A World War II Scale Effort: National Geographic

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 classes 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 an analysis of National Geographic, a monthly magazine of exploration, education and conservations.

Comparison of Coverage of WWII and Climate Change in
The National Geographic during 1942 and 2008/2009

By Alexandra Massa, Mateo Forero, Benjamin Adelman

National Geographic was first founded in 1888 and is internationally known for its articles and photographs on culture, history, science, and geography. For the purposes of this study, National Geographic was an atypical magazine. While a majority of the other magazines focused on news and politics, National Geographic focused on geography, culture, and nature. Nevertheless, the average number of articles discussing World War II during 1942 was around 50%, while the percentage of articles discussing global warming in 2008/2009 was around 16%.

Issues of National Geographic from 1942 and 2008/2009 were analyzed for their coverage of World War II and climate change respectively. In the first case study, the group examined the 3 or 4 large articles in each issue to see if they were about the war or the war effort. There were no small articles, editorials or advertisements in the magazine, and it was decided that any article discussing the war in any capacity would be counted as “about” the war. This was particularly important to our study because there was no single article that directly described the war. Instead, articles focused on cultural aspects of the war and how it affected developing countries. In fact, most articles discussed the war in some way, but we decided that some covered it too subtly to be counted.

By contrast, only 16% of the major and small articles in the 2008/2009 issues of National Geographic discussed climate change. The magazine has evolved dramatically over the last 60 years, so we decided it was important to recognize that change in our analysis. The articles were more plentiful, shorter, and featured more photography. Any article that discussed global warming, green technologies, or alternative energies was counted. Our results may have been skewed by National Geographic’s special March 2009 issue on global warming. If the articles in this issue were not counted the total percentage would have dropped to 10%.

Overall, our group found that even National Geographic, a magazine not noted for its political coverage, actively reported (albeit in its own unique way) the impacts of the war in Europe and in the Pacific. The final percentage exceeded our expectations. By contrast, we expected a magazine that focuses on geography and nature to devote a greater percentage of its articles to climate change. To a certain extent, this expectation was met by the advertisements in the 2008/2009 issues, 28% of which incorporated “green” themes. While National Geographic may not be as representative of American public opinion as a news weekly, our study certainly shows that the media’s devotion to the war effort in 1942 was significantly higher than its commitment to climate change in 2008/2009. We concluded that lack of media attention to global warming has likely contributed to public apathy on the issue.


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