Can photojournalism enhance public engagement with climate change?

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News photographs have the potential to influence public engagement, affecting awareness and attitude, and leading the public not only to be better informed but more emotionally engaged with important issues relating to the common good. News photographs are particularly well suited to communicating about international issues across borders, since they rely on an understanding that may be culturally bound, but does not require discursive interpetation. Alongside war, terrorism, and poverty, climate change is an issue of undeniable scope and import at this threshold “last chance” moment to avoid catastrophic warming – commonly thought of as 2 degrees above historical average temperature. This dissertation asks how photojournalism frames climate change and what potential news images hold for engaging the public with climate change.

The mixed methods approach adopted throughout the thesis allows for a multifaceted view of the visual framing of climate change. After discussing the current state of research in this burgeoning and highly active field, I investigated a particularly pervasive visual frame, called here “the apocalyptic sublime.” This frame is described in detail, a set of criteria to identify it is provided, and occurrences of it on front pages of national newspapers are discussed. In the second research component, I conducted a series of 14 interviews with Californian and national photo editors yielding insight into the decision-making process that results in the existing visual framing of climate change in newspaper photography as predominantly aesthetics-driven and focusing mainly on the adverse impacts of climate change, rather than the root causes or the possible solutions. Third, I carried out a content analysis of 500 social media shared images of climate change in California, showing that climate change is deeply embedded in people’s everyday lives, and that mitigation behaviors are inextricable from self-promotion. Finally, an experimental study of the effect of certain attributes of climate change news photos was conducted online, with 161 participants. Post-test survey results were partly inconclusive and partly unexpected, calling for more detailed future research into image effects, especially the effects of an “apocalyptic sublime” frame.

The work aims both to decipher the challenges and pitfalls of photographic communication about climate change and to provide a resource for media practitioners who wish to make the most judicious, informed, and context-conscious choices in their use of climate news images. Beyond this particular pressing issue, applications can be found in broader visual communication about issues of public importance.