UN climate chief says media not getting it
Speaking at a gathering of US environmental journalists last week, the chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that the news media has not done enough to communicate the severity of global warming.
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It wasn't always this way: In the past, the biggest criticism of climate change coverage was that it gave too much credence to those who deny the scientific basis of global warming. In 2004, mass media scholars Jules and Maxwell Boykoff examined climate change coverage in the New York Times , the Washington Post , the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal over a 14-year period. Their study, which they summarized here on a website for the media watchdog FAIR, concluded that attempts to create "balance" between those who affirm and deny human-caused climate change promoted the deniers' point of view far beyond what was warranted by their representation in the sciences and by the merits of their arguments.Skip to next paragraph
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But more recently, the mainstream press has become more comfortable with discounting the small percentage of scientists who continue to deny global warming. As Cristine Russell, a science reporter for the Washington Post, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, environmental coverage has largely accepted the thesis of human-caused climate change:
The era of “equal time” for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over – except on talk radio, cable, and local television.... As the climate issue moves further into public policy, journalists will face new challenges in sorting out the political and economic interests of experts with a dizzying array of opinions about the costs and benefits of combating global warming. The he-said, she-said reporting just won’t do. The public needs a guide to the policy, not just the politics.
One way to do that has been to make climate coverage more local. Last week, Ms. Russell wrote in the CJR about efforts to bring this global issue into readers' backyards, as with stories about how it will affect local water supplies, real estate prices, and energy bills.
Two examples that stand out for me are Boston Globe reporter Beth Daly's series on how climate change is affecting New England and Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson's ongoing work on warming in the Sierra Mountains.
But as long as the overall proportion of stories about climate change remain low, localism alone probably won't be enough to convey the severity of the problem. It's hard to fault news outlets for prioritizing the financial crisis, war, and national security over climate change, but what about other stories? As Public Radio International chief Alisa Miller pointed out in her talk at the March 2008 TED conference, in February 2007 US news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith exceeded coverage of the IPCC report by a factor of 10 to 1, a fact that leaves me wondering exactly whose priorities are being reflected.