books, The Language of Metaphors (Routledge 1997) and Critical Reading and Writing (Routledge 2000). He is at present the Chief Investigator in a research project comparing metaphors in the lexicon of English and Chinese, and a convenor of the AILA Scientific Commission on Ecolinguistics. Address for correspondence: Department of English, Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong .


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Legal Language

Peter M. Tiersma

(Univ. of Chicago Press (c) 1999)


Meaning is obviously one of the most important issues in the law. A tremendous amount of judicial energy is devoted to interpreting the language of statutes, contracts, wills and other legal documents. Meaning is also a central concern of linguists and other students of language.

…Experts on language have come to distinguish different types of meaning. One important kind is word meaning. Definitions concentrate on the meaning of words, based on how they are ordinarily used. For example, as speakers of English we know that chair often refers to an object for sitting on, is supported by four legs, and has a back rest. But it can also refer to objects that deviate from the prototypical chair; if it had five legs and a back rest, it would probably still be a chair, albeit an unusual one. Furthermore, chair is used in the figurative sense to refer to the head of a department or a committee, or to a particular type of professorship, among other possibilities.

Words can, of course, be combined into sentences, allowing us to speak of sentence meaning. To derive the sentence meaning, we consider the possible word meanings, as well as grammatical relationships between the words. Often the context that a sentence provides allows us to provisionally eliminate some of the many possible word meanings. Thus, although chair can mean ‘chairman’ in isolation, when it occurs in the sentence Sandra sat on the chair, its most likely interpretation is ‘something to sit on’. On the other hand, in the sentence the dean appointed Bill to be chair of the committee, the meaning of chair is probably ‘chairman’. By combining our knowledge of the possible meanings of the words with the linguistic rules for combining words into sentences, we can generally derive at least one – and often more – potential interpretation for any specific sentence. Very roughly speaking, the sentence meaning corresponds to what is called the literal meaning.

Yet what matters most is not the word or sentence meaning, but what the speaker intended to communicate by means of the utterance. This is called the utterance meaning or the speaker’s meaning. When we speak of a word or sentence meaning, we generally say that this word/sentence means X. On the other hand, with utterance or speaker’s meaning, we would say that Jane meant X in uttering this word or sentence. (p. 124)

Of course, what Jane meant by the sentence – what she intended to communicate – is limited by the possible meanings of the words and the sentence. Without highly unusual circumstances, Jane cannot rationally intend to communicate “I bought a new typewriter” by saying Sandra sat on the chair. (pp. 124-125)

To determine what Jane intends to communicate in saying Sandra sat on the chair, we begin by looking at the word and sentence meaning. But, we also rely on the linguistic context, what we know about Jane and about Sandra and the chair, and any other information that may be relevant. If the conversation is about who sat where in a room with only one chair and a sofa, we will probably assume that Jane meant that Sandra rested her body on a type of furniture that had four legs and a back rest. On the other hand, suppose that the conversation is about a committee meeting that devolved into a fistfight, with Sandra knocking the chairman – Bill – to the floor. Now, if Jane tells us that Sandra sat on the chair, Jane might well mean that Sandra sat on Bill. Another scenario might involve a verbal slugfest in the committee, in which case Jane might well mean that Sandra metaphorically sat on the chairman, Bill, in the sense of figuratively overpowering him.

Assuming that language is mainly concerned with the communication of information and ideas, it should be evident that the ultimate question is the speaker’s meaning. What matters is the speaker’s communicative intentions, rather than just the meaning of her words and sentences. Word and sentence meaning are a means to an end – a way to figure out what the speaker intends to communicate. (p. 125)

…Despite its prominence in ordinary communication, the role of the speaker’s meaning is a problematic issue in legal interpretation. With private legal documents, like wills and contracts, it is well established that the intent of the testator or of the parties should govern the meaning. Thus, the speaker’s meaning should prevail. Nonetheless, this general principle is undercut by severe limitations on the use of any evidence other than the words of the document itself, primarily imposed by the plain meaning rule. Although the rule has been stated in different ways over the centuries, it basically provides that if a document is plain or unambiguous, as determined solely from the language contained in the ‘four corners’ of the document, a judge cannot refer to any outside (‘extrinsic’) evidence to decide what it means. In other words, the sorts of factors that we would normally use to gauge the speaker’s or writer’s intent are inadmissible, and cannot be considered. The rule has the practical effect of focusing the court’s attention on the meaning of words and sentences, rather than on the speaker’s intent, even though that intent is legally what should decide the issue.

