Todd Gitlin Slams Media’s Miscoverage Of Climate: It’s Dumb Journalism, Stupid

Climate change is certainly the story of the decade and the century. And if we don’t slash emissions soon, it will be the story of the millennium (see NOAA study concludes climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and worldwide.)

But most of the mainstream media treat it as a second or third-tier story. Todd Gitlin — professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia University —  has a long critique of the media at TomDispatch. Below is an excerpt of the part on climate — JR.

Is the Press Too Big to Fail?

It’s Dumb Journalism, Stupid

By Todd Gitlin

… The Desertification of the News

Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again.  On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally, still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with the seriousness it deserves.  At least it is now an intermittent story, though rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation.  Still, as Wen Stephenson, formerly editor of the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section and and senior producer of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a “problem,” not an “existential threat.”  (Another note on vanishing news:  Since publishing Stephenson’s article, the Phoenix has ceased to exist.)

Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping journalism does not “flood the zone.”  It also has a remarkable record of bending over backward to prove its “objectivity” by turning piece after piece into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.

When it came to our financial titans, in all those years the press rarely felt the need for a dissenting voice.  Now, on the great subject of our moment, the press repeatedly clutches for the rituals of detachmentTwo British scholars studying climate coverage surveyed 636 articles from four top United States newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and found that most of them gave as much attention to the tiny group of climate-change doubters as to the consensus of scientists.

And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace.  Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history, their news divisions went dumb and mute.  The Sunday talk shows, which supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites — those high-minded talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public — were otherwise occupied.

All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters:

“The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change… ABC’s This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes… NBC’s Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention… Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming ‘junk science’ on ABC’s This Week. More than half of climate mentions on the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single scientist on climate change.”

The mounting financial troubles of journalism only tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog.

It’s unlikely that serious business coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their way down the slippery circulation slope.  Why invest in scrutiny of government regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation benefits so much greater?  Meanwhile, the nation’s best daily environmental coverage takes a big hit.  In January, the New York Times’s management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters.  How could such a move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the environmental beat?

The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out for the most serious professional self-scrutiny.  Will it do for journalists and editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes news? It’s long past time to reconsider some journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in: some say the earth is spherical, others say it’s flat).

But don’t let anyone off the hook.  Norms can be bent.  Consider this apt headline on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek after Hurricane Sandy drowned large sections of New York City and the surrounding area: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”  Come on, people: Can you really find no way to dramatize the extinction of species, the spread of starvation, the accelerating droughts, desertification, floods, and violent storms?  With all the dots you already report, even with shrunken staffs, can you really find no way to connect them?

If it is held unfair, or naïve, or both, to ask faltering news organizations to take up the slack left by our corrupt, self-dealing, shortsighted institutions, then it remains for start-up efforts to embarrass the established journals.

Online efforts matter. It’s a good sign that the dot-connecting site was just honored with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

But tens of millions of readers still rely on the old media, either directly or via the snippets that stream through Google, Yahoo, and other aggregator sites.  Given the stakes, we dare not settle for nostalgia or restoration, or pray that the remedy is new technology.  Polishing up the old medals will not avail.  Reruns of His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, and Broadcast News may be entertaining, but it’s more important to keep in mind that the good old days were not so good after all. The press was never too great to fail. Missing the story is a tradition.  So now the question is: Who is going to bring us the news of all the institutions, from City Hall to Congress, from Wall Street to the White House, that fail us?

— Todd Gitlin is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other books including, most recently, Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. His piece was excerpted with permission.

41 Responses to Todd Gitlin Slams Media’s Miscoverage Of Climate: It’s Dumb Journalism, Stupid

  1. fj says:

    Yes, it is a truly frustrating dangerous situation; all too often eyes glaze over way too easily when the subject is brought up.

