Climate change in the New Zealand media

August 27, 2021

This report is based on McNamara Research’s analysis of all high-impact climate journalism in New Zealand’s written media over the six months from 1 January 2021 to 30 June 2021. It is the first in a series of reports on this important topic. The next report (available mid-November) will include Q3 2021 data and findings, with the subsequent quarterly update due early 2022. 

In this report we describe:

 We also explain our methodology and sentiment scores.

Key findings

In the first half of this year media interest in climate change focused on new initiatives and business methods responding to climate change issues. The big stories during this time were the Climate Change Commission’s advice to Government, and responses to this.  Media were most interested in regulation of emissions, especially relating to agriculture and vehicles, and in the response of energy providers.

All major titles had dedicated writers working on the issues from one or several points of view covering science, business, environment, or economy and social outcomes. Stuff, RNZ and The New Zealand Herald were especially prolific. Business titles focused on innovation and investment in technology demanded by climate change in news and analysis. Online-only titles focused on long form analysis and future perspectives.  

Share of Voice

The Government had a majority of the share of voice. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and fellow Labour Ministers Megan Woods and Michael Wood were quoted most often on the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations for energy, transport and agriculture. Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw was also quoted on the Climate Change Commission’s report and Budget 2021, which was framed as a positive first step, as well as advocating for immediate change in policy. Opposition parties National and ACT were quoted most often opposing the proposed rebate for electric vehicles and charge for fuel-burning vehicles. ACT also resisted the Commission’s report entirely, instead advocating the Emissions Trading Scheme. 

Industries most affected by the Commission’s report, including agriculture, transport and energy, engaged most actively with media. Over the six months 26% percent of stories originated with these industries in a mix of news and opinion. Big swathes of industry conveyed a more short-term cost-benefit approach in sometimes noisy campaigns. In contrast, individual companies were unusually low profile. 

Resistance to the Climate Change Commission’s proposed timeline and targets was most notably from the agricultural sector. However, criticism – picked up by the media – came from activists and industry advocate groups on both sides of the political spectrum.  

Media share and focus

In general, Stuff, NZ Herald, RNZ and Businessdesk were more willing than other media over the period to publish stories that positively promoted measures that tackled carbon emissions. While the media ran very little individual company news, the influence of public relations was obvious in a consistent narrative delivered through industry groups. These contributions meant the overall views often reflected one group’s opinion rather than wider public interest. In particular, activists and energy companies were successful at promoting their point of view, framing this as in the national and long-term interest. 

Industry strategies designed to resist fast-paced climate change measures emerged from the agricultural and transport sectors where representative organisations such as Federated Farmers identified issues that could slow their compliance with the Climate Change Commission’s advice. The emotive potential of these narratives gained a disproportionate amount of media coverage, as reporters found this easier to write about than the technical details of climate pricing or regulatory enforcement. 

However, despite the relatively high proportion of opinion and commentary on climate change, most articles were anchored to events and news developments rather than editorial views.

Media Outlets

Share of climate change reporting

Each of the major titles had dedicated climate or science journalists. Stuff was the most prolific outlet, with The Forever Project led by Olivia Wannan and Eloise Gibson and supported by The Warehouse and Pathfinder. Stuff’s journalists approached the topic from every angle with specialist energy, agriculture and marine news as well as political analysis and editorial opinion. Stuff also looked at individual perspectives. 

Coverage in the New Zealand Herald, driven by dedicated science journalist Jamie Morton, had a similar tenor of coverage to Stuff. As part of NZME, the Herald website also included commentary from Newstalk – this radio channel’s hosts adopted a particularly negative portrayal of climate action, with associated articles scoring the lowest average sentiment. 

RNZ had largely neutral or positive coverage of climate change, with a focus on adaption and some coverage of rural issues. It aired interviews presenting opposing points of view without heavy analysis.

