THE BLOG

Upping the Ante on Climate Change Media Coverage

01/22/2014 11:00 am ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

The top story on Thursday's New York Times mobile edition was titled "U.N. Says Lag in Confronting Climate Woes Will be Costly." Why was the newspaper featuring a story on something that's so unpopular? Just one year ago, the paper had to cancel its green blog and disbanded its climate change group. And the story wasn't even exclusive: The report was first leaked to Reuters, whose partners were able to scoop the Times, as did The Huffington Post.

No paper likes to highlight stories where it has been scooped, much less one that's won as many Pulitzer Prizes as The New York Times.

Released by Reuters and its partners on Wednesday and by Times.com on Thursday (and the Times print edition on Friday), the U.N. report has been floating around for some time now. And yet as of Monday, only a few news sources have run it. Other national newspapers, such as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, have not. Neither has my local paper, the Seattle Times.

And though The New York Times recently committed to increasing coverage of climate change, according to the prevailing wisdom, that won't do much for that paper's readership. For it seems that only 32 percent of Americans worry that climate change will affect them personally, and that's not enough for mass media to run stories. In fact, newspaper coverage of the issue has declined from peaks in 2007 and 2009, tracking media in general.

TV news, specifically shows that still have influence, i.e. Sunday morning talk shows, don't believe their audiences have any interest at all in climate change. ABC's This Week, NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday together ran just 27 minutes on the issue in all of 2013.

Last week, Climate Solutions' KC Golden's blog Grip on Climate published a letter sent by nine senators to four networks demanding more climate coverage. The senators suggested a cynical reason for the networks dearth: "We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming."

Predictably, Fox News' response was to ridicule the senators for the "same type of censorship Chavez used in Venezuela," with government regulators holding "an implicit gun to (the networks') head," "... the beginning and the end of free speech."

Anther panelist Michelle Fields asked, "How much more do they want to hear? ... Every single day, MSNBC and CNN are talking about global warming and it's not a coincidence that every single day their viewership gets smaller and smaller because Americans are tired of hearing about this."

And there's the rub. The ultimate tragedy is when no news is simply bad news. As Golden says in an earlier post quoting a female focus group participant, "... I don't think climate change is a big issue, because nobody's doing anything about it.' Golden adds, "She made the eminently logical inference that if it were really as bad as all that, the responsible authorities would be doing something..."

And the news outlets would be doing something too.

That's why I'm thrilled that The New York Times is talking about climate change. Last Friday's print edition carried three stories on the subject, two on the leaked U.N. Climate Report and another on the European Union's intention to back off on its climate intentions due to ongoing economic pressure.

As America's Newspaper of Record, The New York Times tends to lead news coverage and set the standard for other news organizations. Bravo to the Times for taking this brave stance. Where would this country be without continuous if unpopular coverage -- in my lifetime -- of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the aftermath of 9/11? Those subjects made heroes out of the news organizations that insisted on uncovering them.

Climate change coverage might not really be much of a gamble after all.