media trust environment climate development matters

The influence of media on trust in government and climate policies

By Dr. Stephen P. Groff, Governor, National Development Fund, Saudi Arabia, former Vice-President for East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank, and former Deputy Director of the OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate

Last year saw historic floods devastate Pakistan, South Asia and West Africa; massive storms pummel the Philippines and southern United States; and droughts, heatwaves and wildfires rage across Europe, China and the western United States.  Despite the extreme weather events that continue to ravage many regions in the world, public support and trust in many OECD government climate-action plans remains disappointingly low.

What role does media coverage play in building or diminishing this trust, and how can we address this moving forward?

In the aftermath of COP27, much of our research and policy focus has been on the role the fossil fuel industry is playing in climate change and the lack of ambition that certain countries are demonstrating in reducing their carbon emissions. If we are to ensure more support for climate action to address these issues, greater emphasis must be placed on the influence the media has on institutional trust and public perceptions.

Public policy and media scholars have long examined how media narratives influence public opinion and support for certain policies. These scholars have developed concepts like focusing events, triggering devices, critical events and tipping points to describe how media coverage of an event can activate audiences’ latent opinions. These events then direct the public’s attention towards policy problems in ways that influence how policy makers consider solutions. Examples include how the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped fuel the environment movement and the subsequent creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the influence the 1985 image of a “hole” in the ozone layer had on public support for what ultimately became the Montreal Protocol.  

Gaining support for climate policies… or not

Considering these factors, I’ve undertaken research examining the dynamics that influence support for global climate policy – work that was subsequently published in a series of journal articles. As a result, I am now convinced that a collective failure on the part of many leaders to address the ‘upstream’ issues of public attention and public trust has undermined both awareness of (and support for) effective climate policy in the global north.

An illustration of this can be found in my research on media coverage of wildfire events in a subset of OECD countries where I demonstrate that the frequency and severity of focusing events alone are not enough to direct the public’s focus towards climate policy. While 30% of the media articles reviewed made the connection between an event and climate change, few pieces explicitly referenced its anthropogenic origins. Outside of sometimes omitting cause-and-effect, media narratives are also often blurred by partisan political frames and inferential complexities. As a result, instead of bolstering public support for policy solutions, these types of story can actually direct attention away and further siphon trust from public institutions.

For example,  a 2020 Wall Street Journal article cites the then presidential candidate, Joe Biden, declaring that western fires would become “more common, more devastating, and more deadly” if Trump won a second term. The article described international climate policies as a point of divide between the two candidates and referred to Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. It also notes President Trump’s casting of doubt over the science associated with climate change and his active efforts to weaken federal environmental regulations. While much of the reporting may have been be factual, it did little to focus public attention on the issue at hand (climate change) and, instead, highlighted political differences.

Today, research shows that political affiliation strongly correlates with an individual’s perspectives on climate threats. As political parties become more polarised, people are increasingly relying on media sources for validation. In this context, my research also confirms the importance of government support for expanding media’s function as a ‘climate service’. This helps with the activation of public attention to climate change attributions; the introduction of new stakeholder perspectives in climate policy considerations; and, lastly, the visual representation of changes in proximity, frequency and duration associated with the anthropogenic origins of extreme weather events.

How the social contract relates to media coverage

When forming public policy frameworks, public trust is often taken for granted. Social contract theory, however, helps us understand that certain conditions need to be met to motivate support for public policies. These conditions then help influence citizens’ willingness to limit individual freedoms in exchange for greater social security and assurances of collective well-being.

Models of the policy process often overlook this.

My exploration of enabling factors influencing climate policy intractability in developed nations and examination of the contemporary social contract and conditions of climate policy intractability suggest that individuals are more willing to lend trust to institutions when they can be assured of the effectiveness of policy commitments for the greater global good. Conversely, when declining confidence in government merges with distrust in the media, the social contract is jeopardised, and the likelihood of “issue freeze” and “policy stalemate” is magnified.

Next steps

For policy action to be effective, the public must trust and understand the relationships between policy, improved quality of life, and the social contract. Revisiting the relationship of government and policy makers with the media will play a key role in this.

To assist with this transition, I suggest a new watershed model of public policy. One that incorporates elements of existing theories of the policy process but acknowledges that top-down measures will only get us so far. This recognises the upstream influences of the social contract and engages with the media to rebuild trust and promote the conditions from which robust policy commitments can emerge.

Without addressing these issues today, the cacophony of discordant views and the continued proliferation of disinformation will make “one-step-forward-two-steps-back” partisan policy rollbacks increasingly likely – while making necessary, effective and resilient climate policy  an increasingly remote possibility.

Albert Einstein is thought to have said: “Except in mathematics, the shortest distance between point A and point B is seldom a straight line.” Moving forward, policy makers would do well to take this admonition to heart and increase focus on the upstream waters of public trust and public attention.