These 4 graphs show how the UK media has misrepresented global warming during the past week
I’ve analysed 183 articles from mainstream UK media outlets reporting on extreme weather crises over the past week, and found just 15% of them contain any reference to climate change. Without data from The Guardian, it’s 11%.
It’s fucking hot. But you knew that already, because you’re probably based in London, or Leeds, or Manchester, or some other corner of England, and even if you’re in Motherwell, Scotland it was 33.2C at the end of June. The Met Office has predicted that 2018 could be the hottest summer since records began, and wildfires are *actually burning* all over the country and beyond.
Let’s face it, you’d probably know it was hot in the UK if you were in Alaska. We haven’t stopped talking about the heatwave online all summer, even before it got dangerous. And it’s not just us — it’s our news outlets too. This deathly weather has spawned a clickbait cesspit, with endless terrible headlines and hot takes and listicles and PR-backed advice columns (I swear down if I ever see another ‘Top 10 desk fans’ piece I will melt).
But you’d be forgiven for not having an answer to the question on everyone’s lips: How ~the actual~ did we end up with air temperatures hotter than our bodies? Why is it so hot?
The UK’s journalists have done a pretty good job of describing what hot weather feels like. A few of them have done a really good job of telling us about the extreme weather crises that have unfolded around the world recently. But, as I’ve discovered, our leading media outlets have woefully underinformed their readers about the relationship between the current crises and global warming, a link that is vastly evidenced and widely agreed upon by pretty much everyone in the science community who doesn’t support Donald Trump.
I decided to look into the extent to which leading media outlets in the UK were underinforming (and thus misrepresenting) this relationship after seeing a bunch of separate angry Tweets from people I follow about newspieces they felt weren’t doing the issue justice. I’d sort of got that impression myself as well from the articles I’d read, but these days it’s difficult to make solid arguments about reporting tendencies unless you can find a way to review shit loads of content from an outlet.
Thankfully, although I don’t have the time or the chill to read everything that’s been published by The Sun over the past week, I do have a bunch of unflashy, unsexy Excel formulae, which is sometimes all you need to do data [content] analysis.
So I downloaded the text of 183 articles published by five leading UK media outlets over the past seven days into Excel. All the articles were reporting on one of four current extreme weather crises; Greece’s wildfires, the flash floods in Laos, Japan’s heatwave and the UK’s. I wrote some formulae that looked like this:
And then I processed the 183 articles to find out how many of them included a reference to global warming or climate change. The results were worse than I had expected.
They showed that only 25 articles across all the five publications had made any reference to the terms at all. No articles were removed from the data, and that figure includes pieces that referenced climate change but explicitly denied the (well evidenced) link to an extreme weather crisis.
When you take out the articles from The Guardian, the results were even starker. (The Guardian was always going to come out on top, though to be honest even its results were disappointing. Little over a third of articles from the newspaper mention global warming or climate change.)
But the results from BBC News were the most worrying.
The BBC is a publicly-owned service. It doesn’t get to have special interests or oligarch backers with investments in Cuadrilla; unlike with the other outlets, there shouldn’t be any reason why it underreports on environment data. It literally has a responsibility to its readers to provide the news and information that are in the public’s interest. And the trajectory of global warming — its (health and infrastructure) repercussions for our country and the wider world today and in the future —constitutes news and information that we need access to.
I’m not suggesting that every single article about hot weather in the UK must describe how manmade global warming over the last century has led to heat extremes that previously only occurred once every 1000 days that are now happening four to five times more often (Fischer and Knutti, 2015). But only 10% (!) of pieces published by BBC News this week on extreme weather events mention at all that they could have some link to climate change. That matters because we only take seriously the things we know to be serious. And when the media underreports on evidence about climate change, we don’t know how serious it is.
So yes, the motions of that ever-shifting jet stream may in fact be the cause of the 2018 UK heatwave; its ever-shiftiness may have nothing to do with global warming at all. And the heatwave itself, well, it could be an anomaly, the hot summer we will look back on in 50 years, as we wistfully sip lukewarm tea in a sub-20C July.
But science is a law of probabilities, and for now at least, the science suggests that an increase in the frequency of extreme weather crises, and all the destruction and illness they bring, is the most likely of futures. If you can’t let yourself believe this is the most likely of futures (global warming is fucking terrifying), I’m sure you still think it is the worst. We need a media that reflects this reality. Without it, we won’t know what we need to change; we will not get the future we want.