Reporters using more ‘hedging’ words in climate change articles, CU-Boulder study finds

June 2, 2014

The amount of “hedging” language—words that suggest room for doubt—used by prominent newspapers in articles about climate change has increased over time, according to a new study by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Communication, also found that newspapers in the U.S. use more hedging language in climate stories than their counterparts in Spain.

“We were surprised to find newspapers increased their use of hedging language, since the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that humans are contributing to it has substantially strengthened over time,” said Adriana Bailey, a doctoral student at CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, and lead author of the paper.

CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The researchers examined articles published in two U.S. papers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and in two Spanish papers, El Mundo and El Pais. The articles used for the study were published in 2001 and 2007, years when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released its latest assessments of the physical science basis for climate change.

The researchers combed the articles for words from all parts of speech that typically suggest uncertainty, such as almost, speculative, could, believe, consider, blurry, possible and projecting.

Once the words were identified, the scientists considered the context they were used in to determine if they should count as hedging language.

For example, the word “uncertainty” was counted in a New York Times article that read “…substantial uncertainty still clouds projections of important impacts…” but it was not counted in a sentence in the same newspaper that read “...uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change…”

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Tags: News, CIRES