USA Today: Is Earth Near Its 'Tipping Points'?

This research project builds upon a growing research effort to incorporate social and behavioral theory and analysis to create a clearer picture of the role of news media in shaping public awareness about global climate change and associated actions (or lack thereof). This research was motivated by a desire to better understand 1) the types of information that have been provided in news reports about climate change over the past several decades, and 2) how people are likely to interpret and react to and/or act upon the information contained in these news stories. A better understanding of the types of information that have been provided in news reports is being pursued through algorithmic text analysis and visualization of approximately 156,000 news texts from print, broadcast, and digital media, and a human-coded content analysis of approximately 350 images randomly sampled from among the images that appeared with the newspaper and magazine stories.

This news representation project is part of a much larger project, both in Dr. Hespanha’s dissertation (Thematic andClimate change headlines affective content in textual and visual communication about climate change: Historical overview of mass media sources and empirical investigation of emotional responses. Doctoral Dissertation, UCSB Department of Geography, 2011) and proposed ongoing work. To better understand how people interpret, react to, and act upon information about climate change that they acquire from news stories, preliminary studies have explored the ways in which climate change news may elicit emotional response and thereby encourage or discourage different ways of thinking about the issue or different decisions or actions in response to the information presented. Further study in this area will focus on empirical observation of self-reported emotional response to climate change news texts and images and will involve examination of relationships between the types of information presented and individual-level variables that influence interpretation, emotional response, and motivation to take action on the issue.

Stacy Rebich Hespanha
Postdoctoral Scholar
National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
University of California, Santa Barbara 93106-5065

Ronald E. Rice
President, International Communication Association 2006-2007
Dept. of Communication, 4005 Social Sciences and Media Studies (SS&MS)
University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-4020

Daniel R. Montello
Professor, Department of Geography
Affiliated Faculty, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences
University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106 805.893.8536;

Fanny Agniel
UC Santa Barbara Department of Geography Major and Project Research Assistant

Sean Retzloff
Sandrine Tien 
UC Santa Barbara Department of Communication Majors and Project Research Assistants

Project Code Book 

This is the codebook for the image content analysis project. The first column contains the broad Category for each theme, the second column contains the Specific Theme, the third column contains a description of the Specific Theme, and the fourth column contains the sequential number for the code. Themes are specific themes and were coded based on examination of the images. Categories are more general themes, and each was derived from the specific themes listed in its Description column. Here they are used to group specific themes for greater conceptual ease in coding the images for specific themes. The codebook contains 118 specific Themes within 19 Categories. The final Categories, Themes, and specific wording is the result of multiple codings of the 350 images using 123 codes by three coders, involving over 175,000 separate codings. All of the final 118 codes exhibited excellent agreements and reliabilities (available from the authors).

PDF Icon Download Code Book 

Some Thoughts on Our Experience with the Climate Change Images Project – So Far!

As part of the climate change images project, Stacy Hespanha, Ron Rice, Sean Retzloff and Sandrine Tien met for several hours once or twice per week during Winter and Spring quarters of 2012. Our goal was to reliably code images randomly selected from a very large database of news articles whose text has already been automatically coded and grouped into themes, and to develop a very explicit and comprehensive codebook that other researchers may find useful.  With 350 images, 123 codes, 3 coders, and on average half of the images being coded at least twice, that represents around 175,000 separate inspections and codings. 

The agenda for each meeting was to discuss the climate news images we had coded for that week – to talk about the differences in our readings of the images, and to hone our codebook to contain precise and reliable descriptions that we could all agree upon. Some weeks we also read and discussed research articles on different aspects of coding methodology, agenda-setting and framing, and relationships between news stories, their images, and readers.

