Coverage of climate change in 2008 pales quantitatively when compared with previous years’ upward trends. Victim of the global financial crisis? Of news room “down sizing”? Of polar bears having become “old news”? Of short attention spans and perhaps “climate fatigue” on the part of editors and audiences? All this and more?

A quantitative and qualitative look at mainstream media coverage of “the story of the century.” And what a new year, a new administration in Washington, and a critical year-end international negotiation may mean for coverage in 2009.

The lion of climate change journalism that roared into 2008 is exiting the year more like a mouse.

News Analysis and Commentary

And one with a major limp, to boot.

The 2008 climate change news year started with much bravado in the wake of a Nobel Peace Prize for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former Vice President Al Gore. Coverage of climate, still reflecting the ravages of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, appeared at near-all-time peaks across the U.S. All of it in the early months of a presidential primary season in which the eventual candidates from both major parties would agree to finally address greenhouse gas emissions in a robust way. Even as coverage on countless online blogs and websites was skyrocketing, in-print column inches and broadcast and cable TV news programs and “specials” were overflowing with global warming coverage.
Polar bears on disappearing ice were getting more air time than shark attacks or perhaps even Paris Hilton. And the he-said/she-said approach to balancing what most experts long had accepted as settled science had begun to fade far into the rear-view mirror.

That was then.

And this is now, circa start of 2009.

The two successful major party candidates indeed appeared, to the broad public at least, to be in a virtual lock-step on climate change, and each frequently sang the praises of “clean coal,” which both left largely undefined. But once the financial collapse from September onward took a death-grip hold on the media’s and public’s attention, climate change and most other erstwhile news stories largely receded to the inside pages … or further back into oblivion.

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Max Boykoff, Oxford University

Without the impression, however unjustified, of dueling scientists on fundamental issues of physics and climate science, and lacking even truly dueling presidential candidates, a lot of the climate change conflict that still makes for “good” journalism had largely faded away. With most of the real (and often really arcane) public policy issues months away from perhaps being seriously addressed on Capitol Hill and internationally, editors’ and audiences’, if not beat reporters’, attention went elsewhere.

So did news pages and “news holes” overall. In a wilting newspaper economy amid shrinking advertising revenues and falling circulations, the term “carnage” became an all-too-familiar e-mail subject line forewarning yet more newsroom pink slips and buy-outs, mergers and consolidations, “slimming” of print pages, circulation declines, and revenue blues.

Competition for shrinking front-page real estate soared, even as little else did:

  • News media financial woes, compounded by the fall’s Wall Street collapse;
  • Numerous buyouts and bailouts and rising unemployment;
  • Shrinking Dow Jones returns and s(t)inking 401(k) balances;
  • The fragile fate of the “big three” automakers;
  • $50 billion Wall Street high-finance Ponzi schemes; and
  • Dribbled-out news of incoming Administration nominees and appointees.

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Robert Brulle, Drexel University

Oh yes, then too there’s the Illinois governor whose name, but not shenanigans, few can pronounce and fewer still remember. Even the first jail sentencing of newsmaker-par-excellence O.J. Simpson warranted little more coverage than the umpteenth calving of a distant glacier.

There was, for sure, more than enough breaking news to force climate coverage to the back benches.

Climate: “Old News”? A Case of “Climate Fatigue”?

Was climate change becoming “old news”? Is the American public, with its famously short attention span, overcome with “climate fatigue” and ready to turn the page? Were editors again turning deaf-ears and news media budget-types riffing entire environment teams? Is CNN’s elimination of its entire environment/energy/technology team an isolated instance, or the tip of an iceberg? What does it mean when landmark news organizations (read Tribune Company) declare bankruptcy? And when stalwarts such as Newsweek capture newspaper headlines for plans to “slim down” even more, both pages and staff?

Oh yes, lest we forget:

  • Detroit’s two dailies announce they’ll end home deliveries except on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, when ad revenues are highest.
  • A looming closing of one of Denver’s two dailies, the Rocky Mountain News, may barely precede a threatened imminent bankruptcy filing by the other, the Denver Post. Is it not a Super Bowl match between Detroit and Denver this time, but rather a race to see which major city becomes the first in the country to not have a daily newspaper? How much impressive climate change coverage might those two major cities’ dailies produce in coming months under these circumstances? And where will their local TV news outlets, such as they are, turn for grist for their mills?

But I digress. Let’s instead go to the video, as they say, or, in this case, to the numbers, as shown by recent research conducted by two academics, one in the U.S. and the other currently at Oxford University in the U.K.

In the charts below, Robert J. Brulle and Max Boykoff and colleague Maria Mansfield look at coverage in the traditional news media – for Brulle, prime-time network news in the U.S.; and for Boykoff coverage in influential newspapers throughout the world. Neither specifically addresses online or “new media” climate change/global warming coverage.