  2. Jack Burton says:

    I take issue with two claims above. That there is Journalism taking place in the US Main Stream Media and that the MSM is a watchdog entity.
    Both claims fall flat on the face of it. Evidence shows without a doubt, unless you are deluded and belong to the FOX news cult, that MSM is a direct agent of the major corporate interests in the USA. They do not DO journalism, they do corporate propaganda and corporate cover ups and corporate diversions. As to Watchdog? That is so laughable that I can’t believe anyone could have typed that sentence without breaking down in laughter! Watchdog? NO, they are the specialists in diverting American’s attention from vital issue and anything inconvenient to corporate interests.
    Your media consists of bald face lies, entertainment in the guise of news and cover up on a grand scale.
    Lets review the record. Iraq war: US media lied and lied and lied. US media reported only what the war party claimed.
    The housing bubble: US media read off of the National Association of Realtors script and also the other corporate interests in construction and housing. They read off of the banks play book. They lied about MBS and liars loans and covered up what was happening in financial fraud.
    Climate Change: Back in the 80’s Media began to report the breaking science, sometimes quite well indeed. Corporate interest bought up all media and the silence began. The in the 00’s they moved into promoting open deniers. Now, with evidence and weather disasters so profound that average people are seeing it with their own eyes. Media is searching for a way to down play the evidence and the treats, but only because denial is a useless exercise at this point. They must report things like Sandy and the Melting of the Arctic. Just trying to keep CO2, fossil fuels and global warming as a side issue of no pressing importance.
    The US does not have an independent watch dog media of any main stream nature. Real media must be found on the internet in the form of Blogs and such.
    The MSM like FOX is an open cult based on giant lies to severe special corporate and war making interests.
    CNN is an open lie machine and propaganda arm of the Neo-Con war mongers and an economic arm of globalization and Neo-Liberal wealth transfer.
    MSNBC is a deluded apology machine for the fake liberal democratic party which is wholly owned by corporations and has Obama who is now proven to be a war monger, liar and tool of banking and Wall-Street.
    There you go, some media! Okay if you are a 1%’er you would be quite happy with that line up of fakers.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Todd, I was a couple of years behind you at Berkeley, and used to like reading your stuff on The Pelican. Old Blues think alike- media is our biggest solvable problem (oil and coal companies won’t change).

    Please send me an email to and I’ll fill you in on what I believe might work.

  4. Leif says:

    The press is accomplishing exactly what the Money Baron owners want. Deliberate confusion to protect their blood money riches as long as possible. It is the “Journalist” that have sold out their Constitutional protected calling.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    It is very tiresome reading these fatuous pieces about how “the media” has “failed” in covering global warming and climate change.

    It’s not a “failure”. It’s a deliberate coverup.

    The US media is not a “somnolent watchdog”. The US media is an extremely aggressive propaganda machine for the corporations that own it.

    And far from being a “failure”, the US media’s aggressive REFUSAL to cover global warming and climate change has been extremely successful at accomplishing its goal: it has kept the public ignorant and docile about the issue and has thereby defused public demand for taking the necessary actions for the last three decades.

  6. john atcheson says:

    I used to dismiss comments like those Lief and Secular Animist are making to the realm of paranoid conspiracy theories.

    No longer. Whether it’s because the media believes controversy sells papers and airtime or because they are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America, they are deliberately misleading the public on the issue.

    This is criminal, plain and simple.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely correct. The trope of ‘journalistic mistakes’ is pure bunkum. As you observe, the MSM is a straight propaganda system. It is there to ‘manufacture consent’ for the rule of the elite, their wars of aggression based on known lies, their vicious social atavism, one-side class warfare and their insatiable avarice which is immiserating whole societies while destroying the habitability of the planet for our species. The propaganda apparatchiki know that their relatively well-paid employment, now and in the future, absolutely depends on not expressing any opinion that Rupert Murdoch or some other oligarch would find subversive, so they censor themselves and follow the Party Line, always. Many, of course, are rank Rightwing bigots with the usual bundle of attitudes of that group ie generalised misanthropy, racism, xenophobia (particularly these days, the mandatory Islamophobia of The Clash of Civilizations religion)misogyny, homophobia, class hatred, virulent hatred of environmentalists etc. The group think is complete, and denial or ignoring of climate destabilisation is required, so these ‘presstitutes’ oblige. They are, as a group, irredeemable. We might hope for salvation for one or two, but they will quickly be replaced by even worse specimens. The root cause of our calamitous situation is the global dominance of the Right, ie the worst, morally, ethically and spiritually of human beings.

