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.

The Problem with Headlines – A Daily Mail Case Study


So today I am going to talk about the role of headlines in contributing to confusion within the public consciousness regarding climate change with reference to a particular Daily Mail article. Now I know that headlines are a means of grabbing the attention of readers, which translates into money for media outlets, so from that standpoint I can see why companies such as the Daily Mail run emotive headlines with LOADS OF BOLD TEXT AND ANGRY WORDS, however it must be said that such headlines contribute to the public being sceptical about the validity of the science of climate change. For example, in August this year the Daily Mail ran an article headlined Myth of Arctic meltdown: Stunning satellite images show summer ice cap is thicker and covers 1.7million square kilometres MORE than 2 years ago…despite Al Gore’s prediction it would be ICE-FREE by now’
(URL at bottom of post). This headline essentially says that not only were the predictions wrong (Al Gore said “could be”, not “would be” quoting research from the US Navy) but that the whole notion that sea ice extent in the Arctic is falling is false. Furthermore the headline indirectly casts a shadow of doubt on climate change through the mention that Al Gore was wrong, this is achieved through levering the fact that he is commonly viewed as the figurehead of the climate movement.

Now to provide an overview of why this headline is misleading is two ways:

Firstly, It gives no mention to the fact that the overall trend of sea ice extent is downwards (approx. 40% reduction between the late 1970s and present). Although it is true that we saw a rise in Arctic sea ice extent over the last couple of years this does not counter the fact that the overall trend is downwards. Important side note: within the climate system there are many factors in play meaning that it is very rare that changes in one part of the world (e.g. Sea ice in the Arctic) can be explained by a single factor alone. This means that it is expected that we see variability in the signal that cannot be explained by the primary driver of change. If that was unclear (which it almost certainly was) here is an analogy that should clear it up: when you arrive at the beach (assuming you haven’t checked the tide schedule) and look at the waves lapping up against the shore you have no idea as to whether the tide is coming in or out. It would indeed be foolish to suggest that just because the first wave you see goes further up the beach than the second that the tide is going out. It is only when you have waited at the beach for an hour or so that you can tell whether the tide is coming in or out. In this example, the wind is the factor that causes variability in the signal, whilst the movement of the moon is the factor that is driving the overall direction of the tide. Coming back to our Arctic example, we can now see that just because we saw a small rise in the amount of sea ice, it does not in any way mean that the ‘Arctic Meltdown’ is a myth.

The second way in which this headline is misleading is that it does not reflect the fact that within the article itself there are some references to some of the things I mentioned in bullet point 1, which provide some clarification on the matter. This is an issue because many people will only have the time/be bothered to read the headline and the summary bullet points below it, meaning that the message that they take away with them is the one in the headline.

I am not suggesting that by reading a single headline a lay person can be converted to a fire-breathing, frothing-at-the-mouth climate sceptic. What I am really trying to get at here is that the example that I used is one of a great number of articles coming out of the Daily Mail and similar outlets, which when being read by people on a daily/weekly/monthly basis can (probably often does) have the effect of casting doubt into people’s minds as to the reliability of climate projections and the reality of climate change. I must stress that although such blatantly misleading headlines do often come out of outlets like the Daily Mail, media sources such as the BBC also occasionally run headlines that are misrepresentative of the facts (I will get onto such examples in a later post)

URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2738653/Stunning-satellite-images-summer-ice-cap-thicker-covers-1-7million-square-kilometres-MORE-2-years-ago-despite-Al-Gore-s-prediction-ICE-FREE-now.html

Graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center

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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First Blog Post!


My name is Chris and I have decided to start this blog because I frequently find myself exasperated at the way that media outlets twist and misconstrue information about climate change. My interest in the issue of climate change is rooted in my academic interests. I view myself as a physical geographer (‘What the hell is a physical geographer?’ I hear you ask – physical geography is broadly defined as the study of the processes and patterns in the natural environment, which means dealing with climate, rivers, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes, etc.) as I have just graduated with a Bachelors in that field and am currently studying for a Master’s degree which focusses on quantifying and understanding risk associated with natural disasters. Within physical geography my main interests are climate change (both past (meaning waaaaay back over the past 2 million years) and present), sea level change, and hurricanes.

I am planning to split this blog into two main areas:

  • Article critiques – In these posts I will be critiquing individual articles and providing some easily understandable (using a lot of analogies) explanations for why what they are saying is either wrong or misleading.
  • General commentary – These posts will be commenting more generally on how the media are portraying the issue of climate change

The aim of this blog is to provide critical commentary on media material, primarily in the form of articles and video, in a format that is understandable. This means that I will try my best to write in a manner that assumes no specialist knowledge – I choose to do this so that this blog is accessible to all.

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.

FYI: If you were interested – the big map of the world with the colourful ocean is a map of the temperature of the sea surface produced by the Global Ocean Observing System

Twitter: @ChristopherVos

Please Like and Follow this Blog!