Specialist publications Businessdesk, Newsroom and the Spinoff had the space to anchor a viewpoint and consider every angle of climate change issues, supporting their findings with industry evidence. BusinessDesk looked at various issues that businesses would face with climate change. Its business writers offered analysis and some opinion from the perspective of businesses that would need to make adjustments or take opportunities, whether in fuel supplies, innovating in agriculture, or making investment funds fit for the future. Industry groups found a voice in interviews and occasional guest editorials for BusinessDesk from a range of businesses across motor trade, tourism, construction and energy. 

Investigation and politics-focused website Newsroom used its longer format journalism to examine complex issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, the energy industry’s response to the Climate Change Commission’s report, and consumer choice issues relating to equity and electric vehicles. Political reporter Marc Daalder covered the Commission’s report and looked ahead to COP26: articles tended to consider the political implications of climate change and long term strategic issues.  

Meanwhile, The Spinoff cautioned against push-back on the Commission’s report, calling on scientific evidence, industry voices and occasionally an activist group for comment.  The Spinoff also covered local government and equity issues.     

NBR covered climate change issues for farming, transport, energy and financial products. While including a range of views, NBR’s coverage of pressure groups most often framed the economy generally and the agriculture sector in particular as at risk both from climate change and from climate-related regulation.

In other media, Otago Daily Times’s negative coverage reflected its rural consumers’ interests and also included criticism of the shutdown of oil and gas exploration in the region. Mass planting of farmland was another negative topic. A central concern was the perceived disadvantages for Otago and Southland’s economy. 

Reporters

News Share and Average Sentiment

In terms of sentiment, the most positive news title group was Newsroom followed by RNZ. At the other end of the scale NewstalkZB and ODT carried the most negative coverage. Not unexpectedly, there was some opinionated commentary that disagreed with the Government’s and the Commission’s targets. 

All outlets carried commentary on the climate crisis from a mix of experts and non-experts, with large tonal variety. Farmer and rural opinions cautioned policy makers and stressed that enforcing regulations would take time. Urban opinions occasionally tried to link climate change to housing or Covid-19 but often focused on the impact on individual lifestyles, such as the tenor of the debate around electric vehicles. 

Breakdown by sector

In this section we look at media reporting by sector:

Overview 

Political parties, academics, industry groups and environmentalists all expressed plans for change – one of the surest ways to get a headline – during the period. A common pattern was for spokespeople to agree with the wider philosophy and goals of decarbonisation but to challenge the timeframe and degree of change, with most industries wanting more time. In contrast, activists consistently said the Government should move faster. 

Individual companies were tentative about linking their positions to climate change and were not often seen in the top tier of news. Big industrial carbon emitters such as the tourism, transport and energy industries presented themselves as transparent and influential. Energy companies were persuasive, reminding media their infrastructure was important and linking their position to the rise in electric vehicles. 

Industry Voice

Share of voice by industry

Transport – EVs and feebates call the shots 

The transport sector dominated media coverage with an 18% share of climate-related news, reflecting in part this sector’s 46% contribution to New Zealand’s carbon emissions. Most transport-related news related to Government announcements, particularly around the rebate for electric vehicles (the so-called feebate) paid for by taxes on fuel-burning vehicles. This announcement set off a vigorous response, chiefly from the agricultural sector, although the National Party also took up this story to oppose the feebate policy

Feebate scheme a 'punishment' for ute users (Judith Collins) – RNZ Morning Report, 15 June 2021

The transition to electric vehicles generally was another topic for the transport industry, with 8% of all stories mentioning this in terms of decarbonising, a mostly positive topic. There was also some coverage of more sustainable public transport options. 

Toyota New Zealand’s CEO Neerja Lala was quoted as saying the Government’s expectations for a ban on petrol and diesel by 2035, was “too much, too soon”. However, the company had a plan for a more gradual transition to affordable hybrids and that other technology for affordable hydrogen fleets and electric SUVs was becoming available. 

Given the impact of Covid-19, the aviation sector encountered less scrutiny than normal over the period. However, there were a number of stories linking aviation and tourism, including some media criticism that the Government’s support of Air New Zealand was not contingent on it reducing emissions.

