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Silence of the Lambs 2: Media Herd’s Coverage of Climate Change Drops Sharply — Again

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"Silence of the Lambs 2: Media Herd’s Coverage of Climate Change Drops Sharply — Again"

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The danger posed to the nation and the world by unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases is truly the greatest story never told.

JR:  I’ll add my thoughts on this story at the end.

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by Douglas Fischer, cross-posted from the Daily Climate

Media coverage of climate change continued to tumble in 2011, declining roughly 20 percent from 2010′s levels and nearly 42 percent from 2009′s peak, according to analysis of DailyClimate.org’s archive of global media.

The declining coverage came amid bouts of extreme weather across the globe – historic wildfires in Arizona, drought in Texas, famine in the Horn of Africa – and flashes of political frenzy. Australia’s approval of a carbon tax, the U.S. presidential election, a Congressional inquiry into the failed solar startup Solyndra all generated significant coverage within the mainstream press, but it was not enough to stem the larger trend.

If you thought last year … was the year that media coverage collapsed, the headline this year would be ‘What coverage???’ ” said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
19,000 stories in 2011

Last year at least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published some 19,000 stories on climate change, compared to more than 11,100 reporters who filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to DailyClimate.org.

The decline was seen across almost all benchmarks measured by the news service: 20 percent fewer reporters covered the issue in 2011 than in 2010, 20 percent fewer outlets published stories, and the most prolific reporters on the climate change beat published 20 percent fewer stories.

Particularly noticeable was the silence from the nation’s editorial boards: In 2009, newspapers published 1,229 editorials on the topic. Last year, they published less than 580 – half as many, according to DailyClimate.org’s archives.

DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. The website’s data extend reliably to mid-2007. The nonprofit news service offers a daily aggregation of global “mainstream” from center-left to center-right. The aggregation is meant to provide a broad sampling of the day’s coverage, not a comprehensive list.

Broadcast down, too

Other media analysts back up the findings.

The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, which has tracked media coverage of climate change since 2000, finds a similar slide in five major U.S. newspapers during 2011.

Drexel’s Brulle has been watching TV coverage on climate change since the late 1980s. The three network news stations broadcast 14 climate change stories with a total air time of 32.5 minutes in 2011, he said, down from 32 stories and 90.5 minutes last year and well below the 2007 peak of 147 segments totaling 386 minutes. “It’s an enormous drop,” he added.

Despite the downward media trend, public opinion saw a slight uptick on the issue. Last month Pew Research Center reported a “modest increase” over the past two years in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming. And 38 percent of those polled said they considered global warming a “very serious” problem, up from 32 percent last year but below the 43 percent to 45 percent who said so from 2006 through 2008.

The poll was conducted in mid-November among 2,001 adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Brulle is not surprised to that public opinion on climate change has taken a similar dive as the reporting on the topic over the past two years.

“People take their cues about what’s important from what shows up in the headline of the newspaper. It doesn’t matter really what (the articles) say,” he said.

Australia’s coverage jumps

There were some exceptions to the downward trends in media coverage.

In Australia, debate over a carbon tax generated kept the issue in the news throughout the summer. The Australia Broadcasting Corp. published 60 percent more climate stories in 2011 than it did in 2010, while the Sydney Morning Herald saw a 21 percent jump.

Extreme weather was also increasingly linked to climate change. Hurricane Irene delivered a rare punch to the East Coast, reviving the debate about hurricanes and global warming. Of the 19,000 stories published in 2011, almost a quarter –  reported on climate impacts. The 4,250 stories covering the consequences of climate change-represent a 10 percent increase from last year’s coverage.

But in almost every other category, the numbers were down.

Byline count

Major world outlets gave the issue less ink and air time in 2011 than in 2010: The BBC, for instance, produced some 326 pieces on climate-related issues last year, down 30 percent from 2010. The New York Times found room for 953 stories and blog posts, against 1,116 in 2010 and 1,408 in 2009. Reuters, perennially the most prolific outlet for climate news, was again the top source in 2011. But while Reuters published 1,235 stories in 2011 – more than three per day – its output was down 27 percent from last year.

