Had the annual climate change summits sponsored by the United Nations fallen out of favor with Western journalists? That was the question on my mind when I arrived at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University earlier this year to research coverage of the meetings following the Copenhagen conference in December 2009.
Most of the climate correspondents I know that are working for mainstream media in Europe did not go to Cancun or Durban, the two summits following Copenhagen. I had not even attended myself. My colleagues and I were not alone, however. My research soon revealed that journalists from developing countries are now far more numerous at climate change summits than those from developed countries.
For the 16 years preceding Cancun, more than 80 percent of the journalists reporting these conferences came mainly from Europe, the US, Japan and Canada. But Cancun—otherwise known as COP16—saw a reversal of that dynamic, with 55 percent of the reporters from the Global South. This increased to 66 percent in Durban, while those from developed countries dwindled to 34 percent.
The decline of European media attendance is astonishing. European journalists have passed from representing the largest group at all the summits held until Copenhagen, to almost an endangered species. They have dropped from representing 60 percent of the attendance at Copenhagen, to 22 percent in Cancun and 19 percent in Durban. While a number of large developing countries, such as China, India, or Bangladesh, maintained their media presence after Copenhagen—even when expectations for an international agreement were much lower—European countries that traditionally sent a cohort of climate correspondents, such as France, Germany, Spain or the UK, drastically reduced their numbers.
The group of Chinese journalists in Durban, with almost 90 representatives, was larger than any from Europe; there were more journalists from India than from any other single European country, except Germany and the UK; and more came from Bangladesh than from France or Spain.
These new trends raise several questions. For example, does more media attendance from developing countries mean better quality climate news in the vulnerable Global South? I chose to maintain my focus on Europe, and particularly on the significant numbers of climate correspondents in the region that did not attend the last two conferences. The main questions I asked them were: How do you cover from your office in Berlin or London a climate summit that is happening in Mexico or South Africa? And how does that affect the coverage?
I interviewed seven experienced reporters working for mainstream outlets in Western European countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), all of whom used to attend climate summits until Copenhagen and now cover them from afar.
In addition to media organizations downsizing and making budget cuts, all their editors argued that as expectations were lower and there were fewer Heads of State attending Cancun or Durban, it was not worth spending money to send a correspondent abroad for at least a week. The irony is that it was in both of these Conferences that the final agreements, though modest, were nevertheless more noteworthy than those reached in Copenhagen.
Among others, parties agreed in Cancun to limit emissions from deforestation or to create a Green Climate Fund in poor countries, while Durban adopted a management framework for that fund and made significant progress on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.
For most of these European journalists, reporting these events from their desks meant writing fewer stories about international negotiations on climate change and related issues. In fact, five of the seven submitted only a couple of stories about Durban as a result of not being there. Compare this with their experience while attending previous summits—not only did it mean covering climate change issues before, during and after the conference, but also reporting about local climate stories in the host country.
In most of the outlets represented by these reporters, climate change coverage has seen a dramatic reduction in terms of copy and broadcast minutes, at least during the autumn period when these events take place. Additionally, the lack of interest by editors in climate negotiations has been accompanied by less interest in the subject of climate change in general during the rest of the year.
Six of the seven interviewees also indicated they used different sources from those they used when they attended. They relied on news agencies and phone calls, mainly to national speakers, as the main sources for their stories; in contrast, when they went to the summit, they could draw on a wider variety of international sources. Furthermore, they made limited use of new media to gather information about what was happening at the summits. None of them used citizen journalism to glean what was going on in Durban, and less than a half followed Twitter for that purpose.
It is “beyond doubt” for the majority of these journalists that reporting about these events from afar meant less accuracy; lack of understanding of the complex negotiations; poorer contextualization; a lack of atmosphere; fewer human stories; and as a result, all agreed that the quality of their stories was seriously affected by not being where the news was happening.
There was a general consensus among these reporters that environment journalists have some responsibility for climate change not being treated with the same urgency in European mainstream media after Copenhagen. They feel that some of their stories were too alarmist and more focused on potentially devastating consequences rather than possible local solutions; that in most cases they overreacted to ‘Climategate’; that too much space was given to climate sceptics; or that they did not appropriately balance the opinions given by scientists and politicians—leaving their audience unclear as to which had more weight or merit.
However, it is worth considering that in this new European media era where outlets generally use a new notion of news defined more by immediacy and the hour of the day, complex issues that require relentlessly regular coverage over long periods face an even greater challenge.
None of the climate journalists I have talked to believe that a difference in climate change will emerge from a global forum like a UN summit, but more likely from action at the local level. However, media presence in the places where decisions are taken seems necessary to help maintain pressure on governments and to engage citizens already suffering ‘climate fatigue’ after years of communication failure from journalists, politicians, scientists, and environmentalists around this immensely challenging issue that is the future of the planet.