Transport Themes

Share and Sentiment of Themes

Transport Spokespeople

Spokespeople Share of Voice and Sentiment

Transport Reporters

Reporter Share of Voice and Sentiment

Agriculture – resistance and technology responses 

Agriculture’s voice on climate change made up 16% of the news sample and was mostly focused on the sector’s frustration at a perceived growing list of rules and regulations from the Government. Media emphasised the high emissions of the agriculture sector and the dairy industry’s use of coal. Federated Farmers spokesman Andrew Hoggard challenged this viewpoint, arguing that saying that lower emissions could mean lower production which would have consequences across the New Zealand economy. Hoggard was the most quoted spokesperson from the sector. 

A frequently cited statistic across agriculture voices was that New Zealand was already one of the lowest emitting countries in the world per unit of food. Climate Change Minister James Shaw countered this by saying that farmers should increase economic sustainability by producing higher quality meat, not increasing herd sizes

New Zealand farmers avoid methane pile-on – Newsroom, 10 June 2021  

Articles tended to focus on either the Government position or the farmers’ position, without reporting on the process of interaction, communication and compromise between these groups. Regional spokespeople for Federated Farmers, Dairy NZ and Beef + Lamb NZ had a coherent, united perspective across press representatives, but stories did not always get wider pick-up. Dairy NZ had a clear message about the progress the industry had made and solutions being in technology rather than reducing stock. 

The climate-focused response of the agriculture industry was coordinated after the Climate Change Commission’s initial report at the end of January. In total, 19% of agriculture stories over the period mentioned the Commission’s advice for the agriculture industry. However, coverage dissipated over time as industry representatives spoke to wider climate and political concerns. 

One theme media gave plenty of space to was the prediction that reduced farming prospects would have economic consequences. The idea of economic and individual reliance on agriculture was common across the media. The key contributors on this topic were journalists Jamie Morton of the New Zealand Herald, with articles achieving an overall sentiment score of 6.9, and Olivia Wannan of Stuff, with a sentiment score of 6.2. While Wannan was focused on how to cut agricultural emissions, Morton was more interested in developments in agricultural technology to increase efficiency. 

Agricultural Themes

Share and Sentiment of Themes

Agricultural Reporters

Share of Voice and Sentiment of Reporters

Agricultural Spokespeople

Voice and sentiment of key spokespeople

Energy – a renewable story 

The largely renewable-based electricity sector had an advantage in presenting itself as sustainable over the period, but received increasing attention for the ongoing use of coal. Meanwhile, the oil and gas sector faced a loss of social licence as production decreased. Where possible, energy companies turned around the discourse and promoted their renewable infrastructure construction plans for the near future, pitching themselves as sources of more renewables and creators of jobs. Minister of Energy Megan Woods was largely supportive of this perspective.

As different companies had different primary modes of generation the discussion around renewables often became intra-industry debate about generation methods. Companies promoted their own generation projects over the Government’s ‘pumped hydro’ scheme, which was widely resisted by the industry on the grounds of cost and monopolisation. 

Most of the major generators announced new infrastructure during the period: Contact with geothermal, and Genesis and Meridian with wind farms. Genesis framed its coal generation as essential for energy stability, building a narrative of transparency and pushing back on the Climate Change Commission’s timeframe targets. 

The end of BBQs or a load of hot air? The proposed ban on natural gas connections – Stuff, 23 March 2021 

The gas industry sought Government support for a ‘smooth transition’ to reach carbon zero.  Media reported that various retailers, industry representative groups and customers still found gas popular and necessary. Media also reported the industry frustration at lack of time to comply. The industry presented a plan for slow transition by blending natural gas with hydrogen.

Energy companies were big advocates for electric vehicles, with several setting up charging stations and endorsing the Government’s electric vehicle rebate. The largely renewable energy in Aotearoa remained a consistent media positive for all electricity companies, especially when talking about the forecast rise in electricity demand. 

Fossil fuel companies promoted low-carbon alternatives, but it was noted that their timeline would not meet the Commission’s recommendations. Z Energy, entering the electricity market, framed its fossil fuel involvement as an interim, transition measure, taking a nuanced position by agreeing with the Climate Change Commission’s advice but saying the timing was ambitious. 

