Dr Jan Sinclair, who teaches science communication and technical writing at Massey’s Albany campus.

Media framing of climate change – lecture hot topic

Exploring the ways the news media tends to frame climate change as a political rather than a scientific issue is the focus of a public lecture at Massey Albany campus next week.

Featuring science communications specialist Dr Jan Sinclair and well-known climate change scientist Dr Jim Salinger, the lecture marks the recent publication of Living in a Warmer World (Bateman), edited by Dr Salinger and with a contributing chapter by Dr Sinclair.

The lecture, like the book, will canvas evidence from some of the world’s leading scientists detailing recent large changes in the world’s glaciers, sea levels, coral reefs and wildlife. In it, scientists warn of record-breaking heat waves signalling broader risks to human health. 

Dr Sinclair will discuss her research into the way scientific data flows from experts to non-experts. This sometimes results in critical information being under-reported in the news media, leading to “confusion among the public about the extent and the reality of the risks of climate change”.

Her chapter in the Salinger book, Dangerously political: news media framings of climate change (also the subject of her doctoral thesis) investigates implications of distorted media coverage and ‘framing’ of climate change as politically controversial at the expense of reporting data and impacts.

She analysed New York Times reporting of Intergovernental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) information priorities over a 17-year period. The “puzzling” tendency, she found, was that the information about climate change extremes and their impact were downplayed or cast as “someone else’s problem”.

The implications of this, she says, are “the health and safety of the US populations, their economic security, and the stability of natural environments were endangered because non-experts received virtually no information about expected local and national impacts, or about potential adaptation options and strategies,” she writes.

Locally, a lack of accurate information has similar implications, such as council resource consent requirements not meeting the needs of coastal areas vulnerable to loss of infrastructure from rising sea levels and other climate change impacts.

She encourages media and policy makers to be better informed about climate change science so that strategic planning for extreme weather events will ensure communities are prepared.

But at grassroots level, she says ordinary people are aware of the issue simply through observing changes to their immediate environment and seasons, such as earlier blooming flowers, or the changes to migratory birds’ departure and arrival times.

Dr Sinclair’s extensive science communication expertise includes drafting popular versions of the IPCC climate change impacts reports for the United Nations Environment Programme, and working with Pacific Island countries to reduce climate change risks. A former science journalist, she first wrote about climate change for The Dominion newspaper in the late 1980s, and in the early 1990s for The Observer and New Scientist in the UK.

Dr Jim Salinger (Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand) holds a PhD in climate science from Victoria University, Wellington. He was the 2012 Lorrey Lokey Visiting Professor at Stanford University, and is a well-known communicator of climate change information.

In the lecture, he will discuss expected changes in agricultural and horticultural productivity, and in fisheries and wine production regions, along with ethical issues, scientific certainties and uncertainties.

The lecture is at 6.30pm on Tuesday, 26 November in the Sir Neil Waters Lecture Theatre Building at the Albany campus (Gate 1, Dairy Flat Highway). Entry is free.

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