Celebrity and sports stories are three times more common in the mainstream media than environment stories, according to a new report, which found that environmental coverage constituted just 1.2 percent of the news in the 17 months from January 2011 through May 2012.

The report, from the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage (PIEC), is based on data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which does a weekly survey of the top stories at newspapers, news sites, on television, and on the radio. PIEC, a nonprofit advocacy organization, focused on 46 of those outlets for its analysis, which revealed weak enthusiasm for the green beat.

On average, local newspapers devoted the largest share of their news hole to the environment (2.9 percent), followed by national newspapers (2.0 percent), online news (1.3 percent), evening network news (1.2 percent), radio news (1.1 percent), cable news (0.8 percent), and morning network news (0.2 percent).

Where individual newsrooms are concerned, the top three local papers were the Daily Herald in Everett, WA (7.3 percent); the Traverse City Record in Michigan (6.4 percent); and the Spokesman Review in Spokane, WA (5.8 percent). Among the nationally oriented outlets of all types, the top 10 were:



Local newspapers were the only media group that paid more attention, on average, to the environment than to entertainment. Most of the other groups gave celebrities and sports two to three times more coverage, and morning network news gave them 27 times more coverage. On an individual basis, only a handful of nationally oriented outlets gave the environment more or the same amount of space, including:



The Pew Research Center only tracks newspapers’ front pages, websites’ homepages, and the first half-hour of TV and radio broadcasts. So the results don’t reflect outlets’ overall productivity, but rather what they are prioritizing. In addition, Pew excludes any newspaper content that is “solely local,” counting only stories of national or international interest, which means that some of the environmental content it found in local papers could have come from newswires. More importantly, there is the distinction between quantity and quality.

PIEC’s report stresses that while Fox News produces a lot of environment stories, it doesn’t have the most sterling reputation among scientists. The project’s director, Tyson Miller, made the same point in a call with the press, emphasizing that, “Fox has been criticized and documented for having some pretty extreme biases when it comes to environmental reporting, and for having some misleading content.”

There’s also the matter of the various types of shared and aggregated content. The Pew Research Center codes for “story format,” which “designates, at a basic level, whether the news story is a product of original reporting, or drawn from another news source,” but it doesn’t seem to exclude any reports on that basis. So, there’s no telling how much fluff was caught in the net.

The Huffington Post may be the greenest of all nationally oriented outlets according to the study, for example, and it does have a very good environment desk, but it pads its content with a lot of crossposts and loose rewrites of other outlets’ work.

As discouraging as the low levels of commitment to environmental coverage may be, however, PIEC focuses on opportunities for improvement and innovation and outlined a number of general ideas and suggestions in its report. Last February, the project released a “vision” statement that called on media organizations to “integrate the environmental angle into other stories and make that connection explicit, make environmental stories appealing to a larger cross section of society, focus more on solutions, and increase the visibility of environmental stories.”

As I wrote at the time, it’s a classic case of “easier said than done,” especially in light of recent news that The New York Times is dismantling its environment desk and that reporters on the green beat have become an endangered species at other major papers as well.

Yet all hope is not lost. Miller expressed optimism about the “indy” news sites Environmental Health News and Yale Environment 360 that are picking up some of the slack, and science blogs, which often cover environmental stories, are flourishing. PIEC plans to take a closer look at those sources in future reports, which will provide a more complete map of the media’s green shoots and brown patches.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.