2010 was “the year climate coverage ‘fell off the map,’” The Daily Climate, a website that tracks related news and media stories, reported last Wednesday.
The assertion, based on a review of the site’s own database as well as others assembled by Drexel University’s Robert Brulle and the University of Colorado’s Maxwell Boykoff, is just one of a string of recent findings about trends in the quantity and quality of climate coverage. The findings have, in turn, provoked a fascinating online discussion about the state of the beat in the dawn of 2011.
“After spiking upward in response to Copenhagen talks and the ‘climategate’ uproar,” Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer reported, “media coverage of climate change plummeted to levels last seen in 2005 ”
The number of English-language climate articles published worldwide declined 30 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to The Daily Climate’s archives, which “extend reliably back to 2007.” The number of reporters producing those articles dropped 22 percent as well. Brulle and Boykoff found similarly precipitous declines when they looked at climate coverage on the three major networks and in the country’s five largest newspapers, respectively.
The trend is unmistakable—but at his New York Times Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin asked whether or not the “climate news snooze matters?” As Revkin took pains to explain, he is not unconcerned about the lack of coverage.
“The latest studies illuminating the human influence on climate, and the importance of climate to human affairs, are vital to track,” he wrote.
“But it’s clear from the work of Dan Kahan and Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale, among others, that simply describing those findings more frequently or even more powerfully (on the front page or nightly news) doesn’t matter much, given the human tendency to sift and select information to suit preconceptions.”
Revkin might have stressed that the press is still one of the most influential channels of information feeding the public, but his point was that it is not omnipotent. He and other journalists have grown rightfully piqued by those who blame the media almost exclusively for the public’s poor understanding of climate change, and even more so by bloggers’ withering attacks on their professional integrity and the quality of their work.
“[D]uring this past year, environmental journalists have been the subject of lots of criticism, often vituperative, from both sides in the climate change wars,” wrote Tom Yulsman, the co-director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in a blog post sporting a large picture of Rodney Dangerfield (who also got no respect).
“If you read any number of partisan climate bloggers who claim to carry the torch of scientific truth, we’re mostly stupid, we’re hopelessly biased, we’re carrying water for warmist scientists, or we’re stenographers who copy down whatever the denialists have to say because we’re too dumb to know what false balance is.”
Journalists like Revkin and Yulsman seem more surprised by the vicious criticism from the left, which is a more recent phenomenon, than from the right. They grew accustomed to the latter because that’s where it came from first. The reason, of course, is that professional journalists like Revkin and Yulsman were largely responsible for jacking up coverage of (and public awareness about) climate change during the first decade of the new millennium, even if it was from dismal to meager levels. The thanks they get is placement on lists like Joe Romm’s Citizen Kane Award for Non-Excellence in Climate Journalism.
It’s not that Romm’s criticisms are always off the mark (as I’ll discuss in a moment). But the tenor of his posts and the conversations he inspires frequently verge of the same kind of fantastical accusations that the “other side” made famous. Take Romm’s colleague at the Center for American Progress, Brad Johnson, who left the following comment below the Citizen Kane Award post:
The interesting question, of course, is to understand *why* the journalism is so bad. For the explicit propaganda organs (FoxNews, Watts) it’s easy to understand — they have a partisan, pro-pollution agenda. But NYT and BBC don’t. They demonstrate the influence of the less visible efforts of the propaganda campaign against climate science — particularly the influence of economists, for whom global warming doesn’t exist, or even for ones like Stern and Krugman, the damages are entirely manageable even under catastrophic scenarios.
There’s also the enviro-journalist cabal that have complicated reasons for muddying the science, that reflect decades of being manipulated by propagandists.
Like Romm, Johnson does dish out constructive media criticism from time to time, but the business about a “cabal” is just nonsense. Moreover, the arguments from Revkin and Yulsman, who started covering climate change at the same publication in the early 1980s, are by no means exculpations of journalism’s foibles and flaws.