Global warming controversies and Media coverage
Representations of the public knowledge and understanding of science

work in progress !

Benoît Urgelli
last up-date : mai 5, 2012

This study shows how uncertainty discourse as used on 2006-2010 french popular press arena in order to construct an exclusionary boundary between public and climate change scientists. Press discourses are used to deligitimate lay knowledge by suggesting that public did not reverence for uncertainty.

Ungar S. (1992). The rise and (relative) decline of global warming as a social problem. The Sociological Quarterly, 33, 483–501.

Zehr, S. C. (2000). Public representations of scientific uncertainty about global climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 9, 85-103.

Theorical background and rationale

The public understanding of science (PUS) is considered as a socially constructed phenomenon. PUS is related to lay interests, values, beliefs and knowledge. As Ungar (1992) proposed studying the USA summer 1988 media coverage, global warming (GW) media attention and public concern are related to a social scare which is attenuated as the scare passed !

2004-2010 World Newspaper coverage of global warming or climate change

See also Mike HULME and Amy DAHAN's analysis About political climate regime around 2009

Popular press could be considered as an arena where representations of science are constructed using scientific claims with particular rhetorical features and with a complex and reciprocal relationships among scientists, journalists and readers. Scientific claims on popular press reveal a social order and dynamic arrangements among these three set of actors, especially when uncertainties and controversies are discussed (Lemieux, 2007; Chateauraynaud, 2007). This arrangements merit social studies.

Uncertain discourses about GW may have implications for relationship between scientists and the public. Some actors suppose that it could diminish the authority of science because when science is supposed to produced truth, uncertainties could open access to the production of knowledge by others groups or activities. Others consider that uncertain discourse could maintain or augment the authority of science, placing the science in the question of future scientific research and protecting the scientific position against lay knowledge.
As Masseran and Chavot (2003) show about OGM controversies on television framing, we defend the idea that media coverage of GW makes a boundary-work between science and public, constructing a social hierarchy, where public was given a limited or non-existing poitical role in production of GW knowledge and scientists’ role was privileged.

Research question

How scientific uncertainties were used on 2006-2010 French popular press to construct relations between scientists and the public (diminishing or reinforcing boundaries between science and public) ? Could it diminish or augment the autority of science considered of producing truth against lay knowledge (Bensaude-Vincent, 2003) and establish a social hierarchy where public was given a limited or non-existing political role ? Could uncertainty open acess to the production of knowledge by other groups and activities ?


As Zehr (2000) noticed using an empirical examination of articles on GW in popular press on 1986-1995 period, the French popular press coverage from 2006-2010 was studied using articles from four major newspapers (Libération, Le Monde, Le Figaro and Lacroix) and magazines in the popular press (L’express, Télérama, 20minutes, Metro and TerraEco). Contents were analyzed as articles were identied through searches, using the key terms global warming, greenhouse effect and climate change, on the computerized searching tool Factiva*. Copies of articles were obtained and read for content analyzies. As significant themes related to scientific uncertainty and climate change controversies emerged, examples were recorded. Articles were reread several times to identify further examples of emergent and dominant themes. The excerpts below are presented as illustrative examples of these themes.

Main Results :

GW Uncertainty discourse very salient in science journalism...

During 2006-2010 period, GW uncertainty discourse was very salient in science journalism (Comby, 2008). It’s not a typical feature of science journalism but the question Is it an exception related to the GW issue or the reflect of changings in scientists’ and journalists’ practises? We could show that the construction of uncertainty in GW takes three forms: it was related to 1. scientific controversies, or 2. need of new research or 3. the expansion of the scientific problem domain.

Popular press boundary-work constructs a public identity which is singular and misinformed....

The public was constructed as differentiated from science and excluded from holding legitimate knowledge, values and opinions about GW. This work could be qualified as the popular press boundary-work. The public was considered as misinformed or rash in its conclusions, in contrast to scientists that are sceptical, deliberate and holdung with an appropriate respect for uncertainties in the knowledge.

The public was supposed to have an emotional approach of the topic, in contrast with scientists’ more balanced perspectives. The public races to conclusions about GW because it is supposed unable to place events in a long term natural climatic variation: weather might change public and media perceptions about GW (see 2007 television program Quand la neige ne tombera plus (February 2007) or Et le rechauffement climatique alors ? (December 2008)). Moreover, public was considered careless in its talk and opinions.

Popular press communicate with deficit model (Irwin, 2001) and ethical dilemna...

Because representations of the public knowledge about GW contrast with the scientific knowledge, this construction of public/science relations was based on a specific communication model. Some scientists (Stephen Schneider, 2010), journalists (Stephane Foucard) and French popular environmentalists (like Yann Arthus Bertrand) have a public representation that makes necessar to propose dramatic statements and to offer scary scenarios in order to receive public attention, to shake up a supposed inattentive public to scientific facts.

In this case, an ethical dilemma appears on socioscientific mass communication : due to the need to gain public support and mobilzation, scientific uncertainties were de-emphasized and little mentions are made of doubts. This communication related to a specific public representation on popular press could be qualified an alarmist communication in order to mobilize public (Roqueplo, 1993), represented as singular and misinformed.

Conclusions and discussions

This results could be summarized in four successive points: 1. in 2006-2010 popular press about climate change, scientific uncertainty was a highly salient theme; 2. scientific uncertainty was constructed through various, sometimes unintentional processes, including representations of controversy, new research topics, and an expanding problem domain; 3. scientific uncertainty was managed in the popular press such that science remained an authoritative knowledge provider for climate change. An important part of this management involved the use of controversies in the construction of boundaries between science and the public; 4. these boundaries constructed a “misinformed public” identity.

Communication and reception studies have showed that the public identity is complex and different that the one constructed by media boundary-work (Fourquet, 1999). Publics make their connections to science among diverse interests, concerns, goals and values. Publics used concepts and understandings different form scientists and draw GW upon their own cultural models that make sense to them, integrating their own system values (see Hermes on Public reception). But if they seem concerned by future effects of GW, why are they inactive?

A probable contribution to public inaction ?

We share the Zehr’s claim: the limited role given to the public in press and the delegimitation of their knowledge have probably a contribution to inaction. The public identity may itself be misinformed but, more importantly, it may contribute to inaction among publics who are so represented. Describing a public that lacked legitimate knowledge because it is misinformed or does not able to understand scientific knowledge which is superior to public viewpoints (Legras, LCP, 2010) risks demobilizing the public action. As Beck (2010) argues, the discourse on climate politics so far is an expert and elitist discourse in which peoples, societies, citizens, workers, voters and their interests, views and voices are very much neglected.

A expert monopolization function (Roqueplo, 1974) appears whereby science maintains its authority position over climate change knowledge, excluding of non-scientific knowledge. Even if the public must be interested, it does not hold an active role in the debate. But even it seems necessary to discuss the reasons of the boundary work in the press about GW, a work that will only hinder the expression of lay ideas, concerns and actions, or the mix between scientific and lay knowledge is an open question