Setting the agenda: Ice Melt and Climate Change

The media play a very important role in the way that we see the world. They pick the stories to report. They choose the focus. They set the agenda.

The stories that television, newspapers, magazines, Facebook and even Twitter choose to cover, how often, and how prominently, all contribute to our perception of reality. They contribute to whether we view the melting of land ice across the globe as real, and whether actions should be taken. In media terms, this is known as agenda setting.

How important do you think it is that we try to stop the loss of ice?

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

In 2012,  Media Matters did a study on the TV broadcast coverage of sea ice loss in comparison to other subject matter, specifically Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s Workout (the P90x program). It revealed that major American TV news sources such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC covered the nominee’s personal fitness training as much or more than they did the loss of global ice.

Bret Baier of Fox News mentioned Arctic sea ice once between June and September of 2012, and then only to deny that a problem exists.

NBC And MSNBC Were The Only Outlets To Mention The Impact Of Manmade Climate Change.

-Fitzsimmons and Theel (Media Matters)

In 2011, Fox News made the claim that scientists at the University of Colorado were doctoring the results of ice melt and sea level rise. In fact, Jocelyn Fong and Shauna Theel reported that the “doctoring” was actually an adjustment to data agreed upon by most climate scientists according to a protocol established more than ten years ago.

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Media Matters’, Kevin Kalhoefer explains, in “how broadcast networks covered climate change in 2014”,  that there has been an increase in the amount of coverage of climate change, but it still varies greatly from network to network and even between Sunday news and nightly news. The increase is most obvious in Sunday news.

Networks can do better than this.

Fox’s Sunday Show Offered The Fewest Climate Change Segments.


Most news outlets also provide platforms for skeptics who can mislead entire audiences by circulating false information or spinning it in such a way as to attach negative connotations to accepted fact.

Video courtesy of Media Matters

In my last post I discussed the perils of the loss of global ice. Coverage of this specific issue is not sufficiently widespread, although in articles covering broader topics it is common for melting ice to be used as evidence for rising temperatures. Jill Fitzsimmons of Media Matters felt that the “Media Turn A Blind Eye To Record Greenland Ice Melt”, in 2012.

Choosing what story to cover amounts to choosing what the audience should care about. In a very real sense, it sets priorities for us all.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of There Once was an Island

Kalhoefer mentions that a lot of the coverage on broadcast news comes from a political standpoint. This puts journalists in a position to choose whether to cover the science on climate change or its general impact on society and the planet. Not all journalists have an adequate understanding of climate science, and therefore choose to cover the topic as a political issue.

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Science coverage for the sake of science is the least common. 

Weather and wildlife are covered more often. Extreme weather events are often attributed to climate change and its consequences. And one of the best ways for advocacy writers to get a response from their readers is by evoking a strong emotional connection.

  Media turn a blind eye to record Greenland ice melt.


Who can resist the plight of the polar bear atop an ice raft barely big enough to hold it?

Photo courtesy of The Endangered Polar Bear

Photo courtesy of The Endangered Polar Bear What about the rest of the animals involved in that bears ecosystem? Walrus’. Copepods.

Depending on the news outlet we pay the most attention to, we all have opinions formed by media regarding climate change. Did my last post sway you? Does the polar bear make you want to go out and do something about the state of our planet?

Fox News shows a conservative political agenda. MSNBC has a liberal political agenda. Each chooses to report on the details of climate change and human impacts according to their culture, tradition and place in the political landscape. They intentionally cover climate change more or less frequently than their competitors. They also choose when to air coverage, or where to place it in print media online or via newspaper.

Because many of my sources are from the archives of Web sites like, I have probably have less knowledge of the prominence, that is placement, of stories on melting ice, or global warming. But next time you scroll through HuffPost or look at a newspaper, pay attention to where the stories are placed. Is the first story you see about the science of climate change? Is is about the melting ice all over the world? Or the rising sea level that are forcing people to leave their family homes, even entire islands displaced?

Probably not.

Photo courtesy of Daily Camera

Photo courtesy of Daily Camera

This was the top story of my local paper today, a story related to city codes about building height. It has prominence in the news because it is the first thing that anyone who goes to Daily Camera will see.

Understanding that the news sets an agenda can help us be more critical of media.

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

So, why does the media cover melting ice so infrequently? Part of the issue is that melting ice is part of a much bigger issue. It is involved in global processes that are difficult to understand and a single article in a newspaper or a two–minute segment on the Sunday news is not enough to give an adequate explanation. There is also an issue of framing: people will act if they feel that somehow news could affect their own lives, and unless you live on low lying islands or in the arctic tundra the plights of those people and animals may not seem relatable at all.

Because of increasing coverage over the past couple of years we can probably assume that the upcoming election will lead to further coverage of climate change and ice melt, especially those laced with political agendas and potential environmental policies.

This is exactly what the media was made for. To educate the public on the events of the world and the opinions of future world leaders so we can make the best election decisions possible.


Photo courtesy of Reddit

Photo courtesy of Reddit

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