Silence Of The Lambs 3: Media Coverage Of Climate Mixed In 2012, But Still Down Sharply From 2009

by Douglas Fischer, via the Daily Climate

Widespread drought, Superstorm Sandy, and a melting ice cap failed to revive the media’s interest in climate change in 2012, with worldwide coverage continuing its three-year slide, according to a media database maintained by the nonprofit journalism site The Daily Climate.

The decline in the number of stories published on the topic – 2.4 percent fewer than 2011 – was the smallest since the United Nations climate talks collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009.

Coverage of climate impacts – extreme weather, melting glaciers and Arctic ice, warming temperatures and more – dominated climate news, accounting for almost one of every three stories written on the topic in 2012. That is the highest proportion in the five years that the website has been tracking coverage.

And coverage rebounded in some areas, particularly by the editorial boards of the world’s newspapers.

Start of a trend?

Separate analyses by other media watchers even showed an uptick in some climate-related reporting. Whether this represents a one-year blip or the start of a trend remains unclear, journalists and media researchers say.

“I ask myself, ‘In 20 years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn’t we focus more on that?'” said Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor of the New York Times.

The Times published the most stories on climate change and had the biggest increase in coverage among the five largest U.S. daily papers, according to media trackers at the University of Colorado.

“Climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time,” Kramon said.

Last year 7,194 reporters and commentators filed 18,546 stories, compared to  7,166 reporters who filed 18,995 stories in 2011, according to The Daily Climate.

The numbers remain far from 2009’s peak, when roughly 11,000 reporters and commentators published 32,400 items on climate change, based on the news site’s archive.

Some surprises

Still, there were some surprises. Stories linking climate change to sea-rise, weird weather and other events showed an all-time high, according to the archives: Some 5,800 stories were published on this facet of climate change, 37 percent more than 2011 and 25 percent more than during the 2009 peak.

And newspaper editorial boards, after growing markedly silent on the topic in 2010 and 2011, gave slightly more voice to the issue in 2012. Daily Climate’s archives show 633 editorials for the year – nearly 10 percent more than in 2011.

Daily Climate is an independent, non-profit news site covering climate change. It relies on a team of researchers and editors, using customized searches, to compile a daily aggregation of climate coverage by global “mainstream” media: newspapers, TV and radio outlets, as well as select news websites from center-left to center-right.

Broad sampling

The aggregation is meant to provide a broad sampling of the day’s coverage, not a comprehensive list. Daily Climate does not capture every story or byline produced on the topic. But search methods and parameters are kept consistent from year to year, facilitating a comparison of media trends dating back to 2008, the first full year of the news service’s operation.

Newspaper coverage

Other media analysts noted a rebound in climate coverage in 2012.

Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has been tracking television coverage of climate change since the 1980s. Last year, the news operations at ABC, CBS and NBC almost doubled their coverage of climate-related issues, airing 29 stories – compared with 15 stories in 2011.

The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado has tracked media coverage of climate change since 2000. Researchers there saw an uptick across all media in 2012 as well: Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and the five largest U.S. daily newspapers.

And separate analysis by Bill Kovarik, professor of communications at Radford University in Virginia, of the Lexis Nexis media database found that the four largest U.S. daily newspapers – Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times and Washington Post – published a total of 1,770 stories total on climate change last year.

That’s about 10 percent more than 2011’s tally, Kovarik noted, but it is 11 percent below the number of stories the four papers published on the topic in 2010.

There are some discrepancies among the databases: Daily Climate, for instance, did not reflect the rise in New York Times‘ coverage seen by the University of Colorado and Lexis Nexis.

Driving the change

What drove the change is less clear.

Anomalous weather, particularly the Midwest drought and Hurricane Sandy, focused much of the media’s attention in 2012 on links with climate change, analysts say. Of the 29 network news stories on climate tracked by Brulle, for instance, 17 centered around extreme weather and climate.

And 2012 offered several opportunities for climate change to become a broader story for the public, said Max Boykoff, assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

Looking from the 1980s on, Boykoff has found climate reporting generally falls into four main themes – political, scientific, meteorological, and cultural – and that coverage intensifies and is sustained when events cross one or more boundaries. Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the presidential election was one example from 2012.

With President Obama starting his second term and the first major climate assessment since 2007 expected from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the climate story will likely continue to cross those boundaries in 2013, Boykoff said. “We may see these things coming together in 2013. It could be an interesting year.”

Increasing recognition

Of course, some of the focus on climate change may have more to do with an increasing recognition of the issue’s importance by news outlets.

Kramon, the Times‘ assistant managing editor, attributed last year’s uptick in the paper’s coverage to the fruition of a 4-year-old effort to group top reporters on a separate environment desk.

The paper has six reporters in the cluster, plus others covering the subject from other desks, as well as several editors – in particular the environment editor, Sandy Keenan – who all are “very comfortable” with the topic, he said.

“That’s just part of a bigger effort by the paper,” Kramon added. “I think everyone here agrees that if it’s not the most important story, it’s one of the most important stories.”

