LONDON — Unsurprisingly, climate change was one of the most popular topics at the World Conference of Science Journalists, held here last week. As I’ve argued many times, ups and downs in the coverage thereof have been a big part of the story itself, not unlike the coverage of war in Iraq.

There was still plenty to say at the London gathering, however. World leaders (not to mention scientists, industries, and interest groups) are gearing up for the big climate show in Copenhagen this December, where they hope to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Domestic and international political wrangling has been fierce since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report two years ago. At the London conference, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri called that report a “watershed” for global media coverage of climate change.

Indeed it was. At the conference, Cristine Russell, a CJR contributing editor, and Max Boykoff, a researcher at Oxford University, individually presented data showing a spike in climate coverage in U.S. following the IPCC report in 2007; a decline in 2008, probably due to the presidential election; and an uptick in the first quarter of 2009, most likely due to the expectation of the Copenhagen meeting.

Nonetheless, “As we approach the Copenhagen summit, you could argue that there hasn’t been very much coverage,” said BBC science correspondent David Shukman, who moderated a panel about “gearing up” for the meeting. One of his interlocutors was David King, who heads the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University and served as the British government’s chief scientific advisor from 2000 to 2007.

“I’d like to see more coverage on the approach being taken by leading nations in the negotiations and why they are taking these positions,” King said. He would like the press to take a critical look at the governments of Canada and Japan in particular, which he accused of working to block a new, international climate pact. King’s remarks inspired a short article in the Times of London the following day, which addressed some of his concerns.

Following up on King, Damian Carrington, who heads the Guardian’s environment Web site, summed up his publication’s three-pronged approach to Copenhagen coverage. This involves presenting the science (“in some ways, the easiest task,” according to Carrington”); “holding people’s feet to the fire and keeping people honest” (in particular, making sure politicians’ backroom negotiations jibe with what they say in public); and “showing people why [the summit] matters.”

That last point is especially important, though other speakers suggested a subtle rephrasing: not why the summit matters, but whether it does. “It’s not enough to get headlines out of Copenhagen saying, ‘They signed something,’” said New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin during another panel discussion. He argued that journalists need to investigate the substance of any agreement and whether or not it would have a meaningful impact on the trajectory of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

As a point of reference, Revkin discussed recent coverage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill currently working its way through the United States Congress. “It’s fundamentally important to frame part of what you write toward the big picture,” he said. “[Coverage of Waxman-Markey] has been a lot like covering Wimbledon. It’s who’s winning and who’s losing; it’s not about substance… We can have a perfect, leak-proof bill in the U.S. and it will not matter [because most future greenhouse-gas emissions will be generated in the developing world.]”

Unfortunately, many conference goers noted, nuanced climate stories are still a hard sell in the newsroom. During his panel, Carrington said that one Guardian editor considers emissions to be a “boring” word. And Shukman pointed out that a major speech about the United Kingdom’s climate strategy didn’t get much airtime on the BBC, being overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson.

Even when climate does make the news, it is often of low caliber. Boykoff and Paddy Coulter, another researcher at the University of Oxford, individually presented data showing that, around the world, political speeches, weather events, and stories about “charismatic megafauna” tend to drive coverage. As a result, there is a dearth of more “discursive” articles about how the world could mount a coordinated effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. (Reporters must also contend with challenges related to the journalism industry itself. In an interview between sessions, Revkin lamented the fact that his popular Dot Earth blog was recently dark due to ten days of unpaid leave that all Times employees must take this year.)

Despite myriad obstacles to incisive reporting, however, there are reasons to be optimistic. “The story shouldn’t be beyond anybody trained in the traditional skills of a journalist,” said BBC environment correspondent Richard Black. And the London conference featured numerous presentations by groups providing such training in preparation for the Copenhagen climate summit.

Perhaps the most interesting and effective of these efforts is the Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP). The group brought thirty-seven journalists from developing nations to the climate summits in Bali in 2007 and Poznan in 2008, who produced a total of over 1,000 stories for their respective news outlets. The CCMP is gearing up to send forty more to Copenhagen in December. At each summit, the group (a partnership of Internews, Panos, and the International Institute for Environment and Development) provides a wide variety of workshops, clinics, and resources to help its fellows identify sources, understand the underlying science and policy, and otherwise navigate the meetings.

This year, Internews has also launched the Earth Journalism Awards, which will send an additional fourteen reporters to Copenhagen. It is open to both journalists from developed and developing nations alike, who are invited to summit their work for seven regional and seven thematic (energy, forests, adaptation, etc.) awards. The deadline is September 7, 2009. So far, over 400 journalists have registered, said James Fahn, the executive director of Internews’s Earth Journalism Network.

The goal of both the CCMP and Earth Journalism Awards is to close the “information gap” in developing countries, which have been greatly underrepresented (only eleven percent of the journalists at the Bali summit were from the developing world, according to Panos’s Rob Harbinson) at the United Nations climate summits and unfortunately reliant upon wire services for coverage. The fellowships are a way for reporters to both learn about “anything and everything related to climate change” and be watchdogs over their respective countries’ representatives.

The Poznan meeting was the first time that Bhutan had a reporter at a summit, according to Fahn. That’s important because “Negotiators are freer to do something other than what they say they’re doing if they know there are no journalists there to report on them,” he said.

Another interesting media development organization is the Network of Climate Journalists of the Greater Horn of Africa. The group provides a variety of resources, and hosts regional forums and events in an effort to improve the quantity, quality, and dissemination of climate information. Also worth mentioning here, though it does not focus exclusively on climate coverage, is the World Federation of Science Journalists’ SjCOOP mentoring program, which pairs “aspiring” journalists in Africa and the Middle East with more experienced colleagues from developed and developing nations alike.

Overall, the various climate conversations at the World Conference of Science Journalists imparted mixed feelings of both hope and despair, which should be very familiar to anyone working in the industry today. On the downside, it’s doubtful that readers and audience members anywhere will see as much coverage as they should in the run-up to the meeting. On the other hand, the event itself may be a quite a circus, indeed. Whatever the case, we hope that outlets everywhere think strategically about how best to serve their readers and audiences.

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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.