Why is Climate Change Coverage Still Lacking in the Media?


Photo via Isiria

This week saw a couple lively debates over cap and trade and media coverage and public understanding of climate change. Central to the latter seems to be the question of whether industry interests that go to certain lengths to sew doubt in the public about climate change really have all that much influence over how the average American perceives the threat of global warming. There have been a number of op-eds in esteemed places like Slate and the New York Times' opinion page arguing that they don't. Instead, they argue in part that we reporters just have to find new ways of making climate change interesting to the public, to write headline-grabbing stories. That seems pretty bogus. Revkin writes that climate stories have what he calls a 'MEGO' factor -- 'my eyes glaze over', and that they fail to make the front page for being too incremental. That's probably true -- when there's no big narrative or revelation, just that the planet is continuing to warm, it's hard to get the latest study confirming that phenomenon much attention.

He goes on to say this:

Those who rail against the media for including too many voices of doubt in some stories on global warming science and policy might want to step back a minute and review the chart below, from last December, showing just how invisible coverage of climate is compared to the stories that make the cut each day.

As I wrote a few months ago, the diagram, drawn by compiling weekly news summaries from Journalism.org, contains not even a postage-stamp-size space for coverage of climate -- or the environment as a whole, for that matter (which was 1.5 percent of total coverage).

Here's the chart in question:


Revkin continues:

It always makes sense to push hard to keep journalism accurate and to reveal disinformation wherever it pops up. But asserting that the bad quality of some fraction of 1.5 percent of media coverage is the key impediment to societal and congressional action on energy and emissions seems utterly silly.
He then goes on to say that all the environmental reporters and folks who do climate coverage "would do well to stop pointing fingers and get busy experimenting with new ways to tell the stories of our time as humanity's growth spurt crests."

The problem here is that Revkin's solution -- to experiment with new ways of telling stories -- is just too vague. I agree that it'd be great if there was some fantastically creative news hook that reporters stumbled upon to suddenly engage the world in climate issues. But if Revkin himself, once perhaps the nation's leading climate reporter, hasn't found a way to do this through his reportage, what are his expectations for those with platforms that have a much more limited reach?

And I would argue that it is not utterly silly to count bad climate coverage and climate disinformation campaigns as big reasons there is inaction on energy legislation and so forth, just because it makes up a small section of the news coverage pie. It may be that the confusing back and forth stirred up by skeptics and the tendency media has to encourage those kind of narratives casts the entire issue of climate change over a backdrop of doubt.

In other words, apparently headline-worthy news like the studies forecasting ice-free summers in the Arctic soon, or new record heat temperatures being broken in the first half of the year, are not put forth as straight stories as the science would suggest -- they are tempered by an attitude that yields to the skeptics' poorly informed (or willfully misinforming) opinions as well.

How is this not big news: 'Warming Climate Yields Hottest Spring on Record'? Only because enough people doubt the implications behind the content, and a few 'experts' say they have contrary data. With the deniers present, it could be that the stories are presented in a perpetual mode of tentative doubt. Eliminating or exposing the parties bent on skewing the debate may give both reporters and editors more confidence in presenting their stories. There's obviously much more that needs to happen than that, and many other factors do count (scientists' ability to communicate) as Revkin correctly notes. But I really do think it's worth continuing to take climate deniers to task for the above reasons.

Just my two cents.

Related Content on Treehugger.com