Covering Climate Change | Worldwatch Institute

Ups and Downs

Before Climategate, most reporters and editors stopped covering climate change as a scientific controversy, but the episode tested whether journalists truly understood climate science. The widespread willingness to regard it as a matter of political debate, with two sides deserving equal attention, reflected a lack of journalistic progress.

In the science community, many criticized news coverage for succumbing to the back-and-forth debates adored by climate change deniers. “It was a total manipulation. The press reacted like lemmings – they jumped on it and it’s a non-issue,” said Columbia University paleoclimatologist Peter deMenocal.

Such poor scientific awareness, common throughout newsrooms, is not likely to improve anytime soon. Economically faltering news organizations across the industrialized world have downsized staff, shrunk content, and reduced coverage. PriceWaterhouseCoopers expects the global newspaper market to undergo a 2-percent annual decline through 2013 as advertisers spend their money elsewhere and readers turn to free online content. Although media markets are prospering in some places, such as India and Latin America, most European and U.S. print, broadcast, and radio newsrooms are grappling with smaller budgets.

Recent layoff trends in the media market suggest that science and environment reporters are often the first to lose their jobs. CNN, for instance, laid off its entire science and technology staff in 2008. In the United States, two decades ago nearly 150 newspapers included a science section; today fewer than 20 do. The remaining reporters are expected to cover stories such as climate change along with their regular reporting duties.

Many U.S. news organizations have also closed their foreign bureaus. Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll counted 141 U.S. newspaper foreign reporters in 2006, 47 fewer than in 2002 and likely many more than today. They instead practice “parachute journalism,” temporarily traveling abroad to cover breaking news in places where they often lack the background, sources, or cultural sensitivities necessary to provide a fully contextualized story.

While CNN still managed 33 foreign bureaus as of 2008, most broadcast news organizations have shuttered international operations. “All broadcasters had bureaus in all the major cities. That just doesn’t happen anymore,” said Judy Muller, a former correspondent for National Public Radio and ABC News. “Africa is usually covered by stringers – that’s a whole continent!”

Worldwide, however, climate change coverage is on the rise. A 50-newspaper survey across 20 countries by University of Colorado and Oxford University researchers found “climate change” or “global warming” mentioned in about 400 stories in January 2004, mostly in the European, North American, Australian, and New Zealand press. Following the 2006 releases of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and British economist Nicholas Stern’s report on the cost of climate change inaction, coverage increased considerably. The survey found some 2,000 stories, on average, each January from 2007 through 2009, with an increase in reports from Asia and the Middle East.

Despite the increase in science and environment stories, in-depth coverage of scientific developments, technology solutions, and political responses is decreasing by the day. The Baltimore Sun, for example, has reduced its news staff and the size of its print edition significantly in recent years. As a result, the Pew Research Center observed that the newspaper produced 32 percent fewer stories on any subject last year compared to 1999 and 73 percent fewer than in 1991. Tim Wheeler, a longtime environment reporter at The Sun, must find a local angle to justify writing a national or international story. One proposed story (Maryland-based scientists who were conducting climate-related research in the Bering Sea) was quashed last year due to the expense.

“Unless current conditions change,” Wheeler told me, “I do worry that the public won’t get enough credible, independent information about the climate legislation pending in the Senate or other climate-related issues to make really informed judgments.”

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