Climate change press’ pseudo boom

The Daily Climate reports a 30-percent spike in global warming coverage during 2013; social scientists disagree that the figure signals a rebound

Last week The Daily Climate released the its annual review of climate change coverage—a tally of major stories, by publication and topic, that the news service aggregated for readers over the course of 2013. The Daily Climate’s aggregation gives its readers “a broad sampling” of the day’s stories on climate change (as in, it’s not meant to be a comprehensive tracking), so the rundown isn’t meant to be statistically significant.

Still, the differences in the numbers year-by-year offer a broad overview of coverage and interesting subject and publication breakdowns. Though the last few years have seen diminishing coverage of global warming in the press, according to the Daily Climate’s Douglas Fischer, 2013 saw a jump in coverage of about 30 percent. In 2013 the Daily Climate’s staff aggregated about 24,000 news articles, which, while not 2007’s high of almost 29,000 stories, is a big jump from the 18,546 pieces the site posted in 2012.

Beyond the uptick in overall coverage, the figures showed, surprisingly, that most publications were increasing coverage of climate change and more journalists are covering the subject (8,825 to be exact, a 23-percent jump from 2012.) In fact, The New York Times, whose coverage dropped 10 percent in 2013 after dismantling its green desk was the only major publisher to have coverage drop:

Most major outlets gave climate and energy issues far more ink in 2013 than 2012: Bloomberg News was up 133 percent, the Globe and Mail doubled its reporting, USA Today boosted its effort 48 percent and stories in the Wall Street Journal, Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Post each were up 40 percent, according to The Daily Climate’s archives.

Though it would be tempting to interpret these numbers, like several news organizations have, as signaling a rejuvenation of climate change reporting, the numbers don’t mesh with the work of social scientists. At the University of Colorado, Max Boykoff, who since 2000 has tracked climate coverage in the top five newspapers in the United States—The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post—found a drop in coverage in 2013. And Robert Brulle, a social scientist at Drexel University who monitors climate coverage on television news, said his preliminary data (measuring through the end of November 2013) found 30 stories, just a single story more than in 2012, which Brulle said was “statistically just a write off.”

The bulk of The Daily Climate’s increase came from energy stories—the site recorded over twice as many climate-related stories containing the word “pipeline” and or the word “fracking” as in 2012. While The Daily Climate counts these pieces as climate change coverage, both Boykoff and Brulle only include a story if it explicitly mentions the phrase “climate change” or “global warming.”

“I don’t think they’re drawing firm lines about what is a climate change story and what is not,” Brulle said of the aggregation site.

After discovering the dramatic increase in Fischer’s figures when the two researchers compared notes late last year, Brulle experimented with including the words “pipeline” and “fracking” in his search of television news archives—and pulled an additional four stories. But the stories he found had little, explicitly, to do with global warming. “I got the transcripts and it was all about the danger of oil spills or fracking in someplace in Nebraska,” he said. “They didn’t have a single mention of climate change.”

But Fischer sees the increase in energy reporting as filling in an important link between the causal and impacts stories of climate change. “It wasn’t unrelated,” he said. “We saw more energy reporting that was connecting some dots between energy choices and climate impact and energy choices and emissions…if there’s a story about getting universities to divest from carbon-based funds, their searchers are not going to pick that up, but we see that as a climate story.”

Brulle thinks that such inclusions blur the boundaries between environmental reporting and explicit reporting on climate change. “Unless there’s some kind of reference to global warming in the story, I don’t count it. [Boykoff] doesn’t count it,” he said. “Telling me the Schuylkill River is getting polluted or that there are endocrine disruptors related to fracking is an environmental story—not a climate change story.”

But according to Fischer, a perfect storm of energy issues have fundamentally changed the beat, fueling interest in climate change with the increased coverage. “You have, that essentially tied the keystone pipeline to climate change, and at the same time you have Inside Climate News, this tiny little website—they don’t even have a newsroom—that wins the Pulitzer for their coverage last year of diluted tar sands product. And I think a lot of reporters are including that extra little dot to connect these stories to climate change; they weren’t doing that in 2010.”

Fischer’s explanations of his inclusion logic mirror the predictions of the New York Times when it canceled its Green Blog last year—namely that climate change had ceased to become a solely environmental story, and should merge with the work of reporters covering economics and energy. But without the explicit use of two little words, “climate change,” it’s hard to predict how expanded coverage of energy issues will influence public perception of global warming.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , ,