Copenhagen 2009. Propaganda?

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (Source:

Of course I was disappointed. When I followed the German news on the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, I got the feeling that the world was unable to adress the size of the challenge ahead. I fully agreed with the coverage in German newspapers, which emphasised that this had probably been the last chance to turn the game around – and that we failed to take it. Yet, facing the the rather uniform coverage on Copenhagen, I started wondering whether media in the US or China would be treating the topic in a similar way.

Or were the media, as Noam Chomsky would say, caught in a propaganda model that caused a strongly biased view upon Copenhagen? A view, that was favoured by national elites? This question became my master thesis. During the development of my dissertation, the focus of the study switched from Copenhagen to the Propaganda Model. Therefore, the project became more of a critical assessment of the theory.

I applied the Propaganda Model by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky to the coverage of Copenhagen in four American and four German quality newspapers. I picked up several suggestions of earlier studies in this field and especially tried to address various earlier methodological shortcomings.

The model expected the media coverage in both countries to be biased towards the interests of national elites through the influence of ‘five filters’.

“(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) ‘anticommunism’ as a national religion and control mechanism.” (Herman/Chomsky 1988: 2)

Hence, this study assessed to which degree, if any, the Propaganda Model could predict or explain the coverage of Copenhagen and of topics related to climate change in both countries during December 2009.

The results of both a quantitative and a qualitative content analysis indicated an ambivalent validity of the model’s expectations: On the one hand, the Propaganda Model was able to provide some significant explanation on the surface of the coverage in both countries. On the other hand, the model suffered from its neglect of possible alternative explanations and falls short of anticipating the more detailed characteristics of the coverage as well as the framing of several key issues.

A quantitative content analysis showed that the German newspapers paid indeed more attention to Copenhagen and to climate change and its victims, but less attention to ‘Climategate’. Official political sources dominated the coverage in both countries. Furthermore, there was at least partial evidence for the assumption that the national delegations would be depicted in a rather positive light (US papers) and that the German papers would be more critical towards the progress in Copenhagen. Finally, a qualitative analysis revealed that the German papers are indeed less pleased with the Copenhagen Accord than the US papers.

However, the quantitative analysis also showed that there is plenty of space for alternative voices, both in Germany and the US. The German newspapers did not focus as much on national sources as the US papers. Furthermore, the US newspapers did not frame Copenhagen differently with regard to environmental or economic issues. The German papers neither gave more importance to the protests in Copenhagen, nor published more front-page articles or portrayed their delegation in a rather positive way. Moreover, the US papers actually provided more evidence in favour of climate change than against it. The latter finding was further supported by the qualitative content analysis, which revealed that both countries dealt with ‘Climategate’ in a rather critical manner.

Hence, my thesis finally contended that, despite several significant findings, it would be wrong to assume that the model is able to predict or explain the American and German coverage of Copenhagen to a large extent.