Copenhagen Watch: Bipolar Coverage Disorder?

With each announcement, media shift between optimism and pessimism

As the heads of state from 110 countries began to arrive at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen for the final high-level climate talks, news reports turned decidedly gloomy. Disorder and continuing uncertainty about the outcome of the negotiations reigned both inside and outside of the conference’s crowded Bella Center, according to media accounts. Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, as journalists scrambled to cover the official and unofficial proceedings, struggling for some sense of the prospects for resolving the deadlock over key issues by the meeting’s close on Friday.

“Many leaders are already here; and the deals, reportedly, are already being done,” BBC environment correspondent Richard Black wrote on his blog. “I say ‘reportedly’ because we journalists are working in even more of an information deficit than previously. When two or three prime ministers have a conversation, the dribbles of detail emerge much more slowly and with far more spin than when the ordinary negotiators are involved.”

Perhaps it is inevitable that when hordes of media descend on an international gathering of historic importance, covering every twist and turn, the coverage tends to follow a somewhat predictable arc. In the weeks preceding the Copenhagen summit, officials downplayed the prospects for a legally binding agreement and news outlets’ coverage of that rhetoric took an accordingly pessimistic tone. When the conference opened on December 7, there was an optimistic upswing amidst all the talk of “Hopenhagen”. But with so much at stake for competing interests in different parts of the world, the negotiations bogged down.

Today, as high-level talks begin among heads of state as well as assorted ministers and delegates from nearly 200 countries, the press has returned to the old “gloom and doom” scenario.

“Gloom has started turning to doom here at a climate change summit where failure is becoming the expectation and breakthrough would be the surprise outcome,” began a Toronto Star online story, based on Associated Press reports from Copenhagen. “Such is the state of play here in Copenhagen. Hope rises, then it comes crashing down again,” the piece from Canada’s largest newspaper and Web site noted.

“Chaos at climate conference,” headlined a story on “The Copenhagen climate change conference appeared to be imploding from within and exploding from without on Wednesday,” the lede by Glenn Thrush began.

A headline in an Indian paper, the Hindustan Times, was similiar: “Chaos and Deadlock Mar Climate Summit,” with “procedural chaos and a deep rift over substance.”

The fluctuating mood swings showed up in coverage of UN chief Ban Ki-moon. “UN signals delay for long-term climate aid,” declared a giant four-deck, front-page headline in today’s U.S. print edition of the Financial Times. In an exclusive interview yesterday, the Secretary-General suggested that Copenhagen might not come up with the aid from rich countries that the poorer countries have long insisted was crucial here—“an admission” that, the paper’s Fiona Harvey said, could “potentially scupper a broad-based agreement.”

But scarcely a day later came a switch: “Hopes of deal to help Third World nations cope with global warming” trumpeted The Times of London’s online story. The paper reported that after a closed-door meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “the U.N. Secretary-General raised hopes tonight of a long-term financing deal to help Third World nations cope with the effects of global warming - a move that could help rescue a UN summit trying to reach a wider climate change agreement.”

So we seem to be at the “can this marriage be saved?” stage of the summit, with only two days left to come up with a happy ending, a divorce, or—as seems likely—an agreement to hammer out the differences in 2010 with the help of intensive marriage counseling.
Here’s where things stood earlier today. Across the world, the message carried by the media was essentially the same: developing countries are putting the heat on world leaders to come up with more money for an emergency adaptation fund to help poor countries cope with climate change, while developed countries are insisting that major developing countries agree to binding agreements to cut down their own emissions. A good round-up piece by The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin sums up the chicken-and-egg aspect of the impasse thus far, and what’s at stake in the summit’s final days:

Delegates from poorer countries and from major emerging economies such as China have charged that wealthy nations have not put enough money on the table to persuade developing nations to sign on to any deal that would force them to curb their greenhouse gas emissions; industrialized nations counter that they cannot embrace any agreement that does not bind major emerging economies to emissions-monitoring procedures that can be verified from outside the country.

Meanwhile, Eilperin reported, Danish prime minster Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who is chairing the high-level sessions, exchanged barbs about procedural issues with China’s chief negotiator, Su Wei, while an unnamed “official from an industrialized nation” said “it’s not clear that China wants a deal.”

The one sign of seeming agreement, on a plan to reduce emissions through forest conservation, was itself a bone of contention—yet another example of how difficult it is to cover the front and back stories of climate change, giving the range of worldwide views on any given issue. A noisy video by The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin showed representatives of indigenous people inside the conference halls protesting the deal over forest conservation. The Times’s front-page story by Elisabeth Rosenthal about the forest conservation plan did not carry a word of skepticism about the wisdom of pursuing the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) strategy.

Other outlets were, appropriately, much more skeptical. The Guardian carried a good rundown of important details missing from the draft agreement. “Protection of natural forests does appear explicitly in the text for the first time, and a safeguard on conversion of natural forests to plantations has reappeared, but neither are mandated,” John Vidal noted. Kenya’s largest newspaper, the Daily Nation observed that arguments over “what constitutes a forest could undermine an agreement to protect forests.”

As such, The Nation’s EnviroNation blog rightly explained that although the Times had “breathlessly reported” the the forest conservation plan was all but signed, “the reality … is much more complex.” Indeed, two days ago the Associated Press’s Michael Casey had reported that “a lack of money could hurt” the forest deal, and that language calling for reducing deforestation 50 percent by 2020 had been struck from the text being considered. The Times of London reported Thursday, however, that “The conference was given another shot in the arm tonight when a group of developed nations, including Britain and the United States, announced $3.5 billion in fast start funding over the next three years towards slowing - and eventually halting - deforestation.”

Outside the Bella Center conference hall, where the summit is being held, the protests by thousands of activists at the lack of progress at the meeting were captured in graphic photographs and video (see footage at the U.K.’s Telegraph and BBC News) showing Copenhagen police in riot gear trying to contain the crowd.

Media coverage of the final days of the Copenhagen summit continues its crescendo, as an interesting timeline on Google depicts (about a seven-fold upswing in the number of sources covering this story over the past two days). Over at Twitter, the Purdue University’s Need4Feed tool shows the traffic has been intense for the past three days, hitting about 11,000 daily tweets Monday and Tuesday, and likely to go higher today (already at nearly 13,000 at 3:30 p.m. EST).

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

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.