A World War II Scale Effort: TIME Magazine

What level of public attention is required for the “WWII-scale effort” urged by Thomas Friedman and others? To provide a provisional answer to this question, GW students in Professor Svoboda’s UW-20 class examined ten magazines published during WWII and still in print today. They compared each magazine’s coverage of WWII during 1942 with its coverage of climate change from July 2008 to June 2009 . Up to 12 issues were examined for each period. (See a more detailed overview of the project here.) Today we present the second of two groups’ reports on the newsweekly TIME.

Time Header 2

Comparison of Coverage of WWII and Climate Change in
Time Magazine during 1942 and 2008/2009

By Caitlin Souders, Timothy Rennie, and Nirav Patel

TIME magazine provides an excellent example of the huge disparities in the coverage of World War II and climate change. In the 1942 issues of TIME magazine, for example, several sections of the magazine were specifically devoted to the coverage of World War II, but in the 2008 issues of TIME, most of the articles were focused on the intense election season of 2008.

Time Mag 2During 1942, the only people to make it onto the cover of TIME magazine were involved in World War II in one way or another. (This cover, from Nov. 16, 1942, features Lt. General Dwight D. Eisenhower.) In fact, portraits of people involved with the war were featured on 100% of the covers in 1942. Inside the magazine, 86.8% of the news stories and featured articles were also about WWII. (Letters to the editor, arts and culture, and book reviews were not counted in these totals.)

By contrast, no cover between July 2008 and June 2009 featured climate change in any way. (This cover from the special environment issue of April 28, 2008 was the closest to the period we covered.) And only 3.2% of the news stories and featured articles in the 2008/2009 issues of TIME were on topics related to climate change.

Time Mag 3Because we were working with hardcopies of the 2008/09 issues of TIME—when we analyzed the 1942 issues we had to work with microfiche—we were also able to analyze the ads. To our surprise a slightly higher percentage of the ads, 4.5%, addressed climate change. In fact, before the 2008 election, 7.3% of the ads used climate change as a selling point, whereas after the election this number decreased to only 2.0%. This could be because the companies buying the ads understood that TIME would be more widely read in the run-up to the election. But the election may also have consumed a greater portion of TIME’s news coverage, leaving less room for articles on climate change.

As Americans, we are not close to recognizing climate change as a WWII-scale threat. In early 1942, we knew the gravity of the situation, which is why the war was the subject of nearly 90% of TIME magazine’s articles. By contrast, climate change remains a distant concept in the back of the American mind.


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