  8. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Leif, Secular Animist, and convert John Atcheson are right. The claim that the media is merely “somnolent” or “stupid” or “lazy” is just doesn’t explain the media’s behavior.

    I recently watched a PBS segment made in 2011 in which Paul Solomon interviewed David Letterman’s audience on the subject of inequality ( The information on which the segment was based was presented in a Mother Jones article at about the same time. Virtually all the respondents in the interviews had NO IDEA of the extent of American inequality. The original study showed that ignorance of inequality characterizes EVERY segment of American society, left and right, rich and poor. The obvious hypothesis to explain such pervasive ignorance is that the media ignores the issue INTENTIONALLY – as an explanation of such pervasive ignorance, “somnolence” or “stupidity” or “laziness” just doesn’t cut it. So it goes with climate change – the media is not “failing” to inform, most of the media is effectively controlled by the people who are profiting from the media’s ignoring climate change.

  9. Susan Anderson says:

    Marketing has taken over the world. Nobody needs to think any more, just to consume.

  10. Ben Lieberman says:

    At least we can count on the New York Times to provide a platform for an endless series of Joe Nocera free pr pieces for tar sands interests. It’s a tough job, but someone has to bend over backwards to help Joe Oliver.

  11. Vine says:

    Is it the journalists not covering climate change or the NEWS Editors being ordered not to cover climate change?

    With more and more billionaires buying into the media with vested business interests in mining and commercial interests. It is most likely the journalists are being told what they can write.

    Totally agree climate change is the worlds top priority and will come back to bite if we don’t stop Co2 rising more.

  12. Raul M. says:

    Writing a story about why he can’t write a story. Humm

  13. atcook27 says:

    Yep, so the global media doesn’t exist to educate but to subvert. Climate change is just the latest attempt from the propaganda machine to convince the masses that all is well. So go back to working your asses off paying off your mortgage to the banks, buying fossil fuels from the same companies that own the banks and investing your superannuation in the stock market so the same banks can steel it. By my reckoning it all started to go to shit on November 22nd 1963.

  14. BillD says:

    My local newspaper just again published an attack on local wind power, saying that wind would not fly without government subsidies and that we have enough fossil fuels for the next 100 years. No mention of climate change. I am thinking about writing a reply that both supports renewable energy economics and raises the costs and risks of climate change but I am really too busy right not. Has anyone written or know of a succinct hard hitting answer to what sounds like an attach on clean energy straight out of ALEC literature.

  15. Every time I see a TV ad or read another story about having enough fossil fuels for “100 years” I find myself wondering what happens then. There is enough for 100 years so just use it up as fast as you can so that then suckers who come later will have to go without. Oh… those suckers are our grandchildren? No matter.

    Such is the consequence of media when they depend on advertising revenue. Even PBS can not run Newshour without telling you who is funding it and the extractive industries are always there. It is the same with NOVA on PBS where David Koch is the primary funding source. The tea party folk rant about the “liberal bias” of news and wants to cut NPR / PBS funding.

    I am waiting for just one popular television business program to focus on “climate risk.” Nightly Business Report? Mad Money? Not a hope.

    Think I’ll sit back, watch day 99 of the Jody Arias murder trial and have another drink.

  16. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m with you, Secular. Feel free to send me an email too, if you’re interested in my plan. Boycotts will be included- as you know, going begging to the media tells them that they’ve got us.

  17. BobbyL says:

    I would say climate change is one of the most difficult subjects for the news outfits to cover. The clearest effects of climate change and the most drastic are in the Arctic but this is not easy to relate to peoples’ everyday lives. The possible effects of climate change on weather events such as droughts, superstorms, wildfires, etc. that do effect the everyday lives of people are much more difficult to link to climate change. Generally it takes a number of studies after the event to evaluate whether there is a link and even then the answer is often not clear with scientists disagreeing. Many climate activists are frustrated by the lack of action and are making links between climate change and weather that are far from proven. The mainstream media is not doing a good job but many activists also are not.

