A World War II Scale Effort: Harper’s 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 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 Harper’s, a monthly magazine of culture.

Comparison of Coverage of WW II and Climate Change in
Harper’s Magazine during 1942 and 2008/2009

By Shana Cothran, Paul Melmeyer, and Joshua Rooks

Our research group examined twelve issues of Harper’s Magazine from 1942 and twelve issues from July 2008 through September 2009. (We went beyond June 2009 because GW’s Eckles Library was missing three earlier issues from 2009). To determine the percentages of each 1942 issue devoted to World War Two, we first counted the total number of articles; then, by using keywords such as “war,” “ammunition,” and “allies,” we counted the number of articles that covered the war. To determine the percentages of each 2008/2009 issue devoted to climate change, we first counted the total number of articles; then, by using keywords such as “climate change,” “green,” and “greenhouse gases,” we counted the number of articles that covered climate change. We then compared our results from both time periods to contrast the amount of news coverage given to both issues.

Researching Harper’s issues from World War Two involved flipping through two large, archival volumes: January-June 1942 and then July-December 1942. Typically, each issue contained eleven articles. We counted 138 articles in the entire year. Due to time constraints, we were not able to examine the two to three pieces of fiction included in each issue. The number of articles that focused on World War Two increased as the year progressed. In total, 61% of articles were focused on World War Two. Seven out of twelve test articles (the article recorded for outside review) were on World War Two. We were not surprised by these results.

We were, however, surprised by Harper’s coverage of climate change. Of the forty five articles from the last half of 2008 and the first half of 2009, only one article focused on climate change, an average of only 2%. In these issues, we were also able to examine the stories and advertisements. None of the stories were about climate change. But 21%, or 29 of 138, of the advertisements had climate change -related content. (All of the advertisements from the 1942 issues were pushed to the back of the archival volumes, making it impossible to count the number per issue.) We were very surprised to find so many advertisements on climate change.

The stark contrast between Harper’s coverage of World War Two in 1942 versus its coverage of climate change now surprised us. Thomas Friedman and others have said a World War Two scale effort is needed to effectively defeat climate change. Our study highlights how little attention is given to climate change. In order to overcome climate change, magazines such as Harper’s need to focus on climate change as they did World War Two.


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