On Tuesday, the Yale Forum released the second part of the series, a turnabout with seven journalists—including CJR’s Curtis Brainard—who were asked the same “lessons learned” questions. Their answers revealed a realistic—indeed downright pessimistic—view of where we go from here: many noted that in fact there is no “journalistic community” or common approach; that media coverage is not necessarily journalism; that science journalists approached the story differently than political journalists; and that, as NPR’s Richard Harris put it, “the ‘climategate’ story was not a product of journalism, but activism.” Scientific American’s David Biello doubted that the journalistic community actually learned any lessons from the experience:
I’m not sure the climate journalism community has learned any lessons. In my view, we all continually repeat the mistakes of the past, either because of turnover that is bringing many ‘new’ to the beat into the coverage scheme who are trained in the classic he said/she said style. Or because us old-timers are set in our ways and continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
Veteran climate reporter Seth Borenstein of the AP had a bifurcated view: those who did a good job in the first place will learn from the experience and do better next time, but the opposite is true for those who did a bad job in the first place: “The trouble is—much like in disasters—the people who really need to learn are usually the ones who don’t. And those who work hard to be even better prepared the next time were not the problem cases to begin with.”
A more academic dissection of media coverage of the Copenhagen conference also came in a recent UK report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. The 148-page analysis found that about 10 percent of the media coverage in Copenhagen was on climate change science.
A number of journalists criticized the Oxford report as unrealistic in assuming that science coverage should be higher at an international meeting that was inherently focused on policy—and of course politics. “I believe this is a naive view that ignores the reality of why COP15 failed, and why future negotiations stand a high chance of failing as well. Science journalism (or the lack thereof) had very little to do with the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, and more of it in the future is exceedingly unlikely to lead to a different outcome,” wrote journalism professor and editor Tom Yulsman in a post on the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism blog.
MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charles Petit agreed, noting that “the action and thus the dramatic news was political. Ten percent on background science seems about right for news media interested in news.” But in a closer look at the report in his post Tuesday, Petit called the Reuters report “essential reading for people interested in science and environmental journalism.” One of the “eye-openers,” he said, was “stats on the stunning turnout by reporters from some nations rapidly moving from the developing world to the ranks of major powers, India and Brazil. Plus China.”
Indeed, one of the exciting developments at recent UN global climate change meetings has been the sponsorship of journalists from around the world through a non-profit network called the Climate Change Media Partnership. Such will be the case in Cancun as well. The Partnership has awarded fellowships to 35 journalists from 29 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, to cover the Mexico negotiations.
In many ways, the 2010 Cancun meeting, the sixteenth such conference, is likely to be a turning point. Many climate experts, as well as journalists, question whether the cumbersome UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will even survive after this in its current form.
In the future, the policy story will increasingly focus on bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and other countries, such as China, as well as efforts to get the powerful nations of the G-20, which covers about 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, to come to the table. Coverage of the accumulating scientific evidence documenting current impact and predicting what’s to come goes hand in hand with the policy. So, at the end of a decade of mounting international concern about climate change but little action, journalists covering climate need to settle in for the long haul. The problem certainly isn’t going away, and neither is the debate about what to do about it.