Covering climate change: reporting on the climate gets wider but shallower.

AuthorBlock, Ben

IN LATE NOVEMBER, A FEW WEEKS before world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to negotiate a climate treaty, thousands of personal e-mail messages and documents were stolen from a University of East Anglia private server. The unknown hackers revealed how some distinguished climate scientists doubted select data, avoided the occasional information request, and disdained climate change deniers.

The stolen files were posted on various conservative websites, and skeptics quickly circulated the conversations as evidence that climate change is all a fraud. Within two weeks, print, broadcast, and radio news worldwide reported on the "scandal," known as Climategate. CNN aired "Global Warming: Trick or Truth?" on the same day as the United Nations climate summit opened. The attempt at objectively reviewing both scientists' and skeptics' arguments resulted in no conclusion. "Again, not taking any stances," reporter Tom Foreman told the host.

Midway through the Copenhagen summit, five Associated Press reporters reviewed the hacked files themselves. They read 1,073 e-mails one by one--about 1 million words in total--and concluded that scientists "stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data, but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked." The impressive amount of time and resources that the AP invested for the story served the public good, but given the dire straits affecting most newsrooms, it was quite possibly the only news organization that could afford to do so.

The financial decline of traditional journalism organizations has stifled investigative and foreign news. While online news and social media are spreading more information more widely and rapidly, the growing lack of explanatory journalism may nonetheless result in a less informed public. The trend should be a concern for anyone dedicated to environmental sustainability. Journalism's economic adversity not only diminishes the ability of newsrooms to generate insightful, balanced reports on science-related topics such as climate change, it also limits our understanding of how governments and industry are responding to our global environmental crisis.

Ups and Downs

Before Climategate, most reporters and editors stopped covering climate change as a scientific controversy, but the episode tested whether journalists truly understood climate science. The widespread willingness to regard it as a matter of political debate, with two sides deserving equal attention, reflected a lack of journalistic progress.

In the science community, many criticized news coverage for succumbing to the back-and-forth debates adored by climate change deniers. "It was a total manipulation. The press reacted like lemmings--they jumped on it and it's a non-issue," said Columbia University paleoclimatologist Peter deMenocal.

Such poor scientific awareness, common throughout newsrooms, is not likely to improve anytime soon. Economically faltering news organizations across the industrialized world have downsized staff, shrunk content, and reduced coverage. PriceWaterhouseCoopers expects the global newspaper market to undergo a 2-percent annual decline through 2013 as advertisers spend their money elsewhere and readers turn to free online content. Although media markets are prospering in some places, such as India and Latin America, most European and U.S. print, broadcast, and radio newsrooms are grappling with smaller budgets.


Recent layoff trends in the media market suggest that science and environment reporters are often the first to lose their jobs. CNN, for instance, laid off its entire science and technology staff in 2008. In the United States, two decades ago nearly 150 newspapers included a science section; today fewer than 20 do. The remaining reporters are expected to cover stories such as climate change along with their regular reporting duties.

Many U.S. news organizations have also closed their foreign bureaus. Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll counted 141 U.S. newspaper foreign reporters in 2006, 47 fewer than in 2002 and likely many more than today. They instead practice "parachute journalism," temporarily traveling abroad to cover breaking news in places where they often lack the background, sources, or cultural sensitivities necessary to provide a fully contextualized story.

While CNN...

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