Economic Framing Dominates Climate Policy Reporting: A Fifty-State Analysis

by Ann Garth

Title of thesis/research question: Economic Framing Dominates Climate Policy Reporting: A Fifty-State Analysis

Type of thesis (undergraduate/masters/doctoral/postdoctoral): Undergraduate

University affiliation: Brown University

Research Duration: 2019-2020


This paper analyses the framing of the leading state-level climate change mitigation policy in the USA, renewable portfolio standards, in top newspapers from all fifty states. From a corpus of 1522 state newspaper articles which mention renewable portfolio standards, our analysis uses structural topic modeling to identify common frames by region, time period, and state partisanship. Interviews with activists in Michigan and Nevada who were involved in framing renewable portfolio standard legislation provides additional context as to how social movement organizations (SMOs) make framing choices. We find that in newspaper reporting economic frames about business development and utility costs strongly predominate over other frames about emissions and public health. Despite some evidence that a public health frame is effective at increasing support for climate mitigation policies and its being advanced by activists, the frame is almost nonexistent in newspaper coverage.

1. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

This work studied framing, which is essentially how you talk about an issue and which impacts you emphasise. One of the four major frames I looked at was the public health frame: focusing on the public health harms of burning fossil fuels (such as increased risks of asthma and cancer), and the public health benefits that come from switching to renewables. There’s some evidence from experiments that a public health frame is an effective way to increase support for renewable energy, so I was really surprised that it basically didn’t appear at all in the newspaper articles I analysed. I also think that’s an important finding – knowing which frames are/aren’t appearing in the media can help activists figure out how to target their messaging.

2. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

The first version of this paper was written as my senior thesis in college. During the year I was working on it, my mom unexpectedly passed away and then the pandemic started. Both of those things made it a lot harder to write my thesis! I pushed through because I was really passionate about the issue of climate change and really interested in what I would find, but the truth is that my thesis wasn’t as well-written as it could have been in different circumstances. (Luckily I was able to edit it before submitting it for publication at a journal.) I think I’ll always be a little sad that the thesis version wasn’t as perfect as I wanted it to be, but I remind myself that that’s just how life goes sometimes. I think it’s really important to be kind to yourself – when life gets hard, taking care of yourself is a lot more important than research.

3. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

Right now I’m working at TDC, a nonprofit consulting firm – we help other nonprofits with strategic planning, financial modeling, and research. In the coming year I’m hoping to do more work on climate change!

4. Per the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

My research has definitely made me more focused on the power of framing in climate change advocacy work (and in politics in general). I’m also hoping to work on a second paper using the same dataset used in this research, so in that sense this research is still very much part of my plans.

5. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

Don’t be afraid if you feel like you don’t know much! I started working on this paper with a very limited statistical background and not much knowledge about the existing literature on framing. If you’re willing to work hard and ask for help from people who know more than you, you can do a lot more than you might think.

Read Ann’s research in full here!

Author Bio: Ann Garth (she/her/hers) has been interested in the environment for as long as she can remember, and increasingly focused on climate change as she got older and learned more about what an important problem it is. She graduated with honors from Brown, with a degree in Systems Change & Environmental Policy.

Categories North America/Student Work

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