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.

“It might be tempting to conclude that since we’re catching hell from both sides, on balance we’re probably getting it about right,” Yulsman wrote. “But I think the topic is too overwhelmingly complex, and there are too many people covering the issue in myriad ways (daily reporters, magazine writers, bloggers, documentarians, even formerly ink-stained-wretch academics like me), to make such a sweeping generalization.”

Indeed it is, which is why it’s been nice to see a few recent studies taking a closer look at climate coverage in order to determine exactly what is and isn’t a problem.

The most recent is a paper in Environmental Research Letters by researchers at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, including Boykoff. The team looked at how projections of rising sea levels—in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Assessment Reports and a sample of the scientific literature—were represented in 214 articles published in seven prominent United States and United Kingdom newspapers between 1989 and 2009. The answer: “with few exceptions … accurately.”

The value of such studies, which focus on a specific dimension of climate coverage, is that they get past the meaningless, broad-brush criticism permeating the blogosphere and help to identify where the problems truly lie. Last May, for instance, a paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change by William Freudenburg—a professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who passed away in December—charged that despite evidence to the contrary:

The U.S. mass media, reflecting in part the insistent arguments from a committed set of conservative think tanks, have tended for many years to report that “real” problems of global climate disruption might be less significant than indicated by consensus assessments such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But where in the mass media was this sanguine coverage coming from? Not from the stories about new scientific findings, the analysis found. Those stories tend to be treated as matters of pure science, quoting only scientists, and written by well-trained science journalists. By a margin of more than twenty-to-one, the 137 articles about new findings indicated the observed effects and implications of climate change were worse than was thought, rather than better. That fits with other recent analyses of the scientific literature, such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2009 Climate Change Compendium, which found that new research tended to show climate disruption was, or would be, more severe than expected in previous scientific consensus statements.

Freudenburg was a widely respected scholar in the field of climate communications, and his death is a blow for the field on par with the similarly untimely death of Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider last year (the Society of Environmental Journalists, of which he was a beloved member, has set up a nice memorial page). When I interviewed Freudenburg last fall, before he succumbed to a two-year-long battle with cancer, he explained that he thinks it is the climate-related policy stories, and the stories that follow major reports such as those from the IPCC, which tend to muddy the waters of public understanding by quoting ideologically oriented think tanks. This is problematic because such events tend to provide the dramatic narratives that drive coverage, as American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet pointed out in a blog post about the decline in climate coverage.

At any rate, Freudenburg’s conclusions about the predominance of science stories that report worse-than-thought climate findings should please critics like Romm and Johnson. The two recently criticized the press (justly, in this case) for botching a story about research at the University of California, Berkeley, which was released online in November and will be published this month in the journal Psychological Science.

The study’s basic conclusion was that dire messages about climate change reduce many people’s belief in global warming, and that was the takeaway message generally reported by the press. But there was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, the researchers were describing as “dire.”

The paper itself is partly to blame. Study participants were randomly assigned to read one of two newspaper-style articles about global warming. The articles were identical for the first four paragraphs, “providing information about he climate change reported by the IPCC,” but differed in their final two paragraphs. The researchers explained the difference in the final paragraphs like this:

The “dire message” article detailed devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming, while the “positive message” article focused on potential solutions to global warming, highlighting how technological ingenuity could potentially reverse the effects of global warming and find solutions to carbon emissions.

The problem, as Johnson pointed out (over the protestations of one of study’s authors), is that this is a very misleading description of the articles. Doing what reporters should have done, Romm obtained the text of the articles, which apparently wasn’t available online when the research was released. Doing so quickly revealed that the identical first four paragraphs did more that simply “provide information about climate change reported by the IPCC.” In fact, the fourth paragraph begins by stating, “The IPCC says many devastating consequences of global warming are possible, some of which we have already begun to feel,” and then goes on to make a series a worrisome statements about heat waves, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and the melting of ice sheets.

As Romm put it, the fourth paragraph is a “pretty damn dire” description of climate change, but not the “dire” message that the researchers were referring to. The one they were referring to was the scarier of the two alternate endings. Yet the “dire” ending did not, as the paper stated, “detail devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming.” Again, that was covered in the fourth paragraph. The big difference between the alternate endings was that, where the “positive” version said we can do something about global warming, the “dire” version said we can’t.

Unfortunately, most reporters seemed to think the “dire” message in the study referred to the standard scientific description of the observed and expected consequences of climate change, not the unusually pessimistic opinion that nothing can be done about it (and, as Romm wondered, is there anybody on the planet that actually uses that message?). Contrary to the feeling that one got from media reports, what the study really found, as Johnson nicely put it, is that “combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness” should be a successful messaging strategy.

Not that there’s a ton of good news to report, anyway. RealClimate.org methodically debunked a post from Forbes columnist Larry Bell accusing the media of ignoring the “good news” about climate change last year. RealClimate’s response is a great primer on the current state of the science, rebutting Bell’s assertions about low cyclone activity, ocean cooling, ice-cap growth, and sea-level stability, among others.

In light of such posts, more of the “recent-scientific-findings” articles highlighted by Freudenburg would surely be a good thing. But it is also worth considering Revkin’s point that ramping up coverage along that front alone isn’t likely to make the public more engaged. As he observed at Dot Earth:

The core of the climate problem lies in the reality that the world doesn’t have the energy options it needs for a smooth ride toward roughly 9 billion people by mid-century, all seeking decent lives.

So good reporters, those always eager to get to the root causes of a problem (being “radical” in the most precise sense of that word), will still track climate science. But they will devote more time and effort to diving deeper on energy policy, habits and innovations — whether unraveling counterproductive subsidies, pointing out the lack of money for path-breaking research, or revealing examples of social and financial innovations percolating around the world — any one of which could make a big difference if the information gets out and around.

Those are, of course, the kind of socio-politico-economic stories that Freudenburg worried about, which seem to create much more confusion and consternation than “pure” science articles. But into the breach reporters must go, regardless of the fact that their work will always displease somebody.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.