The Problem with How Media Frame Melting Ice: A Symptom.

Do you remember in my last post I mentioned that the media plays a very large role in the way we see the world? They pick the stories to report. They choose the focus. They set the agenda.

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

I discussed agenda setting, or the way in which the media alters our perception of reality through story selection, frequency, and prominence. In this post I want to discuss another issue in media coverage of environmental issues such as melting land ice, framing.

I mentioned before that only NBC and MSNBC mentioned the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Their competitor news networks chose to provide platforms for skeptics to devalue scientific facts and ignored the issue of human influence on the climate. Such decisions are not made by accident.They intentionally frame an issue.

A media frame is the central organizing theme chosen to communicate a complex story. The frame controls how a story is presented and how it is received. By ignoring anthropogenic causes, for example, a news outlet with an agenda might seek to convince viewers or readers that humans do not have the effects on the environment described urgently by climate scientists.

In other words, anything left out of the frame is out of the picture.

So, how does the media frame melting land ice?

Photo Courtesy of  Paul Douglas Weather Column

Photo Courtesy of Paul Douglas Weather Column


The decline of land and sea ice is usually framed as a symptom of “global warming” or “climate change.” When it is, it is not uncommon to see the images of polar bears isolated on diminishing ice rafts. Activists, especially, use these images because it is much easier to imagine the severity of the problem when you are forced to look at another living creature struggling to literally stay afloat in the vast, open ocean. It’s a good story. It’s crisis coverage.

Video Courtesy of CNN and Youtube. 

The factors that cause melting ice are complicated and the science is difficult to understand without study, as is mentioned in the above video. It’s not very interesting to talk about, and without the emotional images of endangered polar bear families it’s difficult to relate to.

Instead the media covers the extreme weather events, which can be referred to as black swan events, framing climate change as a potentially important issue but one that is difficult to understand and under attack by skeptics who warn of unintended side effects of corrective actions. Conflict always makes a better news story,  and better news stories bring in more revenue.  

Photo Courtesy of News@Jama

Photo Courtesy of News@Jama

Melting ice is causing a rise in sea level, which will change tides and contribute to the severity of disasters such as tsunamis (which, despite media framing, are not the same thing as  tidal waves). 

In March of 2011 a devastating tsunami wrought havoc on the Japanese nation. An offshore earthquake caused by the subduction of tectonic plates made a wave far enough off the coast to allow it to gain momentum, reaching great heights that rocked the Japanese plains. The below image is just one of many that show a desperate situation with human beings literally in the frame.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

This story is framed as a tragedy. It is often focused on local victims and the destruction of a Japanese nuclear power plant. The story told much less frequently especially soon after the disaster? That the same radiation from the Fukushima plant affected ecosystems as far as the United States Pacific Coast and Canada and that the impact even of distant events can affect the environment, climate and weather of us all. 

The organizing themes surrounding the issue of melting ice are those of a crisis for human safety and health. But, instead of including the science, the media frame often focuses on what’s exciting,  and when it’s not exciting anymore, move on to a new crisis.

The New York Times often chooses to report on climate change refugees rather than the cause of the rising sea levels.

 Framing as drama instead of persuasive science is a huge problem given the short attention span of today’s 24-hour news cycle. As I said in my last post, the media can do better. 

The media can shape policy. They can not only influence laymen, but also the elite of our society, that is, the policy makers. If the media covers this as a crisis for polar bears only, then we humans lose critical time in educating ourselves about the great effect we have on natural processes.

Do you remember DDT? I do. But, I’m 24, and really I only remember learning about it in school.

 Rachel Carson wrote the book on it, literally, in “Silent Spring.” (here’s a link if you want to read the synopsis)

Photo Courtesy of Iron Body Studios

Photo Courtesy of Iron Body Studios

 “Silent Spring” caused a huge public outrage and the media got behind it. There was enough of a public voice that policymakers banned DDT entirely in the United States.

Melting ice is not only a symptom but a complex issue that can stand alone. It should be treated as such. 

Do not forget that the media influences our perception of reality by focusing themes. We need to be aware of the nature and impact of frames, be able to recognize them, and to become more critical of what we read and see.  We should care about victims of extreme events, but the best way to help them in the long term is to mitigate factors like melting land and sea ice.

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1 Response to The Problem with How Media Frame Melting Ice: A Symptom.

  1. This is an excellent analysis of coverage in the short term crisis issues (your Fukushima analysis) vs. the long term crisis issues (the melting land ice analysis). Your description of the media failure to fully cover this topic as a complex tragedy is well done, and forms a very persuasive and educational blog coverage. Your style in this blog is also admirable, as both your structure and language make this an engaging read. I also really really like your personal tie that you make to the DDT awareness, with how you are now 24 but have only heard of DDT and that stuff through school. This is quite an impressive blog, good job!
    Posted by: Kylie Marchiori


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