Similar questions arise with more public legal documents, such as statutes and constitutions. There is extensive debate in American courts on when, and to what extent, judges should consider legislative intent (the speaker’s meaning) when interpreting statutes. Under the plain meaning rule, courts would look beyond the statutory language only when the text was ambiguous. There would, in other words, have to be more than one plausible sentence meaning before judges could look at evidence of the legislature’s intent.

Over time, however, American judges began to refer almost routinely to evidence of legislative intent, including committee reports and speeches made on the floor. In other words, courts paid more attention to what the speaker – the legislature – meant by the words of a statute. (p. 126)

Recently, the pendulum may have begun to swing back. Justice Scalia of the United States Supreme Court has championed an approach called textualism. Scalia and others argue that legislative history should rarely be relevant, in essence advocating sentence meaning over speaker’s meaning. To be more exact, textualism claims that it does try to discover the intent of the legislature, but limits this inquiry to the text of the statute itself. Practically speaking, textualism must rely almost entirely on word and sentence meaning, which may explain why the Supreme Court so often consults dictionaries and why many of the canons of interpretation (like expressio unius) have been revived. Only when the text is ambiguous will the textualist look to other indications of legislative intent. To a large extent, therefore, textualism is a revival of the traditional plain meaning rule.

For the plain meaning rule to operate properly, judges must be able to decide when the language of a legal document is, in fact, plain and unambiguous. Lawrence Solan has shown that this is quite difficult. Too often a group of judges of the United States Supreme Court have concluded that a statutory provision ‘plainly’ means X, while a substantial minority has argued just as fiercely that it ‘plainly’ means Y.

Furthermore, because interpretation tries to discover what a speaker meant by his words, excluding evidence that bears on the speaker’s intent seems hard to justify…Yet, despite much valid criticism, the plain meaning rule is not irrational. To a large extent, the notion that legal language should be interpreted in isolation, without reference to the surrounding circumstances and other clues of the speaker’s actual intent, is a product of the historic shift from speech to writing.” (p.127)


The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages

By Tom Bethell

(N.Y. St. Martins Press ©1998)

It bears repeating that the rise of equality before the law and the rise of the freedom of contract were the crucial legal antecedents to the free-market economy. But many in the West today have repudiated that past, or have failed to grasp its significanceTraditionally, courts enforced contracts as written. More recently, this sensible doctrine has been replaced by an ambition to ‘deconstruct’ contracts. Judges have felt emboldened to deny that written contracts really represent an agreement of the parties. A landmark along this unwise road was created by the California Supreme Court in a 1968 case, Pacific Gas & Electric Co v. G.W. Drayage & Rigging Co. The court ruled that oral testimony could be used to supplement and amend the written contract, no matter how unambiguous its wording. ‘If words had absolute and constant referents,’ the court decided, ‘it might be possible to discover contractual intention in the words themselves and in the manner in which they were arranged. Words, however, do not have absolute and constant referents.’ Excluding oral clarifications therefore reflected a ‘judicial belief’ in the possibility of ‘perfect verbal expression.’ This was borne of ‘a primitive faith in the inherent potency and inherent meaning of words.’