  18. Brooks Bridges says:

    I think Secular Animist and others are partially correct. I think Murdock’s empire fits their concept perfectly.

    But as Todd Gitlin said:

    “Why invest in scrutiny of government regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation benefits so much greater?”

    So I think much can be explained by simple short sighted “I think this is the best way to assure myself a pay check” at all levels.

    From Upton Sinclair: “”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

  19. Superman1 says:

    I believe the MSM on climate change as much as I believe the polls on climate change. Both are pure fiction, albeit low quality fiction.

  20. Superman1 says:

    The only ‘polls’ on climate change I believe are the outputs of the instruments that measure global CO2 emissions and global CO2 atmospheric concentrations. They’ve been telling a consistent story for the past three decades, and they’ll be telling the same story for the next three decades, as far as I can see from present credible projections.

  21. Superman1 says:

    The media’s goal is to make as much money as they can. They have three constituencies that have to be satisfied: owners, advertisers, readers.

  22. Superman1 says:

    The owners tend to be wealthy, and probably invested directly or indirectly in many fossil energy organizations. As Kevin Anderson and Tim Garrett (among many others) point out, serious action on climate change will REQUIRE global recession or depression, and the owners want to avoid this for personal reasons.

  23. Superman1 says:

    The advertisers also tend to be wealthy, and many are directly or indirectly involved in fossil energy generation. They want to maintain the status quo, and undoubtedly exert pressure on the media not to emphasize the reality of climate change. They also want to avoid the economic consequences of serious action.

  24. Andy Hultgren says:

    BillD #12,

    Here’s a nice infographic on carbon budget and climate impacts:

    Not sure if you can use it directly in a letter to the editor, but maybe you can draw from it for your writing.

    On renewables: “The unsubsidized cost of renewable power produced from solar and wind energy will be no more expensive than that from oil, natural gas, and coal by the end of the decade, Energy Secretary Steven Chu predicted during a speech at a Pew Charitable Trusts event late March before the Commerce Deptartment and ITC had made their final determinations on Chinese import duties.”

    Here’s a good one on clean energy investment:
    “by 2025, the fuel savings realised would outweigh the investments; by 2050, the fuel savings amount to more than USD 100 trillion. Even if these potential future savings are discounted at 10%, there would be a USD 5 trillion net saving between now and 2050. If cautious assumptions of how lower demand for fossil fuels can impact prices are applied, the projected fuel savings jump to USD 150 trillion.”

    And this – decarbonizing is good for the economy: “At the end of 2012, our economy will be much larger than it was in 1996, yet its carbon emissions will be the same.”

    And if you want some more on climate change badness:

    Ok, hopefully this gives you what you need to pull together a great letter to the editor! Let us know how it goes!!

  25. Superman1 says:

    As far as the readers’ interests, look at the progressive media like HuPo or Salon, or the mainstream MSN browser. By far, the most sensationalist and trivial and here-and-now articles get the vast majority of clicks and comments. Climate change comments on the above remind me of the present drought in the Southwest. I know the readers here don’t like to admit it, but the overwhelming majority of the public is getting exactly the climate change articles they want.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bend over forwards, surely?