Companies that depended on fossil fuels but ultimately needed to decarbonise, such as Air New Zealand and Z Energy, articulated a future beyond fossil fuels. They emphasised their investment in biofuels when they met some criticism

Energy Themes

Share and sentiment of themes across energy

Energy Spokespeople

Share and sentiment of spokespeople voice across energy

Energy Reporters

Reporter share of voice and sentiment across energy

Activism – status quo or respond for future generations  

Activist and lobby groups appeared in 14% of climate news, mostly on stories about the Climate Change Report, transport and Budget 2021. Environment lobby groups and activists were united in their theme that the Government was “not doing enough” about climate change. In the media, established activist groups such as Greenpeace and Forest and Bird were given some space to comment on relevant issues such as seabed trawling, burning fossil fuels, water quality and the ability to achieve emissions targets. Greenpeace and Forest and Bird appeared in 4.4 % and 1% of articles respectively in the sample (by comparison, Federated Farmers was mentioned in 3.8% of all stories). 

Climate Change Commission report has “cow-shaped hole”, gives dairy industry a “free pass” (Greenpeace) – Newshub, 9 June 2021   

In April, School Strike 4 Climate protests across the country gained a good deal of media attention but this was short lived: media covered the demands of this group and the large turnout at protests, but did not follow through with politicians. After the Budget, these groups stressed the need to commit to the climate message.

Greenpeace was one of the most effective activist groups, calling on Government, industry and pressure groups for a reality check. It spoke to timely issues but also pushed the Government with a mix of campaigns, particularly relating to burning coal.

Activist and Pressure Groups

Share of voice as a percentage of total articles

Finance – the payback from sustainable investing  

With the finance sector still adjusting to mandatory changes regarding climate issues, the media was largely positive in covering Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s proposed legislation amendments requiring financial businesses to disclose the climate risks of their business. In covering this change, media emphasised the positive “world first” nature of the legislation.  Government showed leadership in the finance sector by allocating $300m to the Green Investment Fund in Budget 2021 with a view to linking with the private sector and making environmentally supportive investments.  

Climate tipping point looms for business – Newsroom, 13 May 2021

Meanwhile, banks, insurers, government organisations and a number of private foundations formed the Aotearoa Circle, presenting it as a solution for sustainable finance futures. This group explained to media that New Zealand needed to follow through on the aspiration of sustainable investment practices. Its message was hopeful and included protecting the country’s natural capital, addressing inequalities and providing finance for a low emissions transition – a good look for the industry.

Finance news in general was led by reporting on Government messaging. Business media picked this up and also carried stories about the potential profitability of sustainable investments and ultimately the reality of profitability. Financial institutions such as ANZ were proactive on this topic, giving cautious but supportive-of-action quotes to journalists. 

Overall, the financial industry was low key about its contribution to climate change. However, banks offered incentives to farmers who met environmental targets. The wider concept of responsible investment was a background story in coverage of consumer investing and other market trends. 

Tourism – quality not quantity in a Covid-affected Aotearoa   

Climate-related tourism news at just 1.6% of the overall sample was limited but sector leaders were still visible. While there was still an overall interest in sustainable tourism, the Covid-19 pandemic de-centred the role of tourism to the New Zealand economy and the conversation moved to focus ways of reshaping the industry to lessen the impact and reduce the extent of tourism. 

Air New Zealand had a dedicated team trying to balance the dilemma of being a carbon creating business with a sustainable brand positioning, promoting the idea of higher value and less volume. The airline was discussing funding decarbonisation with the Government, including the option of a departure tax. 

Charge more for flights to deter tourists and help the planet, says Air New Zealand adviser – The Guardian New Zealand, 9 March 2021

The tourism sector presented itself as willing to make changes and decarbonise but noted a cost to individual businesses, expressing the expectation that the Government would pitch in. Government coverage focused on individual responsibility – a low-risk political strategy – emphasising a ‘user-pays’ approach to tourism. However, this did not capture much media interest. 

