Analysis: How UK newspapers changed their minds about climate change

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United Kingdom

Publishing organisation: Carbon Brief

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-04-12

Language: English

Authors: Josh Gabbatiss, Sylvia Hayes, Tom Prater, Joe Goodman


Carbon Brief is a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy. We specialise in clear, data-driven articles and graphics to help improve the understanding of climate change, both in terms of the science and the policy response. We publish a wide range of content, including science explainers, interviews, analysis and factchecks, as well as daily and weekly email summaries of newspaper and online coverage.

Project description:

In April 2022, Carbon Brief produced an analysis looking at the past decade of editorials in UK newspapers that discuss relevant topics about climate change.

Drawing from Carbon Brief’s database of more than 1,300 editorials, which are the formal “voice” of a newspaper, this work examines how the language used to describe human-caused climate change, as well as renewables, fracking and nuclear power, has shifted since 2011.

The interactive article features multiple data visualisations, evidencing the shift in sentiment over time, and includes animations, video and other inline designs.

Impact reached:

This analysis marked an important era in climate change in the national press, published soon after COP26 Glasgow, 2021. Media coverage of climate change was at its peak, and the previous decade had seen a seismic shift in attitudes within the editorials of many major newspapers, from climate scepticism and anti-renewables, to the green recovery and net-zero targets.

The COP26 President Alok Sharma, tweeted “Interesting analysis from @CarbonBrief about the evolving attitude of UK newspapers to tackling #climatechange”. In a keynote address at the Society of Editors conference 2022, Sharma went on to say: “Analysis by Carbon Brief…shows that the number of editorials in UK newspapers calling for more action to tackle climate change has quadrupled in three years…”. The international climate finance lead for COP26 Camilla Born, described it as “…a fascinating read…”.

Journalists shared the piece with their audiences too. Chief lead writer at the Times, Simon Nixon, tweeted: “Interesting analysis of shifting UK newspaper editorial attitudes towards climate change. Also pleasing to see newspaper leading articles being treated with the seriousness that they unquestionably deserve”. Other reporters from the Washington Post and the Independent also praised the work. Press Gazette wrote up the piece.

The story, combined with the database that serves the analysis, has been viewed over 20,000 times since publication. The database has subsequently gained a Google page position of ~4, resulting in an increase of people able to find and search through 1000’s of climate editorials.

Techniques/technologies used:

Carbon Brief has been running its editorial database since April 2016, capturing leading articles in the UK press on matters relating to energy and climate change.

Prior to this analysis, the database was based on monitoring UK newspaper coverage for the Carbon Brief Daily Briefing newsletter, which is released every weekday morning. This is maintained using a collection of RSS feeds to monitor global climate and energy coverage, supported by Factiva and PressReader to allow Carbon Brief staff to track UK editorials. For the purpose of the analysis, the database was expanded for the years 2011-2021 with more detailed Factiva searches. In total, Carbon Brief identified 1,364 editorials relating to climate or energy, of which 711 were used for the climate change analysis and 653 for the energy sources analysis. Some editorials were assessed for both analyses.

The content analysis informs the charts within the piece, which are built with the Javascript library Highcharts. We designed a custom webpage with many scroll event triggers, which allow readers to analyse the data whilst reading through the article.

The look of the article is based on the halftone print effect of newspaper print, which is incorporated throughout the piece in the charts, video thumbnails and text highlights. We added a ‘ragout’ effect to the screenshots of text to give them a torn-paper look, and created animations of some examples of the newspapers in the database.

We also made the database available by building an interactive table, using the Datatables Javascript library. The database is an ongoing archive of UK editorials on climate change, which can be searched, filtered and links through to the original article.

Context about the project:

Carbon Brief worked with Sylvia Hayes, a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter who specialises in climate change communication in the news media, to undertake a qualitative content analysis of the editorial database. This was the first time we worked with an external researcher in this manner.

Hayes created a coding schema (a framework for categorising and quantifying different themes present in the text) to rigorously assess the language and themes used in editorials concerning climate change and three energy technologies in UK editorials. Her codebook includes details of the precise methodology used and links to scientific literature that helped guide its creation, which we link to within the article.

We also sought expertise and guidance from Dr James Painter, Research Associate at the Reuters Institute, Dr Saffron O’Neill, Associate Professor in Geography at University of Exeter and Dr Travis Coan, Associate Professor in Computational Social Science at University of Exeter.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The analysis highlights the unique type of reporting that comes from an extensive collection of data over a sustained period of time. The original purpose of maintaining a database of climate editorials was for the benefit of the Carbon Brief team, and for readers to explore via a simple spreadsheet. The database continued to grow through other outputs, such as the morning email sent to subscribers of the Carbon Brief newsletter, which summarises the past 24 hours of climate and energy news coverage from around the world. The public database currently includes 1,778 editorials.

This database has become an essential resource for the Carbon Brief team and other journalists interested in how papers and other journalists have framed climate debates over the past decade. The database includes links to the online versions of the editorials, but also long quotes from the pieces, which is useful should the original sources be removed or change location.

It was essential to work with a researcher in the field of climate communication, in order to develop a codebook to do the sentiment analysis of the final dataset. Once the analysis was finalised, the writers could work with the multimedia and digital teams to build a custom webpage to create an interactive ‘scrolly’, and lead the reader through the findings. Collaboration was key to this project to grow from an internal spreadsheet to the final feature.

The outcome is a truly original piece of reporting, considering no other news organisations would have this rich dataset to hand.

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