  27. BobbyL says:

    An irony about climate change is that while it is arguably the biggest story of the century (I think so) it is rarely a big story of any 24-hour news cycle. That is one reason why it gets into the news so infrequently. Many stories are the opposite, they are a big story during a given 24-hour news cycle and then often quickly disappear never to be be heard about again in the national media. I think a lot of the lack of coverage of climate change by the news media can be explained without resorting to corporate conspiracy theories which are so prevalent on the Internet.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I disagree entirely. The MSM need only allow real climate scientists to state the facts of research and of observations occasionally (preferably at least as often as the denialist liars, so there could be a spurious ‘equivalence’)for the public to be properly informed and allowed to make up their minds. That would be real ‘Press Freedom’. Instead we get, as ever, and in everything, naked brainwashing, active truth suppression and the peddling of lies, distortions and knowing misrepresentation ie a propaganda system in full flight.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You have lower emissions because you exported them to low wage regimes overseas. Add in those ‘fugitive’ emissions and the picture ain’t so rosy. Add in the continuing collapse in median wages and household wealth, the gargantuan and accelerating growth in inequality, the huge burden of household debt, and the continued growth, in power and importance, of the financial griftocracy, and you have a picture of cataclysmic decline, where the incidental fall in emissions is but one, so far small, bright spot.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There is no ‘conspiracy’, let alone that favourite CIA trope a ‘conspiracy theory’. The workings of the ruling elite and the machinations of their propaganda apparatus, the MSM, are plain for all to see, save the willfully blind.

  31. BobbyL says:

    I would say if there is actually a group of people who are really rulers and they are trying to fool people by making it look like there are two major political parties when there is in fact really one, and are somehow causing the parties to appear to be polarized when it is really a sham then I would say that is a conspiracy that has taken over the United States. On the other hand the so called elites might simply be part of an extremely complex political process that is very difficult to fully comprehend. My feeling is that simple explanations such a ruling elite are usually wrong and the political process is really so complex and involves so many influences that it pretty much defies understanding sort of like the climate system is so complex that nobody really had a complete grasp on how it works.

  32. J4Zonian says:

    Interesting that there’s a band of ads across this page as i look at it right now, between the article and comments. Included in that are links to “15 sexiest sports moments of 2012”, something about the breed of cuddly cat you need, and 5 critically acclaimed movies with bad revenues.

  33. sailrick says:

    I think I found the problem

    In 1983, the majority of the mass media was owned by 50 companies.

    In 1992, by only 24 companies.

    In the year 2000, by only 6

  34. Andy Hultgren says:


    Just wanted to be sure you saw my reply in #15 below (I forgot to use the actual “reply” button…).

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Jack-don’t mince your words! Let us know what you really think! P.S. I agree with every syllable.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We’re just going to have to agree to disagree. The US ruling caste is intensely class conscious and leave nothing to chance. The only sort of ‘planning’ that they approve of is their’s designed to reinforce their power, forever. Pop in to the coming Bilderberg Meeting in the UK, and see if I’m not right.

  37. fj says:

    The media is the communications arm of a system that is terribly structurally violent whether it is lack of universal healthcare, 40, 000 deaths and millions of grave injuries from road accidents per year (in this country alone), cigarette smoking, and climate change; the equivalent of direct violence to people is portrayed as normal and ignored when it can be stopped with sufficient media coverage.

    We saw some of what could be done about guns when The President and Bloomberg took the bully pulpit, but not nearly enough.h

  38. BobbyL says:

    Can you explain why conservatives don’t trust the mainstream media because they claim it has a liberal bias yet you contend that the mainstream media content is under corporate control? You would think the conservatives would be happy that the media reflected a pro-corporate bias yet they claim the opposite is true, believing most reporters and editors are liberals. Somebody has to be wrong here.

  39. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    The mainstream media IS under corporate control. That is just a simple fact – the ownership of all the major TV networks and most of the print media is corporate! Do you need a list of the holding companies? The far right wing part of the corporate media makes it it’s job to spread paranoia about a “liberal media” and the conservative segment of the public laps it up.

    Look, there are MANY examples just in the thread above of how objectively WRONG the media has been on issue after issue: Iraq, the financial collapse, income and wealth inequality, climate change, to name just a few- and that is just in the past decade or so. There are objective ways to sorting out who the “somebody” is who is wrong here.

  40. Yes, Super. My way of putting it is that climate change is writing its own story, no matter what the MSM and the denier’s cadre has, or doesn’t have to say about it.

  41. My thought precisely, Mulga. Bending over backwards would make an awkward job of the act involved. I suppose it’s possible but … I don’t want to think about it.