Researchers’ Numbers Document Coverage Declines

Brulle, at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has reviewed evening network prime-time news (ABC, CBS, and NBC) between 2004 and October 2008, and he finds strong indications that “the dramatic economic news has clearly overwhelmed everything else.”

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Courtesy of Robert Brulle, Drexel University

“We are approaching pre-‘An Inconvenient Truth’ levels of media coverage of global warming,” says Brulle, referring to the late 2007 spikes in coverage coming in the wake of the release of and publicity surrounding the Al Gore documentary.

“Global warming is no longer a new story,” according to Brulle. “In the never-ending search for novelty and the unique, global warming no longer supplies dramatic and new headlines.”

The first collapse of a big ice shelf is “big news,” Brulle continues, the second collapse not so big, and by the third or fourth collapse, “it becomes pretty regular and normal.

“This leads to a process of normalization,” Brulle says. “We get used to these occurrences.”

Emphasizing the importance of newspaper coverage trends rather than absolute numbers, researchers Boykoff and Mansfield at Oxford University used three research tools – Lexis Nexis, Factiva, and ABI/Inform – to search for the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in coverage between January 2004 and the end of November 2008.

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Courtesy of Dr. Maxwell Boykoff and Maria Mansfield, ECI, University of Oxford

Researching what they consider particularly influential newspapers with substantial circulations and influence on public opinion and policy, they searched coverage in 50 newspapers across 20 countries on six continents.

The Boykoff-Mansfield data – which they now plan to update monthly – shows coverage generally trending down throughout much of calendar year 2008 in the newspapers they studied in North America, Oceania, and Europe. Climate change coverage in newspapers they studied in Asia and South America generally stayed somewhat more stable, though coverage in those regions totaled far less than in the others in any case.

Commentary and Outlook

It’s the norm for news cycles concerning specific issues to trend upward and downward, particularly with long-lasting issues such as global climate change. In the U.S. over the past year, the story has morphed from being largely a stand-alone issue – climate change/global warming – to being a subset of, first, the overall energy issue, and, now, the financial and economic recovery issue with energy/climate change as a significant component. One can argue that its importance has actually increased, rather than necessarily decreased, over the course of the year.

That said, it’s quite possible that an overall reduction of coverage of “combating scientists” on the fact of global warming and the role of human activities has had the somewhat contradictory effects of improving quality of coverage on climate science while somewhat reducing quantity of the total coverage. Less can be more, the theory here goes.

A new U.S. administration seemingly determined to take on the climate change challenge, the likelihood of a more sympathetic Senate and House of Representatives, a fresh look at available federal regulatory options, and a major December 2009 international negotiation in Copenhagen – any of these, or all of these and more, could lead to increased coverage in coming months. Controversies over economic impacts and corporate and regional “winners and losers” may also contribute to bumps in coverage, and controversies on assorted mitigation and adaptation issues may well replace some (likely not all) of the scientists/”skeptics” coverage that characterized much of the U.S. climate change reporting up until a few years back. Ask yourself whether continuing coverage of bogus scientific points and counterpoints – bogus ones, mind you – would be better than less coverage in the first place.

Hovering still over the prospects for more and better coverage of the climate story are the financial and economic crises driving journalism and newsroom dynamics overall, not to mention the global economy. Simply put, it’s hard for reporters to focus on ambitious climate reporting initiatives when their ranks are being “carnaged” and their resumes are out-of-date.

As it turns out, now may not be the time for just “more” climate change coverage, but rather for more nuanced and more in-depth climate change reporting, both on and far off the traditional science and environmental beats. It’s a time for climate coverage to continue its incremental morphing from ever-shrinking science sections and science pages and into business sections, home repair features, health care coverage, travel articles, and much more.

The pool of ready and available climate change reporting experts – and there are many of them yet in news organizations large and small across the U.S. – will still have their hands full just staying employed, and may still be elbows-deep in coverage done either by them or by their remaining, albeit fewer, newsroom colleagues.

The chemistry and physics behind the climate change story, after all, doesn’t respect or adhere to newsroom moods or trends or even very much to rising unemployment rates or falling stock averages.
The “big story” from an environmental, energy, economics, trade, tourism, and international security standpoint remains just that, a big story. It’ll be just that long after the current financial and economic crisis passes.

The challenge now lies in how an ever-smaller and resource-constrained “mass media,” less and less big and more and more fragmented, will meet their responsibilities.

The new year about to get under way may go a long way to providing answers. And this time a year or two from now, the end-of-2008 climate coverage blues may have given way to banner headlines and in-depth analyses as yet unforeseen.

We can only hope. No. We can do more. We can help make it happen.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...