The pool of most-productive climate reporters – those writing at least 30 stories a year, or about a story every 12 days – also dropped. Last year just 55 reporters cleared the bar, against 66 in 2010 and 86 in 2009.

Byline counts are an imprecise – and flawed – way to measure a journalist’s productivity. A ground-breaking investigation often requires weeks or even months of research and reporting. And many journalists post news on blogs, a format DailyClimate.org aggregates sporadically.

But those 55 reporters accounted for 2,903 stories last year – 15 percent of the total. Fiona Harvey of the Guardian led the pack, with 132 stories. Andrew Revkin, who runs the DotEarth blog on the New York Times website, was second with 118 posts. New York Times energy and environment reporter Matthew L. Wald was third with 96 stories and posts.

Below is a list of the most prolific reporters in DailyClimate.org’s archives, with affiliation, number of stories published in 2011, and a link to their year’s work in the archives of DailyClimate.org and its sister publication, EHN.org.

Reporter Affiliation 2011 stories
Fiona Harvey Guardian 132
Andrew Revkin New York Times 118
Matthew L. Wald New York Times 96
Richard Black BBC 92
Darren Samuelsohn Politico 92
Nina Chestney Reuters 87
Bryan Walsh Time Magazine 84
Lenore Taylor Sydney Morning Herald 79
Alister Doyle Reuters 76
Ariel Schwartz Fast Company 76
Damian Carrington Guardian 75
John Vidal Guardian 72
Mike De Souza Postmedia News 68
Louise Gray London Daily Telegraph 63
Jeremy Hance Mongabay.com 63
John M. Broder New York Times 59
Juliet Eilperin Washington Post 59
Adam Morton Sydney Morning Herald 58
David Fogarty Reuters 57
Maria Gallucci Inside Climate News 56
Suzanne Goldenberg Guardian 56
Thomas Content Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 54
Gerard Wynn Reuters 54
Timothy Gardner Reuters 53
David Biello Scientific American 52
Bruce Gellerman Living on Earth 47
Alyson Kenward ClimateCentral.org 46
Evan Lehmann E&E News 46
Ben Cubby Sydney Morning Herald 44
Andrew Restuccia Washington Hill 44
Ben Geman Washington Hill 42
Justin Gillis New York Times 40
Elizabeth McGowan Inside Climate News 40
Lauren Morello E&E News 40
Felicity Barringer New York Times 38
Sid Maher Australian 38
David R. Baker San Francisco Chronicle 36
Pilita Clark Financial Times 34
John Collins Rudolf New York Times 34
Michael Marshall New Scientist 34
Arthur Max Associated Press 34
Marlowe Hood Agence France Press 33
Neela Banerjee Los Angeles Times 32
Pete Harrison Reuters 32
Tiffany Hsu Los Angeles Times 32
Fred Pearce Freelance 32
Deborah Zabarenko Reuters 32
Phillip Coorey Sydney Morning Herald 31
Saqib Rahim E&E News 31
Tom Arup Sydney Morning Herald 30
Jean Chemnick E&E News 30
Andrew Freedman ClimateCentral.org 30
Lisa Friedman E&E News 30
Darren Goode Politico 30
Margot Roosevelt Los Angeles Times 30

Correction (Jan. 3, 2012): Fiona Harvey has reported for the Guardian since mid-January, 2011. Earlier editions of this story affiliated her with her previous employer. Also, 55 reporters wrote 30 or more stories that were picked up by DailyClimate.org’s aggregation efforts. An earlier edition of this story undercounted the total.

Photos: C40 Climate Leadership Group press conference courtesy NYU-Poly. Graphic of U.S. newspaper coverage of climate change courtesy University of Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

Douglas Fischer is Editor of DailyClimate.org, a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. This piece was originally published at DailyClimate.org.

NOTE:  What follows is by Climate Progress editor Joe Romm.

Based on my conversations with reporters, I believe this collapse is driven by editors and not reporters, many of whom, like the NYT‘s Gillis, are doing a first-rate job and would no doubt do more pieces if their editors would allow them.  This view is supported by the fact that nation’s editorial boards have even more sharply cut their pieces, as noted above.

