As heat waves become more common, more intense, and more lethal, the contrast between news articles that spell out the impact of extreme heat and their accompanying “fun in the sun” photos becomes more jarring.
In a newly released pre-print, researchers looked at how newsrooms were visually representing climate change and extreme heat by analyzing roughly 250 pieces of online news coverage about the 2019 heat waves in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and U.K. (That’s “canicule,” “hitzewelle,” “hittegolf,” and “heat wave,” respectively.)
For the research, both the image and text were evaluated for positive, negative, or mixed valence. A negative valence presented the heat wave as worrying, risky, dangerous, and/or inconvenient, while a positive valence invoked concepts like vacation, leisure, and relaxation. In the images, researchers also looked for themes. Was the white-hot sun beating down? Did the photo show cracked earth? Were humans in frame and were they having a good time?
Across all four countries, 31% of the accompanying images were what the authors deemed “positively valenced” — in short, they showed people having fun in the sun. Although not the majority in any country, the single most common type of image in each country was photographs showing people enjoying themselves near or in water.
Images with people swimming, sunbathing, or splashing around accounted for 33% of U.K. coverage, 27% in the Netherlands, 26% in France and 22% in Germany. (Some were iconic enough to jump borders; photos of people in fountains in front of the Eiffel Tower popped up in all four countries.) Here’s a bar graph the researchers made using a “typical image” from each country’s dataset:
There was a stark contrast between texts (less than 1% of the actual articles positive) and images (again, nearly one-third were positive) in the news coverage.