Fishing – bottom trawling questioned 

The fishing industry largely escaped scrutiny on climate issues, but gained some negative attention when an international report released in the journal Nature said bottom trawling released carbon dioxide. As a result, various groups asked Fishing Minister David Parker to ban seabed trawling. The release of the documentary Seaspiracy, which commented on the overall non-sustainability of the fishing industry, also received coverage including some criticism by the New Zealand media. 

Representative group Seafood New Zealand focused its media strategy on responding to claims about bottom trawling by saying the sea floor regenerated naturally. 

Forestry – farming to remove emissions 

New Zealand’s forestry industry also had a relatively small media presence in climate news at just 3% of all coverage, despite the importance of planting trees for carbon offsetting. Farming representatives said they were hesitant about farmland conversion to forestry, framing this as a threat to food and job security. Overseas investment in ‘carbon farming’ with plantations for carbon credits was treated with skepticism in the media, with academic voices noting that New Zealand’s native trees were a more sustainable store of carbon deposits than pines. Other forestry issues to gain coverage, such as concerns about timber exports and the closure of the Kawerau mill, were not linked to climate change. 

Forestry Themes

Share and sentiment of themes across forestry

Central Government – response to the Climate Change Commission findings 

The Government led reporting across all titles, presenting itself as finding points of agreement with groups opposing the Climate Change Commission’s findings after the Commission released a draft report on January 31 and a final report on 9 June. Media coverage of the Government overall was largely positive with a 6.6 sentiment score, despite the challenges from opposing voices. However, the Government was still criticised for slow policy movement on climate change.

The National and ACT Parties were largely opposed to the Commission’s findings, with National endorsing the general concepts of the commission’s recommendations but resisting specifics that would affect farmers and tradespeople. The ACT Party grabbed headlines for claiming the report should be ‘binned’. ACT leader David Seymour protested that the regulation risk could destroy industry while National presented climate regulation as an assault on rural living and citizen freedoms. This narrative heightened in mid-June with the Government’s announcement of an electric vehicle rebate and the precedent to the Groundswell protest in July. 

The Greens were in support of the Climate Change Commission’s report but wanted more challenging measures than the Labour-led Government was prepared to commit to. This party also had a supportive voice from its co-leader James Shaw in his position as Climate Change Minister

Over the period the media reported consistently on the Climate Change Commission’s draft and final report and resulting submissions, with all sectors, interest groups and think tanks acknowledging the urgency of change. There was a nuanced message from some sectors that New Zealand needed to stabilise its emissions, while some sectors were resistant to immediate change. The Opposition capitalised on industry resistance to the report, saying it would not support the proposal. Meanwhile, groups to the left of the political spectrum, such as Lawyers For Climate Action, said the proposal was not urgent enough. 

Outright disagreement came from the Taxpayers Union and ACT, which said the Climate Change Commission’s report should be binned and the Zero Carbon Act should be tied to the carbon price paid by trading partners. However, media gave little space to these voices. 

The Emissions Trading Scheme was another core piece of Government-related climate change news in the first half of 2021. Over the period, discussion of this controversial legislation was largely contextualised in terms of the Climate Change Commission report. Media drew a divide between urban groups supportive of environmental policies and rural groups as more resistant. There was a focus on analysis, with a number of in-depth articles on this topic. A generic sense of grievance at cost was a theme for much of the coverage. 

ETS Spokespeople

Spokespeople share of voice over ETS articles

Overall, discussion of the Emissions Trading Scheme was polarised, with activists saying the Government was not doing enough and affected industry representatives saying the Government was overstepping. Sentiment ranged widely from a “tax gathering rort to a crucial climate change policy. Media focused on the contemporary iteration of this scheme and the 2025 deadline for farming activities to be incorporated.

Local government – regional priorities 

Local government responses differed by region, with leaders from urban centres largely supportive of change while rural councils entered with more skepticism, calling for support through the transition. However, an underlying message was the need for regions to support their local economy while simultaneously supporting climate change. Three examples demonstrate how this message was read.