Stacy writes:

We realized after a few weeks that we (and perhaps I in particular) clearly had underestimated the amount of work that would be necessary to reliably identify the thematic contents of the images. As the project unfolded, it became apparent that the level of detail represented in our coding scheme together with the shape-shifting nature of visual messages was going to force us all to push the limits of our ability to focus, recognize even obscure details, and to negotiate shared understanding. Our conversations generally centered around areas of disagreement in our codings of the images, but inevitably took us down unexpected paths. At different points we discussed the degree to which celebrities represent their country of origin and associated cultural values, attempted to define what qualifies as art, explored the structures of various government bodies and programs, reviewed the details of the relationships between the various components of the climate system, and debated many other topics.

Participating in this collaborative project with the Carsey-Wolf Center has helped me push towards completion on a project that I had begun as part of my dissertation work. Our coding discussions have helped me to better organize my thinking about the nature of the themes in climate news imagery, to truly appreciate the richness of visual communication, and to gain perspective on how people who are less familiar with scientific concepts related to climate change might perceive these news images.

I am grateful to the Carsey-Wolf Center for hosting our meetings and providing resources critical to the success of the project. Thanks also to Sandrine and Sean, who have spent many long hours immersed in the images coding theme after theme – and then returning to them after our discussions to attain high reliability. Many thanks to Ron for leading discussions that provided a solid theoretical and methodological foundation for the work we were doing, for keeping us organized, for playing devil’s advocate, and for keeping our conversations on track in general (and, to be honest, leading us on the occasional conversational detour). Working on this project has been a great experience, and I look forward to continued collaboration.

Sean writes:

The climate change image-coding project has been a long and challenging process.  The project has taught me much about content analysis as a research method, and has also expanded my knowledge of the environmental degradation that our planet is currently facing! Although coding images can sometimes be a tedious procedure, I have learned much about the type of work ethic that is needed in order for a research project of this caliber to succeed.  Coding has also offered me insight into the complexities that accompany objectifying human interpretation, and allowed me to discover that each individual interprets the world through an inherently different set of lenses.  The aspect that I have most enjoyed while working on the environmental image project is debating the meanings of each individual code week in and week out, in order to successfully achieve intercoder reliability.  I find it intriguing that our group as a whole can experience so much initial disagreement, but we are able to discuss/debate the meaning of a code, and redefine and clarify the code, until we are able to converge in our thought process.   Overall, this project has been a great experience, contributing to the wide range of expertise that I have acquired here at UC Santa Barbara! 

Sandrine writes:

Being a part of this climate change coding project was definitely engaging and eye-opening. My perspective of social science has drastically changed and I developed a new-found appreciation for research. It's very intriguing to witness so many different perspectives and interpretations of a single image. Everyone comes from their own unique background and experiences; and when they brought their insights to the table, there was definitely some clashing thoughts. Images aimed to educate and build awareness about climate change can be challenging to understand, and to get the point of the message across. However, this project taught me there's honestly no 'right' or 'wrong' interpretation (and certainly not without reliable coding definitions), and that messages, whether portrayed through image or text, can include a multitude of aspects. The most difficult part of this project was discussing ambiguity and border-line topics. For example, it's easy to decide if cotton is white or tar is black, but imagine labeling every single color, hue, shade, and blend of a summer sunset in the sky. That's just one way of thinking how we coded these climate images. After two quarters of dissecting, classifying, and categorizing hundreds of images, I can truly say I now concretely understand the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words," and then some.

Ron writes:

This project has been time-consuming, enlightening, challenging, quite fun, and very satisfying.  Sandrine, Sean and Stacy are extremely thorough and thoughtful, and very committed to the project.  We have learned much about climate change science from Stacy as well as from the images and captions.  We much better understand how images can frame arguments, use metaphors to explain issues, explain knowledge otherwise unavailable to non-scientists, take us to places around the world that we could never visit, and introduce us to a wide range of people and institutions involved in climate change issues.

A more general value to engaging in content analysis is realizing that nearly everything we experience – and especially images – may be seen and interpreted in different, multiple, and even opposing ways.  This means that we cannot take for granted what our friends or strangers mean, and we can’t take for granted that they understand our intended meaning.  To really share common meaning requires extended discussion, a willingness to question our perceptions and thoughts, and an openness to others’ perspectives.