A former correspondent and editor explained on Climate Progress the expected drop in BBC’s climate coverage in 2011 this way:

I heard from a former BBC producer colleague internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

No, I suppose there is nothing new to say.  As I wrote last month, the continued self-destructive failure of the nation and the world to reverse greenhouse gas emission trends deserves to be the top story pretty much every year — and how boring is that?!

Still, you’d think the record-smashing extreme weather and its severe consequences would merit more coverage — particularly since climate scientists have been predicting for decades that we would see more brutal heat waves, deluges and droughts:

But, of course, that would presuppose that the media is willing to connect the dots between warming-driven extreme weather and manmade warming (see NY Times Asks Why “Horrible” U.S. Drought “Has Come on Extra Hot and Extra Early.” Their Answer is … La Niña, Of Course!).

Indeed, not only is coverage declining, but much of the coverage we do see is deeply flawed, as I discussed in last year’s post on the declining coverage — Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010. I’ll have more on that in a separate post.

I’d end by noting that the actual decline in big media coverage of climate may be worse than the numbers above suggest.  After all, whatever you think of Revkin’s reporting, the readership of a blog — even one occasionally featured on the NYT’s website — simply doesn’t compare with the readership of an actual print Times story (that is also posted online).  But Daily Climate counts each of his prolific postings as equivalent to an actual article published by a major newspaper.

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27 Responses to Silence of the Lambs 2: Media Herd’s Coverage of Climate Change Drops Sharply — Again

  1. Mike says:

    Does anyone know what caused the spike in 2001?

  2. Robert Nagle says:

    I’d really like to know about the change in coverage of weather-related events on TV and radio. Specifically, how often is climate change even mentioned as a possible cause?

    Also, I’m guessing that coverage by bloggers on both sides have increased appreciably over the past year or two.

    The Houston Chronicle lost its environmental reporter a few years ago; since that time the Chronicle hosts a basically pro-fossil energy site called fuelfix. They talk about climate change a lot. The Chronicle also has a distinguished climatologist blogging on its site http://blog.chron.com/climateabyss/ , and the former environmental reporter for the Chronicle is now running an independent site about climate change called Texas Climate Change. (highly recommended btw). http://texasclimatenews.org/wp/

    While it probably is true that fewer traditional journalists have been covering the issue and that TV media coverage is probably inadequate, I don’t really feel that coverage has declined overall. If anything, I have more sources of information (grist, climateprogress, etc).

    I’d also be curious about the trends in social media. are climate change stories shared as much as facebook as they used to?

  3. I sure wish I knew what these editors are thinking.
    Here is the story of the century and they don’t want to cover it?

  4. Joan Savage says:

    We saw wide coverage of extreme weather in 2011, but media seldom had a quotable quote or other news handle to make a clear link between the extreme weather and climate change. How hard did they look?
    I’d appreciate a research organization’s evaluation of the number of reports on extreme weather. The decline in climate change-specific coverage doesn’t necessarily mean that the public missed out entirely on the opportunity to draw some inferences of their own.
    We do have a missing link in the press coverage.

  5. Randy Brown says:

    “The media is the message”… Marshall McCluhan.

    To be published in the media the “greatest story never told” needs to be entertaining and one that the reader would want to share with friends and family or debate/defend with others. Urban, minority victims of crime don’t sell copy; neither does climate destabilization. Main stream media (and most others that have jobs, careers and assets tied to fossil fuels) won’t put their lifestyles and entitlements on the line just to disprove the bias of bosses, family and friends. Accelerating emissions coupled to a destabilizing climate beyond worst case scenarios is news, especially when we need drastically increased cuts during the next 5 years.

    Our recipe still calls for mitigation + adaptation + suffering. The amount of each ingredient depends too much on whether one is more aligned with the 1% or the 99%…. and to some degree how selfless, angry and desperate the 99% become.

  6. My personal experience is that coverage is increasing in other parts of the world esp in other languages. At Durban and Cancun COPs jurnos from north america are rare birds indeed but there are hundreds (in total) from China, India, South America and even Africa.

