Climate Coverage Crashes

Downward spiral in English-language news media continued in 2011

Twelve months ago, The Daily Climate, a website that produces and tracks media stories about climate change, declared that 2010 was “the year climate coverage ‘fell off the map.’” The downward spiral continued in 2011, a more recent analysis by the site found.

The number of articles, blog posts, editorials, and op-eds “declined roughly 20 percent from 2010’s levels and nearly 42 percent from 2009’s peak” according to a review of The Daily Climate’s global English-language media archive. According to a post about the findings by the site’s editor, Douglas Fischer:

The declining coverage came amid bouts of extreme weather across the globe - historic wildfires in Arizona, drought in Texas, famine in the Horn of Africa - and flashes of political frenzy. Australia’s approval of a carbon tax, the U.S. presidential election, a Congressional inquiry into the failed solar startup Solyndra all generated significant coverage within the mainstream press, but it was not enough to stem the larger trend.

Coverage dropped almost across the board among the top climate news producers. “Reuters, perennially the most prolific outlet for climate news, was again the top source in 2011,” The Daily Climate found, but even at more than three stories per day, its output was down 27 percent from 2010. The New York Times placed second, with a 15 percent decline. The Guardian was third, with a 21 percent decline. The Associated Press was fourth, with a 17 percent decline. And E&E News was fifth, with a 29 percent decline.

[Update: It’s important to note that these results are based on a review of The Daily Climate’s archives and not the various outlets’ actual productivity. As Fischer noted in his post, the site’s “aggregation is meant to provide a broad sampling of the day’s coverage, not a comprehensive list.” In addition, some outlets such as E&E News keep much of their content behind a pay wall. Thus, the rankings may not be perfectly accurate.]

There were a couple exceptions to the trend Down Under. The Sydney Morning Herald placed sixth overall in total output, with a 21 percent jump from 2010. And the Australian Broadcasting Corporation increased its climate coverage by 60 percent. In aggregate, however, the picture was dismal:

Last year at least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published some 19,000 stories on climate change, compared to more than 11,100 reporters who filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to

The decline was seen across almost all benchmarks measured by the news service: 20 percent fewer reporters covered the issue in 2011 than in 2010, 20 percent fewer outlets published stories, and the most prolific reporters on the climate change beat published 20 percent fewer stories.

Particularly noticeable was the silence from the nation’s editorial boards: In 2009, newspapers published 1,229 editorials on the topic. Last year, they published less than 580 - half as many, according to’s archives.

In 2011, the five most prolific climate writers, in descending order, were the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin and Matthew Wald, the BBC’s Richard Black, and Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn. But “the pool of most-productive climate reporters - those writing at least 30 stories a year, or about a story every 12 days,” dropped to fifty-five from sixty-six in 2010 and eighty-six in 2009, Fischer wrote.

Other media analyses support The Daily Climate’s findings. The University of Colorado’s Maxwell 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 a downward trend at the five papers in 2011.

And Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, who has tracked climate coverage on NBC, CBS, and ABC since the 1980s, told Fischer that the three network news stations broadcast 14 climate change stories with a total air time of 32.5 minutes in 2011, down from 32 stories and 90.5 minutes in 2010 and well below the 2007 peak of 147 segments totaling 386 minutes. “It’s an enormous drop,” Brulle said.

Asked what might explain the drop, Fischer said he couldn’t provide a definitive answer, but guessed that the amount of coverage hinged largely on the actions of “thought leaders.” In an e-mail he wrote:

You saw a huge spike in 2007 because Al Gore and Hollywood took up the cause; the IPCC’s Nobel-winning 4th assessment simply fanned the flames. In 2009, the world’s leaders got personally involved in the Copenhagen talks, again generating a huge pulse of interest and coverage.

In 2010 and 2011, that kind of high-level involvement was absent. Obama got behind health care and dropped climate, Hollywood and the cultural elite never really got involved, and - to a certain extent - economic woes trumped everything else.

Boykoff agreed, writing in an e-mail that there was no “big political, cultural, or scientific event that provided a safety net for the overall fall of climate coverage in the media.” He added that there were also fewer specialists available to mend holes in the net, highlighting the case of Margot Roosevelt, a top-notch former environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times who received a layoff notice in July while working on a climate-change story in the Arctic.

The decline in climate coverage may not be as dire, or even apparent, in non-English speaking countries. Stephen Leahy, a Toronto-based environmental journalist who writes for the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) and other outlets, penned a letter to The Daily Climate which complimented its review but pointed out that “there is more to the story.” Referring to the international climate-change summits in South Africa in 2011 and Mexico in 2010, he wrote:

As anyone who has spent time at the past two United Nations talks can attest, 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, I felt pretty lonely.
Most media surveys don’t look at journalism in India, China, Brazil, Mexico or Africa, where coverage of the issue has recently—and rapidly—increased. Having been lucky to travel to many of these places, I’m learning that some of the best coverage on climate is now coming from outside of Europe and North America.

Another consolation, such as it is, is that the number of unique visitors to The Daily Climate doubled in 2011, and it received 4 million page views over the course of the year, according to Peter Dykstra, the site’s publisher.

That could be a sign that although the media isn’t producing as much climate coverage these days, the public is still out there looking for it. Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll released last month found a “modest rise” over the last two years in the number of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming and that it is a “very serious” problem. Hopefully, climate coverage will see a similar uptick in 2012.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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