The Issue-Attention Cycle: Up and Down with Climate Change

Last Updated: March 2022

This article was first published back in late 2013 and has continued to be the second most visited page on our website, attracting a high number of readers year after year. We believe this is because people are interested in understanding why climate change news seems to go through peaks and troughs in attracting media attention.

Just prior to the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, back in early 2020, it seemed like climate change, as a news issue, had finally grown out of the Issue-Attention cycle. The bushfires of 2019 shocked Australians and people worldwide, and many were wondering whether there was anything that could have prevented this destruction. In the following months, Covid-19 pushed climate change out of the news, demonstrating that the media has a limited carrying capacity for crisis reporting.

As science communicators, the way we communicate climate change news has been a challenge for years. I came into this field just over a year ago, however, I’ve been guided by people who have had years of experience working tirelessly to make more people know and care about environmental issues. One thing that comes out clearly when talking to them is the simultaneous importance and challenge of keeping people engaged. For many people, climate change is an urgent issue, yet it is also overdone in the media so that it becomes overwhelming, with the information dense and jargon-heavy.

In communicating environmental issues and climate change, we have found that focusing not just on what we are communicating, but also why, how and who we are communicating to, are important to engage people in the topic. At the ARRC, we use a RACE (Reach, Act, Convert, Engage) framework to reach more people and keep them interested in climate-related content. We find the Issue-Attention Cycle useful to think about how we maintain and attract readers to keep people interested in what is an ongoing critical issue – the reality of climate change and variability. It is frustrating to see important issues being ignored because they are no longer interesting to the general public, yet this makes the way we communicate all the more important. People need clear messages and to be given the confidence to act – individually or as a group.

Our Social Media and Marketing expert, Masha, has written an article on ways to keep audiences engaged in environmental issues at different levels of a ‘customer’s journey’. We use the RACE (Reach, Act, Convert, Engage) framework to target content to different types of ‘customers’ or readers.

A 2021 survey on ‘Communicating on climate change after Covid-19’ found that overwhelmingly, the general public still cares about climate change. One of the key findings of the study was that the Covid-19 pandemic, along with its social responsibility and restrictions, had widened the narrative around climate change, highlighting that collective action and change are possible. People generally believe that in recovering from the pandemic, there is an opportunity for a ‘green recovery’, and to innovate and integrate climate change mitigation measures. The study also highlighted that people are looking for a strong urgent tone, as well as clear targets, paths and actions to follow. Importantly, the survey found that although there are a large number of terms about climate change circulating, many people do not understand what these technical terms mean.

What is the Issue-Attention Cycle?

Anthony Downs, writing in the early 70s described the Issue-Attention Cycle – the five stage cycle of media attention and public interest regarding a particular issue. His work is just as relevant today, particularly when we look at issues like climate change which, as an issue, seems to have moved through the full five stages described by Downs and shown in the diagram below.

1. The Pre-Problem Stage

This is when most people aren’t yet aware of the issue but experts or interest groups might be.

2. Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm

This is when the public suddenly becomes aware of and alarmed about an issue. According to Downs’ analysis, in the US this alarm “is invariably accompanied by euphoric enthusiasm about society’s ability to ‘solve this problem’ or ‘do something effective’ within a relatively short period of time”.

3. Realising the cost of significant progress

Disillusionment sets in once people realise how much it will cost to solve the problem, not only in terms of money but also through sacrifices by large groups of the population.

4. Gradual decline of intense public interest

“As more and more people realise how difficult and how costly to themselves a solution to the problem would be, three reactions set in. Some people just get discouraged. Others feel threatened by thinking about the problem, so they suppress such thoughts. Still others become bored by the issue.” Other issues start to get more attention instead.

5. The post-problem stage

The problem gets moved off into a “twilight realm of lesser attention.” But things are not the same as before – new institutions, policies and programmes are in place, and any issue that has been through the cycle is more likely to get attention again at certain points.

A recent example of this is the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow. Climate change featured in the news majorly in the lead up and throughout the conference’s proceedings in most media outlets, yet it seems now that the conference is over, climate change is no longer as exciting and isn’t as frequently reported on in the media, despite the ongoing crisis.

Downs also describes the three main characteristics of issues that enter the issue attention cycle:

  1. The issue does not affect a majority of people directly.
  2. The suffering caused by the problem is created and reinforced by social structures that have a significant benefit to either a majority or a powerful minority of society.
  3. The problem doesn’t have many exciting qualities and so it doesn’t peak public interest in the news cycles.

Research into the issue-attention cycle has found that the cycle may be a cultural phenomenon. A study looked into the ways climate change issues were communicated in the media in two countries, the US and France. It was found that the issue-attention cycle was more prominent in US media, where climate change news articles were often published in correlation with severe weather events or political events. In comparison, French media more consistently reported on climate change. This study, however, was conducted in 2009, and it’s possible with the globalisation of news and media, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, that there has been an homogenisation of news reporting, and thus issue-attention cycles could be more prevalent across countries.

So what can we do?

The challenge for communicators is to maintain attention and interest about important issues, even when these issues don’t immediately impact the public’s daily life. As Downs says:

“…we should not underestimate the…public’s capacity to become bored – especially with something that does not immediately threaten them, or promise huge benefits for a majority, or strongly appeal to their sense of injustice.”

Climate change is an issue that has become saturated in mainstream media, to the point where many people feel overwhelmed and disinterested. At the ARRC we manoeuvre around this by engaging people to see the change for themselves. One of the ways we try to engage people is through our work at Rivers of Carbon where we encourage and support people to do something locally, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the negativity that leads to stages 4 and 5 of the Issue-Attention Cycle.

As advocates for rivers and the environment, we are continuously looking for ways we can implement the Issue-Attention Cycle in the way we communicate and engage with people. If you want to know more about our work, check out our Rivers of Carbon projects.