    Douglas’ survey is great but only looks at coverage in english. IPS – a non-profit news wire I write for did 104 articles from Durban – although many were African stories or in other languages. (Likely none were used by MSM in US or Canada).

    http://www.ips.org/TV/cop17/

  7. Story counts are a decidedly imperfect measure, as Joe Romm obliquely indicates in his well-deserved praise of my colleague Justin Gillis. Note that Gillis isn’t on this list, while I and other Times reporters are. But 10 short stories and blog posts don’t have the impact of one of Justin’s takeouts, like this one on permafrost, http:nyti.ms/vpw2bM.

    And why does it make sense to blame editors for what you feel is missing, when you give them no credit for what appears? Reporters don’t work in a vacuum. Justin and the rest of us get significant time, space and other resources from our bosses.

    Finally, IMHO, a substantial part of any decline in climate-change coverage can be traced to the 2010 failure of cap-and-trade. In 2010 there was a lot of coverage of the issue by congressional reporters. In 2011, not so much.

    • Joe Romm says:

      Since I think coverage overall is insufficient and flawed, whereas I know a number of the (few remaining) beat reporters are quite good, I am inclined to blame the editors. It is of course true that there is no way of knowing in an individual case.

      In the case of the failure to connect the dots, I do blame the editors. If a reporter on the Western beat is doing a story on the bark beetle and how warmer temperatures have contributed to their spread and effectiveness, but fails to mention climate change, which isn’t their beat, that’s the editors fault, I think.

      • The second point makes sense.

        But I’m still puzzled by your adoption of the “good-reporters-evil-editors” meme. Editors and reporters work together and are usually on the same page about coverage. Yet you give reporters all the credit for what appears, and editors all the blame for what doesn’t. I’ve done both jobs; each is crucial to the published product.

  8. Addendum to previous post. I was mistaken; Justin Gillis is on the list, but I still say, and I suspect you agree, that the 40 bylines counted are a bad metric for the impact of his work. If this exercise is worth doing, why not at least do it by measuring column inches devoted to climate change?

    • Joe Romm says:

      I told Daily Climate that I think they should at least disaggregate print stories from online, since the latter reach far fewer people.

    • Richard Miller, Ph.D. says:

      Thank you Felicity for entering into the discussion on this blog! It is helpful to hear an insider’s view.

      Another extremely important aspect of the media’s coverage of climate change is where the article appears.

      I used to track informally the publishing of major climate studies and where they were reported in the NYTimes.

      The seriousness of the problem as indicated by a particular study and where it appeared in the New York Times (if it did appear) was utterly incongruous.

      Off the top of my head I can remember Susan Solomon’s study that appeared in PNAS in 2009 that maintained the following:

      “This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450–600 ppmv over the
      coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘‘dust bowl’’ era and inexorable sea level rise.”

      The New York Times buried it in the front section – I think it was A14. To my mind turning the Southwest into a dustbowl for a 1,000 years is a front page story.

      Highly educated people who read the Times know much more about the mechanisms of the financial crisis than they know about what is going on in climate change.

      Why is that? I think the fault lies with the Times not only with some of the reporting (i.e. the balance as bias problem), but more importantly where the story appears.

      • Thanks for the courteous words, Dr. Miller.

        Two points in response to your critique.

        First, there are 6 slots for articles on the front page every day (sometimes 7 or 5, mostly 6.) That’s a high bar for any given piece, particularly since editors are striving for a mix of subjects, geography and even writing styles.

        The next best placement is a desk’s “dress page,” which is ad-free and has room for photos, maps, and other display elements to set off an article. Science news usually runs in national space, sometimes in foreign space, depending on the subject.

        The hierarchy of the A section has been the same for yonks: Page One. Page 2 (News summary and corrections), Page 3 — jump of page one news or sometimes a freestanding article that was headed for the front but got bumped.

        Then the foreign desk’s dress page followed by the rest of the foreign news. Then the national dress page. Page A14 may well have been the National dress page that day. If so, A14 should not be seen as the 14th most important page.

