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Cultural Cognition, Public Opinion, and Media Polarization in the U.S. Climate Change Debate

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posted on 2023-08-04, 05:54 authored by Todd P. Newman

Climate change is one of the most pressing and contentious policy problems in the U.S. as well as around the world. As a result, researchers continue to focus on understanding why the public and policy-makers hold divergent perceptions and opinions on the issue. One of the prominent theoretical frameworks scholars have applied to uncover how and why the public disagrees about the issue of climate change are the related frameworks of cultural theory and cultural cognition. The value orientations associated with these frameworks have a proven history of explaining variation in opinion and risk perception across a range of science and environmental risks. However, research integrating these theoretical frameworks with mass media effects frameworks remains under-theorized. For members of the “lay” public, as well as for stakeholders and decision-makers, the news media serves as a primary source for information on the issue of climate change, and thus an important context for examination. In this dissertation, I integrate the theoretical frameworks of cultural theory and cultural cognition with mass media effects frameworks. Reviewing this past research (Chapter 2), I describe the changes in the mass media environment over the last several decades, including the rise and influence of politically slanted media sources, and the implications for public perceptions on climate change. I present an overview of the origins of the cultural theory and cultural cognition framework, and describe their application to framing, narratives, and selective exposure research. Building on this integration of existing research, across two empirical studies I attempt to answer a series of core research questions, including: (1) How are culturally consistent or antagonistic cues embedded within different frames of reference? (2) Do cultural worldviews relate to news media choices? (3) Does a respondent’s cultural worldview bias the influence of politically slanted media use on their climate change concern? In a first study (Chapter 3), I rely on quantitative content analysis as well as qualitative discourse analysis to examine how cultural worldviews relate to news media frames. By examining politically slanted media coverage in the U.S. from 2011 to 2014, I show the prominence of frames and cultural appeals across media outlets, as well as demonstrate that specific cultural appeals are more likely to appear with specific frames of reference. I found that right-leaning media outlets were overall more likely to contain Individualistic and/or Hierarchical appeals, while left-leaning media outlets were overall more likely to contain Communitarian and/or Egalitarian appeals. More specifically, I found that Hierarchical and/or Individualistic appeals were more likely to appear with the political conflict frame, while Egalitarian and/or Communitarian appeals were more likely to appear with the disaster/risk, human security, and morality/ethics frame. The science frame, however, did not have any cultural appeal consistently appearing with it. In a second study (Chapter 4), I use original survey data collected in February 2015 to show how cultural worldviews relate to news media choices, as well as the extent to which cultural worldviews moderate the relationship between politically slanted media use and climate change concern. I found that respondents who score high in terms of Hierarchical and Individualistic worldviews tend to prefer Fox News and The Wall Street Journal as information sources. In contrast, those who score high in terms of an Individualistic worldview appear less likely to be consumers of CNN, MSNBC, or The New York Times, while those who score high in terms of a Communitarian outlook tend to be heavier consumers of these same outlets. I also found that a respondent’s Hierarchical worldview moderates the effects of cable news exposure (MSNBC and Fox News) on climate change concern. Individuals holding Egalitarian worldviews, however, did not indicate any shift in climate change concern as a function of cable news exposure. I conclude (Chapter 5) by discussing the implications of these findings within the context of science communication and media effects research. I describe how researchers studying news media framing of climate change can benefit from the findings of the content analysis section, as well as suggest directions for future experimental research based off of the findings from the survey analysis section. In addition, I also describe how the typology of cultural appeals developed in the content analysis section can be applied to the design and use of more effective communication materials on climate change as well as other controversial science and environmental issues.







Degree Awarded: Ph.D. School of Communication. American University


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