Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Comparing Climate Change Coverage in Canadian English- and French-Language Print Media: Environmental Values, Media Cultures, and the Narration of Global Warming

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Comparing Climate Change Coverage in Canadian English- and French-Language Print Media: Environmental Values, Media Cultures, and the Narration of Global Warming

Article excerpt


This article explores how climate change issues are being presented in English- and French-language print media in Canada. Climate change issues are tremendously complex, and disagreements and debates have been the norm since the public "discovery" of the issue in the mid-1980s. However, recent research in North America, Europe, and Asia has shown that anthropogenic climate change has become more divisive as the issue has matured and moved into everyday parlance (Weaver 2008; Hulme 2009; Sampei and Aoyagi-Usui, 2009; Maibach et al. 2010). While climate change is a science-heavy topic, it has also developed a substantial and highly varied social and cultural life. Some prominent social theorists have even come to argue that conflicts over climate change are increasingly alienated from science, and have instead become a proxy or marker for deeper debates about politics, freedom and responsibility, development, and values (e.g., Hulme 2009; Swyngedouw 2010).

At root, such arguments imply that climate change is a highly variable idea, and that climate change issues "look different" from differing political and cultural perspectives. Researchers in the United States, for instance, have identified six major cultural-political stances on climate change, ranging from "the alarmed" to "the dismissive" (Maibach et al. 2009; 2010). We seek to further explore variance in the social and cultural life of climate change by looking at one of the most significant demarcations in Canadian society, that of language.

It has frequently been suggested that English- and French-speaking Canadians inhabit "two solitudes" (Baillargeon 1994; Fletcher 1998; Rioux 2005). This metaphor (now a cliche), popularized by Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel of the same name, is taken to mean that the two language groups hold different core values, political perspectives, and priorities. While this view has been strongly criticized over the years (e.g., Taylor 1993; Saul 1997; Fraser 2007), the largely francophone province of Quebec is widely thought to be a dissenter on climate change issues (relative to the tepid stance of successive Canadian governments) and a place where the consensus view of climate change (that it is occurring and is predominantly caused by human activities) has found the most purchase and resilience.

The purpose of this article is to investigate whether evidence of a narrative break exists between English and French Canada on climate change issues on one key dimension of public discourse: the daily print media. Newspapers, in both print and online formats, remain the predominant source of information on environmental issues for most people (Antilla 2010:245). While nonjournalistic weblogs and other forms of online information have become important contributors to the public life of the climate change issue, they cannot match the breadth of reach still enjoyed by mainstream media outlets. Moreover, recent research has found that the amount of original content in blogs is lower than generally presumed, and that "the blogosphere relies heavily on professional news reports" as sources of raw information upon which to comment (Reese et al. 2007:235). In short, newspapers remain an important contributor to public discourse on controversial issues, and are a key means by which claims and narratives are communicated and legitimized to the "lay" public (Young and Matthews 2007).

Our analysis is based on findings from a large study of newspaper coverage of climate change across six English-language newspapers (The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, The Toronto Star, and The Vancouver Sun), and two French-language dailies (Le Devoir and La Presse) across a twelve month period (October, 2007 to October, 2008). We will draw on concepts from environmental sociology, the sociology of journalism, and existing research about cultural and political differences in English-and French-speaking Canada to advance a series of hypotheses regarding expected convergences and divergences in coverage of climate change issues across the linguistic divide. …

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