        Second: Were the study findings unexpected? In my own archives you will find stories about the drying out of California and the West back in 2005 or 2006. A new study that confirms earlier findings is not as newsworthy as a study whose results are a surprise.

        • Joe Romm says:

          The standard shouldn’t be whether a study is new, but whether there’s any evidence the nation — the public and policymakers — have acted on the earlier reporting.

          The disinformation campaign is relentless with disinformation, repeating the same lies over and over again. But the NYT isn’t going to keep reporting the news that we are going to turn the West into a permanent Dust Bowl if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path?

        • Richard Miller, Ph.D. says:

          Thank you Felicity for your response. It gives me a window into the workings of the paper.

          Joe’s point, however, is important. Does the Times’ coverage reflect Jim Hansen’s view that we are in a “planetary emergency” or Lonnie Thompson’s view that climate change is “a clear and present danger to civilization” (which he says is the view of virtually all climate scientists)? Does the coverage correspond with the gravity of our situation?

          I would hope that these questions inform the thinking, writing, and choices of the Times’ reporters and their editors.

  9. thanes says:

    Traditional print media is dying before our eyes. Newspapers and magazines are grasping at anything that resembles a viable role (Anyone ever see a CNN iReport? The Daily Show covers It pretty well.)
    So I’ve got to wonder, what kind of coverage could the top eleven multinational corporations on Earth buy, or suppress, just by inference, or nod, or any of the other RICO-dodging non-culpable signals the mob pioneered, to get those editing boards to send those signals?
    Does anyone know if Exxon’s ad spending on traditional venues dropped in the same proportion as other companies? Has it risen? Do they even get ads on-air for the money they pay?

  10. Charlie Miller says:

    Interesting that AP’s Seth Borenstein is not on this list. He used to cover climate change like a dog on a bone. One can only conclude that his editors have put him on a short leash, presumably due to complaints from industry and the right wing.

    • Why is that the only thing one can conclude? Maybe AP editors assigned more than one reporter to this coverage, cutting each individual reporter’s total coverage but not the wire services.

      Seth Borenstein had 20+ separate articles in 2011 relating to climate change, per Nexis; Dina Cappiello had 15+.

      There are other AP reporters with bylines on climate-change stories.

      A more useful exercise than speculating about editors might be taking an inventory of climate-related news/developments that folks on this blog think should have been covered but haven’t been.

      • Charlie Miller says:

        Hi Felicity! Hope all’s well. Point taken. I do find it suspicious though, that’s Seth’s coverage when he first came on the beat was terrific, like a clarion call. Now, it seems scaled back and a little more tepid.

        • Charlie Miller says:

          You’re right tough. The notion that his editors have tugged his leash is just speculation on my part.

    • Charlie – Fischer’s list is not comprehensive as he acknowledges. I did 50+ stories on climate in English – 12 from Durban – for a global news service based in Rome but its not on Nexis. There could be lots of reasons why Seth isn’t on it including the fact that Seth might be working on larger projects now.

  11. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Part of the reason Climate Progress is so popular is the MSM, near total, failure on the issue. Conversly; given the failure of the MSM the level of understanding is generally much higher than you would expect, thanks to organisations like climate Progress and other bloggers.

    The general distrust of the MSM is high and I think getting higher. Where with Climate Progress I do trust to honestly report, even though I do not always entirely agree with Joe’s assesments. (I do realize my opinion on severity is an outlier)

  12. CW says:

    What about trends with respect to stories on solutions?

    • CW says:

      I mean, if solutions are the real reason that some people deny climate change, then trends on stories of progress (good news, win wins, etc.) ought to tell us something too. Maybe if these are on the rise people are getting past just thinking of the science and on to “the next steps”. And/or maybe more of these progress stories help deal with denial than more stories on the problem. More of the latter might just reinforce denial amongst some …

  13. dick smith says:

    Does anyone know the extent to which there is less coverage of all “hard news” because there are fewer “news”papers, with less pages, employing fewer reporters and finding space for fewer hard-news stories (but always finding room for more “dancing with the stars” journalism)?

    Just curious.

    Obviously, climate coverage is in the tank. Are we alone? What issue subjects are gaining–other than the election process “horserace” junk?