What We Talk About When We Talk About Oceans

Jennifer Jacquet, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, analyzes the language used by science journalists to characterize the state of the ocean

The language that journalists use can affect how people perceive and react to large-scale issues facing the modern world. Many scientists have recently expressed concern that journalists frequently use doom and gloom rhetoric when reporting on the state of the world’s oceans. This type of sensational pessimistic language, scientists say, could cause people to abandon hope for environmental causes and resort to apathy. The problem, however, is no empirical evidence exists to substantiate the concerns about rampant doom and gloom language in science journalism.

To examine the veracity of these concerns, CDS’s Jennifer Jacquet, with a research partner, conducted a data-driven analysis of the language used in 169 news articles about the state of the oceans published between 2001 and 2015 by four major U.S. newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times). The researchers sourced their articles from ProQuest Newsstand and manually reviewed their relevance, eventually classifying each according to five topic categories: climate change, pollution, species/population status, offshore drilling, and aquaculture.

Once categorized, articles were examined for several attributes: whether or not they identified humans as the cause of the problem, whether they proposed a solution, whether they cited legitimate research, whether they undercut scientific claims with uncertainty and, finally, whether they used optimistic or doom and gloom rhetoric.

Results showed that 94% of articles referred to credible research, uncertain language was used in 49% of articles, solutions were identified by 45% of articles, 62% of articles attributed issues with the oceans to human behavior, 10% used language of doom and gloom, and 27% used optimistic language. Interestingly, climate change was the only category in which a majority of articles did not identify humans as a primary cause.

Significantly, the results revealed no evidence for the concerns of many scientists that journalists characterize the state of the oceans with doom and gloom.

Jacquet notes that “most ocean science journalism reviewed (69%) appears to contain neither hyperbolic doom and gloom language nor overt ocean optimism.” She suggests this indicates science journalists are not falling into either trap.

Going forward, Jacquet emphasizes the need for continued research about how humans impact the state of the oceans. This study paves the way for future researchers across other disciplines to examine larger samples of articles with natural language processing tools or other data science methods. It also establishes a framework by which journalists can be empirically held accountable, if not as individuals then as a group.

By Paul Oliver

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