Headlines: Alarmism, Denialism and Flickering Coverage

In this blog post I will be analysing three ways in which headlines on the Daily Mail’s website have helped produce confusion and scepticism within their readership’s consciousness surrounding the issue of climate change. Although many of you will regard the Daily Mail as trashy (perhaps toxic), it is the 2nd largest online news outlet in the UK meaning that content on their website has the capacity to have a real impact on public opinion.

Headlines are really important because a lot of people will not have the time or be interested enough/bothered to read full articles – this means that the message in the headline is often the message that people take away with them.

Alarmist Headlines

Alarmist headlines are the first way in which confusion is produced. Such headlines are filled with emotive, quasi-apocalyptic language that provokes an emotional response in the reader. Examples of this include: ‘We’re f*****: Climate change will be catastrophic for mankind…‘ and ‘Climate change could lead to raging infernos throughout Europe…‘. Whilst the articles that sit below these headlines do reference data from reputable sources such as the World Meteorological Organization, the way in which the risk from climate change is framed in the headline is undoubtedly sensationalised.

Whilst you may think that such emotive headlines would prompt a sense of urgency in the reader, studies by researchers such as Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling (2007) find the opposite. Such alarmism is found to lead to denial, apathy or even perverse reactive behaviour (e.g. excessive use of water ‘before it all runs out’). One likely reason why the Daily Mail runs such headlines in that they entice readers into clicking through to the article, meaning in many ways they act as ‘click bait’.


Denialist Headlines

These alarmist headlines are starkly contrasted by denialist headlines such as ‘There is NO climate crisis: Man-Made global warming is a lie and not backed up by science claims leading meteorologist’. Such headlines are invariably misleading and guilty of twisting facts. In this case the Daily Mail label the person saying this statement as a meteorologist (a scientist). This is a false and deliberately misleading assertion as this ‘meteorologist’ is in fact a TV weatherman with no scientific credentials whatsoever.

The problem with headlines like this lies with the fact that people tend not to be critical with what they read. This means that many readers will see this viewpoint as having substantial scientific backing, leading people to doubt the notion that climate change poses a risk to society. Indeed, if the headline said ‘…claims TV presenter’ then the effect on the reader would likely be very different. One likely impetus for running such denialist headlines is the creation of controversy, which tends to attract readers and translates into revenue for the media outlet.


Flickering Coverage

Together these opposing viewpoints produce a pattern of what I will call here flickering coverage. On the surface this pattern may appear to be an odd form of balanced coverage drawing stories from both extremes of the spectrum. However, when we consider the effects of prolonged exposure to such coverage we see how this can create considerable confusion within the mind of the reader as to the state of the science.

This confusion by extension heavily reduces the perceived risk associated with climate change in the public consciousness. This has very real impacts in climate change risk mitigation decision-making at the government level, especially regarding emission reduction initiatives. This is because in a democracy, governmental decision-making and allocation of funds are highly sensitive to public opinion.

It is unclear whether this production of confusion is intentional or whether it is a result of the sensationalised style of the Daily Mail’s news coverage. If it is intentional then the tactic used is noteworthy as it contrasts the traditional approach of media outlets whereby an obvious line is taken on an issue, such as who they support in a general election. However, in this case the agenda of perpetuating climate confusion is more subliminally achieved and altogether more subtle. The driving force behind such an agenda would likely be the paper’s conservative slant.


I would like to stress that I know that there may be angles on some of the issues that I did not address and that there will be things that I say that people may not agree with. I must stress that this is a good thing and that I would like to encourage people to comment on any of the posts with opinions of their own on the matter.

Twitter: @ChristopherVos

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Moser, S. C., & Dilling, L. (Eds.). (2007). Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. Cambridge University Press.

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