Framing Climate Change
In one major line of research, I explore how industry and social movement organizations frame climate change, and how the cultural meanings of these messages and the power relationships of the organizations promoting them affect how these messages are received in mainstream media.
Climate Discourse: Polarized or Post-Political?
In my first paper in this project, I use a variety of automated text analysis procedures to describe a large corpus of business, government, and social advocacy organizations’ framings of climate change. I find this discourse has been largely expert-oriented and technocratic, neglecting concerns of values and identity widely believed to be important for social movement mobilization and politicized identity formation. This finding suggests that businesses and their civil society allies have responded to mounting evidence of climate change by proposing methods to address environmental degradation that simultaneously entrench the economic and political status quo. However, it also opens up questions as to why environmental organizations have similarly adopted a discourse that fails to identify structural sources of the problem, poses several barriers to public engagement, and limits the range of public response.
This paper was published in Social Forces and was the winner of the 2019 Section on Political Sociology’s Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship for a Paper by a Graduate Student Award.
Whose Messages Make the News On Climate?
In my second paper in this project, I ask whose voices are most likely to receive news coverage in the U.S. debate about climate change? Elite cues embedded in mainstream media can influence public opinion on climate change, so it is important to understand whose perspectives are most likely to be represented.
Here I use plagiarism-detection software to analyze the media coverage of a large random sample of business, government, and social advocacy organizations’ press releases about climate change (N=1,768), examining which messages are cited in all articles published about climate change in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today from 1985 to 2014 (N=34,948). I find that press releases opposing action to address climate change are about twice as likely to be cited in national newspapers as are press releases advocating for climate action. In addition, messages from business coalitions and very large businesses are more likely than those from other types of organizations to receive coverage. Surprisingly, press releases from organizations providing scientific and technical services are less likely to receive news coverage than are other press releases in my sample, suggesting that messages from organizations with greater scientific expertise receive less media attention. These findings support previous scholars’ claims that journalistic norms of balance and objectivity have distorted the public debate around climate change, while providing evidence that the structural power of business interests lends them heightened visibility in policy debates.
This paper is currently in press at Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.
Wetts, Rachel. 2020. “Models and Morals: Elite-Oriented and Value-Neutral Discourse Dominates American Organizations’ Framings of Climate Change.” Social Forces 98(3): 1339-1369. Published online: https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soz027
Wetts, Rachel. “In Climate News, Statements from Large Businesses and Opponents of Climate Action Receive Heightened Visibility.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. In Press.