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James Thornton

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Are Climate Change Reporters an Endangered Species?

Posted: 12/25/11 05:07 PM ET

Why aren't we seeing more coverage of climate change in the media? The issue is hardly going away. And now that world governments after Durban are not planning to take action 'til 2020, we need more coverage, not less.

Yet environmentalists reported a drop off in climate change reporting in 2009 and 2010, and we may well see this again when we look back at 2011.

What accounts for this change? A partial answer may be the difficulties facing the market at the moment. Newspapers are not a growth industry. As media organizations downsize, an ever decreasing number of journalists are required to cover an ever increasing remit of issues. Not good for any subject.

But the reasons go deeper. A recent report called "Poles Apart: the International Reporting of Climate Scepticism" released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University (RISJ) gave us good reason to believe that those of us in the UK and the U.S. could be getting a different view of the climate debate than the rest of the world.

Of a sample of papers from Brazil, China, France, India, the UK and the U.S., 80 percent of skepticism reported was from the UK and U.S.. Even France, with its powerful skeptical lobby groups, barely gave these views much "air-time". And journalists from the English speaking world were greatly outnumbered at the Copenhagen summit.

James Painter, RISJ researcher and Head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme, said:

"There are politicians in the UK and the U.S. who espouse some variation of climate scepticism. Both countries also have organisations for 'climate change sceptics' that provide a sceptical voice for the media, particularly in those media outlets that are more receptive to this message. This is why we see more sceptical coverage in the Anglo-Saxon countries than we do in the other countries in the study where one or more of those factors appear to be absent."

Another potential reason ties in with the whole idea of 'news' itself: 'Nothing new to say' is a normal response in journalism to one-time events that have been overexposed. But global warming is hardly that. It is an unfolding story rich in detail, drama and impending tragedy. To say we've already done the story is like saying we've already done sex.

One might respond that we all hard-wired to be interested in sex. But people are also hard-wired to be interested in the weather. We wouldn't have survived otherwise, and the proliferation of weather reporting and weather channels testifies there is no end to people's interest. Climate is weather stretched out in time. Just as people are interested in how sex plays out in relationships, they will be interested in how the weather plays out in climate change.

Or am I imagining this because I happen to care?

A recent Eurobarometer poll is revealing. The pollsters interviewed 27,000 people in 27 countries. This is a mammoth sample compared to most polls. Those interviewed were asked what they thought were the most important issues facing the world. One might expect that Europeans would have said the economy. But no. The number one issue according to the respondents is global poverty. The number two issue is global warming.

More people thought global warming is a critical issue than did before the failed Copenhagen climate talks. Note how accurately people are tracking events. There was no deal in Copenhagen. In Durban there was a "diplomatic success" -- an agreement to reach a deal by 2015, and start taking action by 2020 -- in which the diplomacy is veering further and further from scientific reality.

It is, of course, easier to agree to agree in the future than to actually agree now. It's reminiscent of the character Wimpy in the comic strip Popeye, whose tag line is, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

Global warming is, in fact, more critical now. Emissions have gone up: in 2010 we globally emitted almost 6 percent more than in 2009. This is history's greatest one-year increase. Despite the recession, we are now emitting more than the worst case scenario set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Global warming hardly lacks story lines. A report released recently says parts of lower Manhattan could be submerged in the coming decades. In 2010 some 56,000 Russians died from forest fires, and scientists say there is an 80 percent probability the fires were caused by global warming. Hurricane Katrina was a story line of epic proportions. And yet the world's governments have walked away from creating a binding deal anytime soon -- this is a story line with music by Nero.

Most countries have long running soap operas: As the World Turns ran in the U.S. for more than 50 years; EastEnders is running strong in the UK 25 years on; in Germany GZSZ, Holland GTST and so on. They all run through the gamut of human experience with greed, anger, ignorance and violence playing leading roles. The story line of global warming will run on, and the characters onstage will display the range of behavior from honor to venality that make the best soaps.

Why cut reporting on climate change? The majority of Europeans have an ear tuned to the unfolding tale. If mainstream papers don't cover it, they are missing the story of our time. We will need the progressive elements of the press -- as well as the blogosphere, Twitter and whatever next arises -- to tell the story. The story won't go away. If the mainstream media won't cover it, the public's move to alternative sources of information will only be quicker.

 

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