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.
RajendraK. Pachauri, who last year shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore, told those gathered at the Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ) annual meeting in Roanoke, Va., last Friday that many news outlets have been missing the story since February 2007, when the IPCC released its landmark report that concluded that global warming is very likely caused by human activity. The Worldwatch Institute's Ben Block reports:
"In the last year and a half, there has been a massive explosion of awareness; however, the media has not reported enough about the emergency and depth of action," said Pachauri, who has led the United Nations panel since 2002.
The fact that only half of Americans polled consider human activity to be the main cause of climate change is often blamed on media coverage. But news reports of climate change have steadily increased in recent years, especially since government reports, a major Supreme Court hearing, and the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" brought attention to the climate crisis in 2006.
Pachauri suggested that major news agencies now rely too much on high-level science reports or large climate-related events for their stories, rather than examples of climate change's ongoing effects. "We need to go beyond the cyclical coverage of climate change and emphasize the day-to-day relevance," he said.
Worldwatch's Mr. Block quotes outgoing SEJ President and Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler, who says that news stories often reflect public opinion polls. For most US voters, climate change is not a top policy concern. "When the economy is the way it is, a war is going on, these are the things that grab the headlines and network news," Wheeler is quoted as saying.
But leaving it at that would ignore the press's role in shaping public opinion. The news isn't a one-way street: Most people's policy concerns are greatly informed by what they watch, hear, and read in the mass media. A newspaper that plays down climate change will end up with a readership that plays it down, too.
Mr. Pachauri's criticism – that coverage of climate change needs to be made more relevant to readers – has been making the rounds in media circles lately.
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.
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.