Climate coverage rebound?

Maybe, but the press has a long way to go

There are signs that climate-change coverage is poised for a rebound after three years of decline, experts say, but the media continue to pay it scant attention, and a lot would need to happen in 2013 to change that.

Last week, The Daily Climate, a website that tracks stories about climate change, released the annual analysis of its global English-language media archive, which found a 2.4 percent decline in 2012 from 2011. But with a database of 18,000 posts, that’s probably within the margin of error, according to the site’s editor Douglas Fischer, and for the first time, his results didn’t gibe with those of other leading researchers.

The University of Colorado’s Max Boykoff, who has tracked climate coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times since 2000, charted about a 42 percent year-to-year uptick at the five papers in 2012. Radford University’s Bill Kovarik told Fischer he measured a 10 percent overall rise at those papers, minus the Los Angeles Times. And Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, who has tracked climate coverage on NBC, CBS, and ABC since the 1980s, said that the networks had almost doubled their coverage, producing 29 stories in 2012 compared with 15 in 2011.

Those numbers are reassuring, especially since they attempt to measure total production at each outlet. The Daily Climate surveys more outlets, but its database is compiled from customized daily searches, and its reports stress that “the aggregation is meant to provide a broad sampling of the day’s coverage, not a comprehensive list.”

Still, critics should hold their applause.

“Coverage is up this year, but it is not at the historical highs we saw in the past,” Brulle says. “Two times almost nothing equals not much. I ran out an average from 1997 to 2012, and the average is 46 stories per year. So 2012 is below average.”

Changing that requires more than severe droughts and superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, according to Brulle.

“What you do see is a lot of coverage of extreme weather, which is understandable,” he says. “But it is important to realize that media is reactive to events and politicians. So what we see is a response to extreme weather, and nothing else. That is because the political elites were silent on climate change. There was nothing to report there. Obama’s silence on climate change shows in the lack of any coverage of the political dynamics of climate change.”

Following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, Obama did, after a presidential campaign that was silent on the issue, begin to talk about climate change again, but only tentatively. While he mentioned it in his press conference this week, for instance, he did so briefly, and he ignored the subject entirely while talking about energy on Meet the Press at the end of December.

Boykoff agreed that a confluence of events, including more action in government, would be necessary to revive the climate story. For The Daily Climate’s analysis, he told Fisher that, “climate reporting generally falls into four main themes—political, scientific, meteorological, and cultural—and that coverage intensifies and is sustained when events cross one or more boundaries.”

Boykoff’s outlook on climate coverage was more positive than Brulle’s, however. With Sandy brining the subject back into the nation’s sociopolitical discourse, and with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report and the United States National Climate Assessment both coming out later this year, he thinks “there are great possibilities coming together for sustained media attention in 2013.”

Fischer was also guardedly optimistic, pointing to a provocative cover story about Hurricane Sandy in Businessweek in November, and to a hour-long documentary, “The Coming Storms,” that CNN debuted on Sunday night (there will be an encore January 12).

“To me, those are signs that we have perhaps turned a corner from that post-Copenhagen, post-Climategate drop-off,” he says, referring to the failed UN climate summit in 2009 and a cache of leaked emails that embarrassed climatologists right before the summit without revealing any wrongdoing. “It’s hard to read trends, but I do think that climate might start to rebound as a news priority.”

Like Brulle and Boykoff, however, Fischer believes more than a few stars will have to align to make that happen.

“It seems like we had a mile’s worth of news in 2012, but climate coverage moved an inch, if that,” he says. “So, what will it take to make it a bigger story in 2013?”

The best answer, it seems, is a lot science, a lot of political and social interest, more severe weather (unfortunately), and no small amount of magic in the press.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,