A World War II Scale Effort: Newsweek

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 the second analysis of  Newsweek, a weekly news magazine.

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

By Chris Allison, Nicholas Krens, Jeffrey Richards

Our group examined six issues of Newsweek from the second half of 1942 and twelve issues from July of 2008 to June of 2009. To create this sample, one week’s issue was randomly selected from each month. We reviewed the WW II issues on micro film, which was very difficult and time consuming. Working with hard copies from 2008/2009, we were able to do a much more complete analysis of the modern Newsweek.

Keywords were used to determine whether an article or advertisement was about WW II or climate change. WW II articles and advertisements were easy to identify. Determining whether an article or advertisement about another environmental issue was “about” climate change was more difficult. We decided that biodiversity loss and environmental degradation alone would not count.

In the 1942 sample, the number of articles about WW II ranged from 60% to 90% per issue, for an average of 74%. Due to the difficulties we experienced with microfilm, we did not analyze the advertisements; however, our casual observations led us to believe that nearly 100% of the ads were related to the war in one way or another.

In the 2008/2009 sample, the number of articles about climate change varied between 0% and 22%, for an average of 9.2%. Because we were working with hard copies of these issues, we were able to analyze the advertisements. The percentage related to climate change varied between 0% and 29% and averaged 10.25%.

Our group expected the percentage of climate change articles to be much closer to the percentage of WW II articles. We weren’t at all surprised by the number of WW II articles in each 1942 issue, but we expected to find more articles about climate change in the current issues.

Instead we found that Newsweek placed significantly more emphasis on WW II in 1942 than it currently places on climate change. In 1942, during WW II, the Axis posed a clear and imminent danger; nothing commanded so much of America’s attention.  By contrast, several problems are now perceived as posing a more immediate threat to the United States than climate change and thus take precedence in the news. One topic that occupied a large portion of Newsweek in 2008/2009 was the presidential election; as a result, all other issues received less coverage.

Clearly, we are far from WW II -scale coverage of climate change. If a WW II -scale effort requires WW II -scale coverage, then we are also far from that effort. But our situation now is actually very similar to that of the United States in 1940. Then America avoided the war until it was forced to act. Another Pearl Harbor may be needed to motivate the public to act now on climate change.


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