This flight of judicial fancy allowed the intention of the parties to be divined ‘by partisan witnesses whose recollection is hazy from passage of time and colored by their conflicting interest,’ as federal appeals court judge Alex Kosinski wrote in 1988. The overall effect of Pacific Gas was to cast ‘a long shadow of uncertainty over all transactions negotiated and executed under the law of California’. It also attacked the foundation of our legal system, he added, for the basic principle that language provides a meaningful constraint on private conduct was undermined. If we are unwilling to say that parties to a contract can come up with language that binds them, how can we send anyone to jail for violating written statutes? They, too, consist of mere words lacking ‘absolute and constant referents.’ Kosinski observed in a later (1989) opinion that the willingness of courts to subordinate voluntary contracts to their own sense of public policy and proper business decorum deprived individuals of an important measure of freedom. ‘The right to enter into contracts - to adjust one’s legal relationship by mutual agreement with other free individuals - was unknown through much of history, and is unknown even today in many parts of the world. Like other aspects of personal autonomy, it is too easily smothered by government officials eager to tell us what’s best for us. The recent tendency of judges to insinuate tort causes of action into relationships traditionally governed by contract is just such overreaching.’



West J Med. 1988 October; 149(4): 466

PMCID: PMC1026514

TO THE EDITOR: The words research, experiment, and investigate are frequently used interchangeably by members of the scientific community; standard dictionaries consider these words synonymous or analogous. No pertinent references concerning the definition or use of these words could be found in either the medical or legal libraries at the University of New Mexico.

That the concern over the interchangeable use of the words research, experiment, and investigate can be at times more than a mere exercise in semantics was brought to the attention of the authors when, during a recent trial, the plaintiff's attorney informed the jury, with emphasis, that the defendant had performed research on the plaintiff. This, despite the fact the plaintiff's attorney was well aware that the defendant had conscientiously engaged in laboratory research by doing an adequate series of experiments on dogs to investigate (determine) the feasibility of a new operation. The defendant had also presented his data to the Human Research Review Committee of the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine.

We suggest that the words research, experiment, and investigate be reserved for the chemistry, biology, or animal laboratory and recommend that when the use of a new drug, device, procedure, or operation is applied to humans, the term clinical trial be used. In time, the distinction between laboratory research and clinical trial will, we hope, become more universally accepted. This would ameliorate confusion and the implication of assault on the human body. It might further deny some future plaintiff's attorney the opportunity of inaccurately implying that the defendant has treated a patient improperly.

Clinical Professor of Medicine
Clinical Professor of Surgery
University of New Mexico School of Medicine
Albuquerque, NM 87131


When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions of Language, Character and Community

By James Boyd White

(University of Chicago Press (c) 1984

Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002

This book might easily be titled "How to Read a Book, Part II" - as the information within is a logical extension of Mortimer Adler's classic book on reading. This book is about the reading process itself. Professor James Body White addresses the changes that occur in the reader during the reading process. He brings to bear a wealth of experience in the fields of Law/Rhetoric/Literary Criticism/Philosophy as the back cover subject matter attests.
The following quotes illuminate the theme of the book:

[page 270] . . . reading involves a dialectic between the ideal version of oneself that a particular text seeks to call into being and the rest of who one is.

[page 279] Our concern has thus been with the ways in which words - and languages - acquire and hold and lose their meanings, with the methods by which culture is maintained, criticized, and transformed.

[page 277] The language marks the mind, and one will normally see that one's language is contingent, not necessary, only if one experiences a basic cultural dislocation: the sense that words have lost their meaning.

The author draws us skillfully into readings of Homer, Thucydides, Swift, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Edmund Burke, and John Marshall (Chief Justice) by analyzing one of their texts in light of his theme, which theme deals with the establishment of new meanings that come into being because the old meanings are lost, discarded by the writers.

Jane Austen establishes new meanings in Emma Woodstock and in us in the course of Emma.

Burke creates new meanings in his penpal and us during the course of his "Reflections on the French Revolution." Burke's work becomes a discourse on the beauty of the British Constitution, a right-brain, territory-to-map, bottom-up design, and on the evils of the French Constitution, a left-brain, map-to-territory, top-down design.

This is an intriguing book and sent me scurrying for copies of Austen's Emma and the books of the other authors he discusses.

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