The early May release of the 2014 National Climate Assessment was big news in most major daily newspapers and cable news programs in the U.S.

About one-third of American daily newspapers acknowledged the third National Climate Assessment (NCA), Climate Change Impacts in the United States, in their first page coverage of Wednesday, May 7.

That’s the finding of a Yale Climate Connections analysis of the 634 facsimiles* posted in its “Today’s Front Pages” gallery by the Newseum, the Washington, D.C. museum devoted to journalism.

Page-one coverage by The Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

Of the 235 newspapers that gave page-one coverage of the report, 71 (11 percent of the 634 front pages reviewed) referenced it in a top, bottom or side bar; 63 (10 percent) addressed it below the fold in a story without any accompanying graphics; 64 (10 percent) placed the story above the fold or included a photograph, map, or chart; and 37 (or 6 percent) highlighted its importance with graphs, charts, or text taking up half or more of the front page.

For comparison, Yale Climate Connections then sampled 50** newspapers archived by the Newseum for October 1, 2013, the first day of the most recent federal government shutdown. Of the front pages examined, 42 (or 84 percent) covered the government shutdown, and in all but four of those newspapers it was their lead story.

While the level of coverage for these two events was quite different, the kind of coverage had similarities. Most newspapers that covered the NCA focused on local and regional implications of projected climate change. Drought and wildfires were the focus of the coverage in western states; risks posed by storm surges and extreme precipitation events were featured in the coverage by eastern newspapers, especially on the coasts. (The below-the-fold story in The Buffalo News warned “Worse Winters on the Way.”)

Farmington, N.M., Daily Times featured image of New York City taxis stranded by ‘Super Storm’  Sandy. 

Somewhat surprisingly, however, below-the-fold page-one stories in The Daily Times (Farmington, New Mexico) and Missourian (Columbia, Missouri) relied on the now iconic photograph of bright yellow taxis almost floating in the water that filled a parking garage when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City.

Local and regional political considerations seem also to have been a factor in the way the story was covered — or not covered — by many newspapers.

Image of arid foothills figure prominently in front-page coverage in New Jersey’s largest daily, the Newark Star-Ledger.

Of the seven so-called “broad-sheet” newspapers with the highest circulations, The Wall Street Journal gave the report the smallest nod, just a small notice near the bottom of the narrow “What’s News” column on the left side of the page. Six  others — The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune — varied in the prominence they gave the story, some using front-page maps or illustrations to complement their narratives.

Twenty-two of the 37 newspapers that made the report their lead story on the day after it was released are located in what political observers consider to be “blue” states, those won by Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Fifteen of the dailies making it their lead story are in “red” states. In newspapers from two red states, Mississippi and Tennessee, the report received no front-page coverage at all, but the same was also true for the blue states of Maryland and New Hampshire.

The state with the highest ratio of main-story-level coverage, however, was the red state of Idaho; in 4 out of 8 newspapers it was the feature story of the day. And in Texas, the NCA dominated the front pages of The Austin American Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, and The Houston Chronicle.

Comparatively low in their first-day news coverage were dailies in New Jersey, with sizeable communities still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Just 25 percent of Garden State dailies gave front-page coverage to the report. Only in The Newark Star Ledger was it the main story of the day — where it was inexplicably accompanied by a photograph of what appear to be arid western foothills.

The oddly illustrated article about the report in The Daily Times (Farmington, New Mexico) was placed below the main story of the day — about the imminent opening of The Four Corners Oil and Gas Conference. Two coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners Region were in the news two weeks later — as largest point sources of pollution in the U.S.

On the front page of the News Press from St. Joseph, Missouri, the NCA story was paired with a story about Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blount’s objection to a carbon tax.

And in The Tulsa World, the only one of seven Oklahoma newspapers to give front-page coverage to the report, the article is topped by a picture of James Inhofe, who is then mentioned in eight of the article’s 17 paragraphs.

Harder to interpret were editorial decisions that resulted in front-page coverage of a climate-related topic but no mention whatsoever of the report.

“Western fire season could drain funds,” a below-the-fold story of The Reno Gazette Journal warned. Neither climate change nor the new report were mentioned in the copy included on the front page; Yale Climate Connections could not access the page on which the article was concluded.

No page-one mention of report in The Reno Gazette Journal’s wildfire story.

A Northwest Florida Daily News article on residents tallying the full impact of the historic 20 inches that fell on April 29 and 30, “Damages Add Up,” did not mention the report or its warnings that extreme precipitation events are becoming more frequent.

‘Skeptics’ of a different sort — and no mention of NCA report — on front page of Connecticut Post or in its page-one coverage of storm-induced erosion.

By far the biggest story on the front page of the May 7 Connecticut Post — it included two photographs and a diagram — was “Taking aim at erosion.” The article described how “reef balls” were being installed on Stratford Point, “which juts out into Long Island Sound just south of Short Beach,” to reduce storm erosion. Neither the report, nor problems posed by rising sea levels, were mentioned by the article or acknowledged anywhere on the front page.

And then there were stories that confounded expectations by giving very local meanings to words frequently used in national discussions of climate change.

The “Anti-wind candidates oust office-holders” that headed the May 7 issue of The Kokomo Tribune (Indiana) referred to Republican officials and council members who had previously approved local wind projects and then were defeated in the Tuesday, May 6 primary by “anti-wind candidates.” The article did not mention the new national report.

One might assume that a Connecticut Post-report article headed by “Newtown skeptics speak out” would be about irate citizens objecting to new zoning regulations or building codes that city officials had proposed in response to updated flood plain maps.

Not hardly. This was a story about a meeting of the Newtown Board of Education, during which members silently endured the testimony of “a dozen or so self-described skeptics of official accounts of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.”

Makes skepticism about climate change seem tame by comparison.

But more than stoic silence will likely be needed to deal with the skepticism, misperceptions, indifference, and, among a significant minority, genuine concerns expressed on the front pages of America’s newspapers on Wednesday, May 7.

*These images have since been taken down. The Newseum archives the front pages only for what it considers to be “historic” dates. The front pages for April 18, 2014, the day after the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, are the most recent additions to the archive.)
** The second paper listed for each state was examined.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...