Jul 6, 2007
Climate change reporting hots up
There have historically been peaks and troughs in reporting of climate change issues in the general media. Major peaks have occurred in 1988 (the ozone-layer protecting Montreal Protocol came to the fore), in 1992 (the year of the Earth Summit in Rio), in 1997 (due to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions), and in 2000 (when US president George Bush officially rejected the Kyoto Protocol).
Coverage has increased massively since 2004, and this year has seen extensive reporting on climate change – at least in the US and Europe, thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, high energy prices, and the release of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.
That's according to Andy Revkin, environment correspondent of the New York Times, and Max Boykoff of Oxford University. Both spoke at the Carbonundrums workshop on making sense of climate change reporting around the world, organized by Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Revkin himself was there only in the virtual form – he communicated via a weblink to save carbon emissions.
But despite an increase in coverage, climate change is still not an easy subject area for non-specialist media to get to grips with.
"It's a century-scale phenomenon, but editors are only interested in the things happening now," said Revkin, explaining why it can be difficult for science and environment correspondents to convince their papers to publish news about climate change.
And inconvenient complexities can get glossed over for front page stories, says Revkin. If the story is unfolding over a scale of centuries but you're trying to treat it as breaking news, he explained, you can lose the nuances.
Language is another tricky area. "Scientists speak in caution and probability, but not the kind of crisp commentary that's valued by the public, newspaper editors and policymakers," said Boykoff.
Added to these challenges comes the difficulty of interpreting output from groups that are trying to influence public opinion by putting their own spin on the science. An oil industry association in the US attempted to influence climate change reporting by spreading uncertainty about the causes of global warming, while environmental groups can tend to go the other way and highlight the most alarming elements of climate change.
In February 2007, for example, the UK's the Guardian newspaper reported that the American Enterprise Institute was offering payment of $10,000 to scientists for writing articles that emphasize shortcomings in the IPCC report.
A developing story
Ironically, climate change is receiving the least coverage in the media in developing countries – areas which have not contributed much to greenhouse gas emissions but which will be the first to suffer the worst effects of climate change.
Television is often the most trusted news source in developing countries, which is why James Painter, a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, has studied international television coverage of the IPCC working group II and III reports that came out in April and May of this year.
Painter looked at reporting on the most popular television stations in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Russia and South Africa – countries which are all among the top 20 emitters of carbon dioxide – and eight international 24-hour news channels. Of the six countries, there was a marked difference in the amount of coverage of the IPCC reports and in the awareness of climate change.
Brazil showed the most concern about climate change, while Russia was near the bottom of the league. There was no news in India, Mexico and Russia about either IPCC report on the main evening-news programme of each country's most popular television channel. China and South Africa reported on the working group II report – on the impact of climate change – and Brazil's most popular television station reported on both the impact and mitigation (working group III) reports.
Similarly, the impact report received more coverage on 24-hour news channels, winning an average of around three minutes' airtime, while the mitigation report was covered for roughly 1.5 minutes.
Painter believes that the greater coverage of the impact report may be because "doom and gloom" makes a better story. Alternatively, it might be that because mitigation is a more complex field to report on and mitigation-related pictures weren't readily available, or simply that the mitigation report came out on a busy news day.
Where the impact report was covered, its adaptation aspects received little or no mention. The report's full title was Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and any adaptation or mitigation stories that were used looked at case studies in the developed world – there were few positive illustrations of people involved in the strategies in developing countries. Painter sees this as a big opportunity for non-governmental organizations to produce media-friendly material about such projects in developing countries.
The next opportunity for analysing reporting of the IPCC's activities will be the release of its synthesis report on the fourth assessment, which is due in November at a conference in Valencia, Spain.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.