For Taranaki, where fossil fuel extraction is a key part of the economy, local government challenged the Climate Change Commission and asked for more support from central government in responding to the cost of carbon transition.

For urban councils, transformation of public transport was presented as key to climate goals. Auckland Council passed its 10-year plan at the end of June. Council spokespeople welcomed the development of rapid transit busways as part of the Council’s commitment to halving emissions by 2031 but the Council was criticised for only committing to reducing emissions by one per cent

In Christchurch, the City Council challenged citizens to submit to the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations and aim for more ambitious targets. However, in juxtaposition to this stance, media also covered a negative encounter between School Strike for Climate protesters and Mayor Lianne Dalziel in April, saying that the Council had not fully committed to green transport. 

Looking ahead – key trends we’ve identified

As the case for climate action becomes indisputable, emission-heavy industries invested in the status quo have been challenged by media and expert opinion to explain their plans to decarbonise.  In the second half of 2021 the pace of change will continue to be contested, and even those industries resistant to this change will be expected to implement plans.  

In our view, the New Zealand media faces a challenge in determining how it will provide balanced coverage of the myriad crises created by climate change while still holding politicians and business accountable. 

During the first half of this year, journalists wrote about local examples of climate change and the individual impacts and responsibilities. Looking ahead, media are likely to search for further evidence of change. Businesses that have started to demonstrate a sustainable future beyond the rhetoric are already finding that local media are receptive to the story. However, big emitters will need to be more visible in the news. 

For example, food producers, supermarkets and other retailers will need to demonstrate their climate action plans as the Government turns its attention to waste reduction and product stewardship. As the average sentiment shows, media are skeptical of industries resisting climate regulations.  

Over the next few months the media will cover the COP26 conference in Glasgow, with UN delegates forming consensus for climate regulation and strengthening the commitments of the Paris Agreement. Journalists will use this occasion to link to discussion of international consensus, just transition, and renewable energy regulations, putting pressure on Government policy to match international commitments. 

In the second half of 2021 the Government is likely to be consulting on numerous policy changes relating to emissions reductions. It will need to improve the ETS market signals so the outcomes are clear and fair. Media will be interested in whether these policy changes align to New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act. The big investment decisions on energy and transport that have occupied the news throughout the first half of 2021 will continue to be probed. 

Looking further ahead, next year’s local government elections may have a climate coverage angle, particularly with questions of infrastructure and the Three Waters changes. Councils who have declared climate emergencies may face scrutiny over whether these emergencies have meaningfully affected policy. 

In this context, media are attempting to provide balanced coverage of a complex crisis with far-reaching equity and economic consequences and a wide ranging (if not fully implemented) legislative system. The ‘business as usual’ environment may appear increasingly untenable, and media may seize the opportunity to imagine different futures. 

Appendix: methodology

Data and analysis

This report has been developed from Aotearoa New Zealand-based climate change coverage in mainstream media outlets over the six months from 1 January to 30 June 2021. Articles in our data sample were initially identified using an AI news capturing tool that filtered for particular individuals, entities and publications. Broadcasting media (i.e. video and radio without a written component) were excluded from the sample. 

This search generated 640 articles, which were included based on a word search that took into account the industries and groups mentioned most often in the news in relation to climate change. These industries included agriculture, energy, forestry, transport and tourism. We also looked at a number of industry advocates, activists, Government and opposition figures, and government and private sector organisations. The resulting data was overlaid with human analysis to gather the insights presented in this report. Hyperlinks to many of the key articles are also provided.

Sentiment 

Sentiment scores were assigned to articles on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 reflects the negative extreme and 10 the positive extreme. These scores were derived by our analysts using a combination of machine reading metrics and human analysis. 

Score Sentiment Description
0-3 strongly negative Article strongly opposes the direction the Government is travelling in and forecasts costs – economic or social
5 neutral Article either neutral or presented contrasting but equally balanced points of view
5-8 positive Generally onboard with the direction the Government and policy is heading
8-10 strongly positive Onboard with the direction the Government and policy is heading; advocates for more or faster changes, and forecasting benefits as a result – economic or social
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