News of climate change media death is greatly exaggerated

Abandoning my initial resolve, I’ll join in the attempts to explain why media coverage of climate change continues to display an inverse relationship to its news value.

Figures for 2011 were published on Wednesday by The Daily Climate, an aggregate news site with a rigorous content classification method, not dissimilar to that pioneered by OneWorld in 1997.

Whilst properly acknowledging the imperfections inevitable in this type of analysis, the editor of TDC concludes that coverage was down 20% on 2010 and 42% on 2009.

The most interesting reaction is under way on Joe Romm’s blog, Climate Progress. Here and elsewhere there is speculation that climate change is a story with nothing new to say, that environmental journalists are being silenced by lily-livered editors and that editors are being nobbled by sceptical owners.

My theory is that climate change coverage is not reducing at all but that much of it is no longer captured by the traditional US-centric view of the topic, as reproduced in the TDC classification matrix.

This sees climate change as a never-ending battle between the science, the evidence and the necessary response, largely through the eyes of the industrialised world.

I can best illustrate what I’m trying to say by reference to my own 33 articles published during 2011 in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News. I reckon 30 of these were about climate change but that over 20 might have escaped the TDC counter (had we been included).

This is because they address issues of poverty, food, forests, energy and population in developing countries – all of which are intimately bound up with the impact of global warming.

As a response in Treehugger rightly put it:

Climate change, frankly, is the story of our time. It is in the process of changing just about everything about the world as we know it.

Rather than dwell on this slippery subject, I’ll pick up on the most shocking data in the TDC survey – that the three network news TV stations in the US managed “total air time of 32.5 minutes in 2011,” an average of just over ten minutes each.

OneClimate team working late at Durban climate conference

OneClimate team working late at Durban climate conference © Sara Penrhyn-Jones

My colleagues from OneClimate delivered a three-hour live news webcast from the December Durban climate change conference every day.

During the year, with help from our partners, we produced similar coverage from two important climate change conferences in Bangladesh and two in the UK. Our directors even uploaded climate interviews with very unusual suspects from the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The snag of course is that the audience for ten minutes on a US news channel probably exceeded that for all those hours of our endeavours.

This is going to change. When the broadcasting technology divide is eventually bridged, the new audiences from developing countries are rather less likely to channel-hop stories about climate change.

Stephen Leahy, the stalwart freelance contributor to IPS News, hints at what may lie ahead in his reply on the TDC site:

reporters from developing and non-English-speaking countries are making up an increasingly larger share of the press room. As a North American reporter in Durban and Cancun (UN climate conferences), I felt pretty lonely.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK