“The battle of the drafts has begun,” The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin announced at the top of her Friday article about the international climate treaty negotiations taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark. A proposal by an official U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ad-hoc working group and another by a group of small island states were the big news on Friday. “[T]here was a mad rush by reporters to get their hands on the texts,” Eilperin added in a post at the paper’s Post Carbon blog:

The document center wouldn’t give them out to anyone with a press pass, so journalists had to plead for hard copies from their sources. One reporter complained about the situation at a news conference today held by the UNFCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer, who runs the talks.

“Well, people seem to be getting really good at leaking in this place,” de Boer quipped, referring, among other things, to the unauthorized distribution earlier in the week of a Danish draft plan.

Thankfully, the Post was able to acquire the draft UNFCCC (pdf) and group of small island nations (pdf) proposals, and posted them online. The former calls for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, suggests a range of emission reduction targets for developed and developing countries alike (from 25 to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), and calls on developed countries to provide “fast-start” funding over the next three years to help developing countries deal with climate change. The draft proposal from forty-three small island nations calls for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and sets a goal for developing nations to reduce their emissions by “at least 45 percent” by 2020 while they make “significant deviations from baselines.” [Update: The Guardian reports that the UN draft has failed to “win over” developing nations and that delegates have made “little progress on key issues such as finance for a deal, despite [its] publication.”]

With leaks of the first official draft proposals and delegates settling into serious negotiations about key points, it is a shame that there haven’t been more explanations in the media about how the treaty process actually works. One of the only examples was a wonderful primer that BBC environment correspondent Richard Black posted at his Earth Watch blog on Wednesday, which explained the four groups handling key “tracks” at the summit: a new agreement for “long term cooperative action,” the existing Kyoto Protocol, implementation of any new agreement, and science and technological advice.

Black followed up with another excellent post on Thursday that discussed other channels for news gathering, and commented at length on the reporting challenges inherent in such a large conference. It is the best assessment of the journalist’s dilemma in Copenhagen that we’ve seen yet and worth quoting at length:

Most of the real deals are done behind closed doors guarded by security guys with stern faces and impressive pectorals.

That’s where the important countries and blocs reveal more of their real demands, where trades are bartered between national delegations.

Reporting it is a nightmare.

Who do you know who might have an insight? If the answer is “no-one”, then who do you know who might know someone who might have an insight, and have their mobile number to hand?

Once you connect with that person, can you trust what they’re telling you? Are they spinning you a line, and if so, what might the reason be?

Over time, you build up relationships with certain delegations and with people close to certain delegations, and you work out a kind of modus operandi that gets you some of the information you’ll need.

In smaller gatherings that I’ve reported on - such as some of the fisheries meetings, where far fewer than 192 countries are represented and many of them are bit-part players - you feel reasonably confident of having a line on everything important that’s going on.

Not here; it’s impossible. Some journalist somewhere knows something you don’t, you can guarantee that; and you just hope it’s not more important than the thing you know that they don’t.

What most journalists want to know right now, of course, is how much money rich countries are willing to spend to help developing countries deal with the dangers of global warming. On that front, there have been no major scoops. Scores of outlets covered George Soros’s suggestion that $100 billion from the International Monetary Fund be used to support developing countries. An even greater number of outlets homed in on U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern’s comment that China’s is too flush for it to merit financial assistance from the West (a position China called “irresponsible”).

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, our online critique of science and environment reporting. Russell, a CJR contributing editor, 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.