An analysis of 250 American newspapers by the Project for Excellence in Journalism sees a decline in science and foreign affairs coverage. It also notes that stories covering gradual developments are disappearing. These are changes that could spell trouble for coverage of global climate change.
The PEJ study reports that newspaper editors tend to think that science is less important these days:
Research conducted by Cristine Russell of the Shorenstein Center on the state of science journalism estimates that of the 95 newspapers that published special science sections in the 1980s, only about 35 still do so today. If editor enthusiasm is any measure, a reversal of this trend seems unlikely. Only 10% of editors responding to the PEJ survey said they considered science and technology reporting “very essential” to the quality of their news product.
In making these cuts, editors also don’t necessarily eliminate subject matter altogether. Instead, they tend to dilute it.
The report notes that stories on all topics are becoming shorter, and that stories that develop over time are either passed over or moved online:
A story marking an incremental development—say, on a running city hall squabble that might have warranted a 12 to 15-inch third-day story a few years ago—is part of a dying breed. Today, such developments are either judged unworthy of coverage at all or are covered by a beat reporter in a quick-hit couple of paragraphs that are posted on the website. Depending on the weight of news day, the story either dies there, or can be “reverse published” into the newspaper as a 6-inch short or a brief.
What's more, newspapers are becoming increasingly provincial in their coverage. As coverage of foreign affairs and national politics decline, newspapers are steering more and more resources toward "hyperlocal" issues, such as neighborhood news, hometown investigative reports, local government, police, obits, and particularly schools.
In writing about the PEJ study, Morris Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, notes that these developments – a drop in science coverage, a reluctance to cover incremental stories, and a focus on the local – pose a threat to "the beats most likely to provide the best platforms for newspaper coverage of climate change."
Mr. Ward notes that coverage of environmental issues has actually increased in recent years, but with an important caveat for climate change stories: a local angle. The Yale Forum report cites the Sacramento Bee's recent report that links climate change to the vanishing ice at the summits of the Sierras.
But while nothing brings home the reality of climate change more than seeing its effects in your own backyard, this kind of local approach may introduce more uncertainty than it dispels. While the basic facts of global warming remain virtually unchallenged among reputable scientists, it is still very difficult to link it to a specific local phenomena. As the New York Times's environment writer Andrew Revkin observed last week, a tendency to focus on the small details of global warming – whether it caused this or that hurricane or flood – can produce a whiplash effect among the public, making them more dubious than they were before.
The common theme here is context: As newspapers sacrifice more of it to chase local stories without following up, and as they dilute their science coverage, readers could end up finding themselves in a situation best described by legendary newspaperman Ben Hecht, who said, "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."