Specialized outlets – as well as the many bloggers writing on the topic – tend to push climate news into more mainstream and general publications, say editors and researchers.

Looking worldwide, many major news wires and outlets gave the issue roughly the same amount of ink in 2012 as in 2011, according to the Daily Climate’s archives: The Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian and the Washington Post, among others, were fairly flat or saw slight rises in bylines. The BBC continued its three-year slide, publishing 277 stories in 2012, 15 percent off 2011’s tally and almost 60 percent fewer stories than its 2009 peak.

Specialized outlets

Making up ground in 2012 were a proliferating number of specialized media sites, like Climate Central, which published at least 368 stories last year largely via two reporters, Andrew Freedman and Michael Lemonick; and Inside Climate News, which published some 157 pieces. Scientific American and The Hill, a Congressional newspaper focusing on lobbying and politics, also covered the issue aggressively in 2012, with 169 and 202 stories respectively from the two publications.

Those specialized outlets – as well as the many bloggers writing on the topic – tend to push climate news into more mainstream and general publications, say editors and researchers.

Most active reporters

Finally, the most active reporters on the beat filed more stories in 2012 than in 2011.

The pool of reporters writing 30 or more stories last year – about a story every 12 days – stayed flat in 2012. Last year 54 reporters cleared that bar, against 55 in 2011 and 86 in 2009.

The Daily Climate picked up 3,038 stories from those reporters in 2012 – 16 percent of the total for the year and 5 percent more than that pool filed in 2011.

Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman led the pack, with 172 stories aggregated by The Daily Climate. Fiona Harvey of The Guardian had 135 items in the website’s database, with Michael Lemonick of Climate Central, Bob Berwyn of the Summit County (Colo.) Citizens’ Voice, Ben Geman of The Hill, and Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian rounding out the top six.

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 Daily Climate only sporadically aggregates blog posts, a format many reporters use for more daily fare.

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4 Responses to Silence Of The Lambs 3: Media Coverage Of Climate Mixed In 2012, But Still Down Sharply From 2009

  1. BBHY says:

    According to a recent study by Media Matters, Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS collectively spent more time covering Joe Biden’s smile than climate change. The only standout was MSNBC which covered climate change more than all of the other networks combined.

  2. This news is not surprising to any regular readers. It also does not answer the question as to what we can do about it. One thing is sure. Waiting for someone else to “do something” won’t solve anything. Neither will limiting our ideas to a few good blogs, as that only reinforces the Balkanization of the web where mostly those who already agree with each other castigate “those other folks.”

    Letters to local editors about local policy implications work and even influences local elections, as for city councils. It also influences what these editors deem to be newsworthy.
    We have to be willing to support independent efforts by making sure that they stay involved. That could very well mean subscribing to their efforts just to make sure that they continue.
    We need to look at the potential of an Ed Markey campaign for John Kerry’s Senate seat to become a focal point for a debate on climate issues. Will Scott Brown actually challenge Markey on this?
    Re a Markey – Brown race in MA, we need to be prepared to challenge Fox News on every distortion that they air, holding them up to ridicule for continuing to support their Saudi investor’s need to sell more oil.
    If we do all of the above, we will change the tone of the debate.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    Re influence of the media on behaviour

    Mass media and reproductive behaviour: serial narratives, soap operas and telenovelas

    In Nepal, for example, Barber and Axinn found that ‘exposure to mass media is related to…preferences for smaller families, weaker son preference, and tolerance of contraceptive use’ (Barber and Axinn 2004)

    Bill Ryerson: The Challenges Presented by Global Population Growth

    Well, you brought up Population Media Center. One of the things that we do – and that is the primary thing we do – is to use a strategy of communications that has turned out, from everything we have been able to measure, to be the most cost-effective strategy for changing behavior with regard to family size and contraceptive use on a per-behavior change basis of any strategy we have found on the planet. And this is the use of long-running serialized dramas, melodramas like soap operas, in which characters gradually evolve from the middle of the road in that society into positive role models for daughter education, delaying marriage and childbearing until adulthood, spacing of children, limiting of family size, and various other health and social goals of each country. And we have now done such programs in forty-five countries. And I can give you a couple of statistics.
    For example, in northern Nigeria, a program we ran from 2007 to 2009 was listened to by 70% of the population at least weekly. It was a twice a week program. It was clearly a smash hit. And it was a smash hit because it was highly suspenseful and highly entertaining. But it had a storyline dealing with a couple deciding to use family planning, which is almost taboo in northern Nigeria because less than 10% of the people in that region use any modern method of contraception. We had eleven clinics have healthcare workers ask clients what had motivated them to come in for family planning, and 67% percent of them named the program as the motivation.

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    The graph shows that the biggest spike of climate stories in three years occurred just after the 2012 election was over. In other words, the news media dared not cover climate change as an issue when it mattered to politics, and then they ran massive make-up coverage when it didn’t matter, so that maybe the reading public wouldn’t distrust them utterly.

    This is exactly why voters should never get their news from traditional newspapers.