U.S. Climate Coverage in the '00s

Tracking global warming’s media profile

climate-changeAs we depart from the ’00s and enter a new decade, the multi-faceted issue of climate change remains a high-stakes, highly contentious and high-profile challenge for understanding and engagement. Mass media are vitally important to public understanding of climate change, as they translate what can often be alienating, jargon-laden, formal climate science and policy; they powerfully shape and negotiate meaning, influencing how citizens make sense of and value the world. Therefore, intensity of media attention has a strong bearing on considerations for various policy actions as well as the spectrum of possibility for public engagement.

From 2000 through 2009, coverage of “climate change” or “global warming” in five influential U.S. newspapers has followed a generally upward path, with a couple of major spikes. (See chart.) The uptick in 2001 related to the U.N. Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report release, along with the interim Conference of Parties (COP) climate talks and the G8 summit. The high-water mark of media attention in early 2007 can be attributed to a number of concurrent events: The highly influential IPCC Fourth Assessment Reports were released in stages over the first half of the year, while dramatically fluctuating oil and gasoline prices, along with continued discussions of Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, provided news hooks into climate change-related stories.

U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change & Global Warming

The relative volume of newspaper coverage at the end of the decade was approximately five times the amount paid the issue at the turn of the millennium. But the percentage of news coverage of the environment (of which climate change is a subset) across the U.S. media spectrum remained at just 1.5 percent at the end of this decade, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (12/9/09); on network TV and radio it has actually declined each year since 2007.

The stagnation from mid-2007 until December 2009 can be primarily attributed to intersecting influences: among them, media attention on the global economic recession contributed to a shrinking news hole for climate stories, where immediate worries regarding job security and economic well-being dominated the news through 2008. A public “caring capacity” for climate change was tested at this time, in the face of these pressing concerns. Stalled out climate-related news coverage was also compounded by the lack of large-scale Katrina-like disaster events that could be potentially hitched to the wagon of climate impacts. In a related point, the ’00s were marked by staggering newsroom cuts and layoffs, detrimentally affecting the ability of journalists covering science and the environment—including the “climate beat”—to do their work. (See p. 14.)

About six years ago in Extra! (11-12/04), I co-wrote an essay with my brother Jules Boykoff (associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University) that described our analysis of U.S. newspaper coverage of human contributions to climate change from 1988 through 2002. Our research revealed that coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal over this period significantly diverged from widespread agreement by many climate science communities that humans play a part in climate change. We attributed this mismatch in part to a misapplication of the journalistic norm of “balanced reporting.” The findings we described in the piece gained traction in science, policy, media and the public. For example, Al Gore cited the study in An Inconvenient Truth when discussing factors that have contributed to U.S. public confusion about various aspects of climate change.

While it was encouraging that our research seemed to illuminate ongoing discussions of the role of media in public (mis)understanding, the data were by then outdated, and in the intervening years, many scientists, journalists and policy researchers had commented to me that they felt this “balanced” coverage of anthropogenic climate change was no longer so pervasive in the U.S. When I examined coverage in the same U.S. papers from 2003 through 2006, I found that the informational bias we detected previously had indeed diminished, and was no longer significant in 2005 and 2006 (Area, 12/07).

This reflected a changing reality that included George W. Bush’s recognition in advance of the 2005 G8 summit that “the surface of the Earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem” (Greenwire, 7/6/05), and a joint statement by 11 leading international science bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, stating, “Most warming in recent decades can likely be attributed to human activities, largely from developed countries” (USA Today, 6/15/05). Hurricane Katrina was also linked in the public arena to climate change.

However, the studies mentioned here focused specifically on one facet of climate change-related issues: the question of whether humans contribute to climate change. As research by Naomi Oreskes has shown (Science, 2004), while there is widespread and convergent agreement in the scientific community on this topic, in other areas there is worthwhile, necessary and contentious debate and disagreement (e.g., what may go into a substantive treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol). All too often, media reports conflate this vast and varied terrain from environmental science to governance, from consensus to debate, as a generalized “global warming debate.” This kind of reporting breeds manipulation and confusion, and poorly serves the public audience.

Analyses of other U.S. media platforms show that the challenge of “false balance” remains problematic, particularly in television, which a 2009 Pew Research Center for People and the Press study (9/13/09) found is still the U.S. public’s most relied-upon source of news. When I looked at climate change coverage from 1995 through 2004 on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, as well as on CNN’s WorldView, Wolf Blitzer Reports and NewsNight, I found that “false balance” remained abundant (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10/07; Climatic Change, 01/08). And the recent media coverage of “Climategate” suggests that any improvements might remain tenuous, more widely. (See p. 6.)

Local TV news, which the public gave relatively high ratings for credibility in the Pew survey amidst generally declining faith in media institutions, could be an even greater challenge in terms of media representations of climate change. As a case in point, on a recent local TV report on climate change by WJAR, a Providence/New Bedford NBC affiliate (11/14/09), host R.J. Heim framed the segment:

Today, on Ten News Conference Special Assignment, global warming—fact or fiction? If it is happening, what’s the cause and what effect will it have on coastal areas like here in Southern New England?...If you listen to the opponents, they say man’s not the cause of global warming, it’s the Sun. And all the hype and hysteria is to keep scientists awash in their $50 billion of research grants they receive from governments and corporations over the past two decades. What’s really going on?...We have both sides covered.

Maxwell T. Boykoff is an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder.


Global Warming Coverage in Global Perspective

While these analyses were limited to leading U.S. papers, some of my students and I have done similar studies in other country contexts. In the U.K., for instance, while coverage in the Times, Guardian and Independent was found to accurately represent human contributions to climate change (Area, 12/07), coverage in tabloid newspapers—the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror—gave inordinate space to contrarian and minority views that humans’ role in climate change is negligible (Environmental Research Letters, 4-6/08). This divergence was not evident in research by Simon Billett into leading Indian papers from 2002 to 2007 (Climatic Change, 3/10).

Also, my ongoing media monitoring of climate change and global warming from 50 newspapers in 20 countries with Oxford’s Maria Mansfield shows that newspapers in Europe, Asia and Oceania have increased coverage much more rapidly than in North America (Center for Science and Technology Research, 11/09). These trends are instructive, as policy negotiators could view the changing volume of coverage as a proxy for public interest in climate change causes and consequences.