Sources and Frames in a Contested Framing Space: An Analysis of the U.S. Media Coverage of The Fourth National Climate Assessment

Kristin M. F. Timm

Major Professor: Edward Wile Maibach, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Richard T. Craig, Xiaoquan Zhao, Emily Vraga

Online Location,
April 19, 2021, 12:00 PM to 02:00 PM


The news media play an important role in shaping public perceptions of global climate change by influencing how their audiences come to think about the issue. Using the release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) as a case study, this study investigates how news about the report was framed in online news articles generated by local/regional newspapers, digital-born and other online news, television, radio, national newspapers, and left and right leaning partisan news and how the presence or absence of particular sources affect the resulting emphasis frames. The report, which is a compressive analysis of the environmental and societal risks that climate change presents to every region and economic sector of the United States, was released on November 23, 2018, but then President, Donald Trump, did not make a statement about the report until November 26, 2018, providing a unique setting to investigate how the statements of a single, powerful source influences news frames across different media types/platforms. Using computational methods of text analysis, including dictionary-based analysis and structural topic modeling (STM) to identify sources and frames, the NCA4 was most commonly framed in ways that emphasized the Trump administration’s efforts to Bury News of Report (27%), the Economic Costs of Climate Change to the United States (17%), the Trump Administration Response to Report(15%). Politically focused frames were present in news coverage across the U.S. through the widespread distribution of syndicated news content. Following the initial peak in news, Environmental Impacts, Climate Change Solutions, and Agricultural Impacts emphasis frames emerged, largely the product of local and regional news organizations doing original reporting about the report. The most frequently occurring sources in NCA4 news articles were President Trump (86%), scientists and other experts (64%), and politicians (46%). Journalists had more power to frame the event before President Trump made a statement about the report, but regardless much of the news coverage focused on Trump, included his misleading statements about the report, and focused on his Administration’s actions. Climate change represents a contested framing space where scientists, political elites, environmental activists, and other actors compete to shape the framing of the issue in the news. This research sheds light on how these dynamics play out in the different ways across the media ecosystem, with implications for the role of different news organizations in addressing climate change.