CANCÚN, MEXICO—There is no doubt that the United Nations climate-change negotiations here, which concluded just over a week ago, were very different from what was experienced at the Copenhagen summit last year. Journalists came to Cancun knowing that expectations for the talks were low and that there was no chance of an Earth-shattering deal, which would “save the climate.”
Take the scene outside the Azteca Centre in the Moon Palace resort, where the talks - aimed at striking an international agreement to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emission - were taking place. That’s where I met James Painter, author of a recent Oxford University study criticizing coverage of the Copenhagen meeting, to discuss the media happenings in Cancun and what reporters who cover climate change should be doing it if they want to keep audiences interested in the story.
We sat on a couple of plastic chairs on an uneven grass slope because they were the only ones we could find without having to look too hard. The lawn was full of people sitting in the sun, chatting, and apparently enjoying themselves. This isn’t something anyone would have seen in Copenhagen. The freezing temperatures in Denmark had something to do with that, of course, but it was also the atmosphere at last year’s summit. Tense with the expectation that a significant treaty might actually be achieved, journalists had to constantly be on the ball if they didn’t want to miss anything. I was there, and few journalists indulged in the moments of leisure that seemed common in Cancun.
Painter has also noticed the more relaxed air and thinks it has given journalists the chance to report on a wider variety of topics than the conference itself. He said a cursory look at some of the press coverage shows that a number of stories were written about topics such as the city of Cancun’s vulnerability to climate change, a World Bank report on how cities can benefit from moving to low carbon development, a World Meteorological Organization report on 2010 possibly being the hottest year on record, and a United Nations Environment Programme report on glaciers.
“My impression was that the press conferences and side events, where these initiatives or reports were launched, were much better attended than in Copenhagen,” Painter said.
Painter thinks the move away from focusing exclusively on the negotiations is a positive development for three reasons: 1) the variety of reporting 2) more context about why climate change is an important issue 3) stories about topics like low carbon initiatives offer a more positive frame than the ‘doom and gloom’ associated with the negotiations.
“The atmosphere is relaxed; the stakes are much lower [here],” Painter said. “It’s not a make or break deal, they can all meet again in South Africa next year. There’s a very different feel to it. I get the impression, although I may be wrong - we’d have to do a content analysis - that there isn’t that sort of follow-the-pack feeling, where journalists feel they have to know exactly what’s going on with all the negotiations. I get the impression—and it’s very much an impression—that there’s been more opportunity to cover other topics than just the negotiations here. There’ve been an awful lot of interesting reports coming out a lot of side events on all sorts of different aspects. Quite interesting looking at the kind of stories that people are doing, not always portraying climate change as this great catastrophe and doom and gloom but portraying it as a great opportunity for business, green energy and job creation.”
Preliminary figures provided by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which organizes the summits) show that about 2,000 journalists attended the talks in Cancun, Painter said. That’s about a 50 percent drop from Copenhagen, which drew about 4,000 journalists attended, according to his report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, Summoned by Science, Reporting Climate Science at Copenhagen and Beyond. In particular, Painter said, Cancun saw a sharp decline in the number of journalists from western countries, although more reporters from Latin America attended the summit.
One of the key findings of the Oxford study was that less than 10 percent of the news dispatches from Copenhagen focused on climate science. The failure to place the negotiations in the context of current scientific understanding was a major shortcoming of the coverage, according to Painter.
“The balance was probably too much in favor of all the drama,” he said, “which is what journalism is attracted to, rather than the other aim of journalism—in part anyway—which is to inform and educate and make sure that people have enough context.”
Painter still believes that placing the UN climate summits in scientific context is important, although research would need to be done to determine whether or not the reporting from Cancun was any more focused on climate science than it was in Copenhagen.
“Most surveys show that most countries - including the U.S. and the U.K. - either people don’t have great scientific literacy about climate change,” he said. “Something like 40 percent of Americans can’t even say what a fossil fuel is and, in the U.K., people are very confused about where there is consensus about the science and where there isn’t. So there is an argument for trying to make sure that you put enough in your article to understand the science.”
Nonetheless, Painter said that one of the positive developments in Cancun was a move away from frightening coverage painting a picture of the world being devastated by climate change. Instead, he saw more stories on the opportunities that dealing with climate change can create.
Finding these kinds of positive frames, and making stories relevant to people’s daily lives, are good ways to make a climate-change article more interesting, Painter said, adding that underreported public-health angle could generate a lot of interest. Despite what was hailed as relatively successful summit in Cancun—with world leaders agreeing, among other things, to establish a new Green Climate Fund which is expected to channel money to developing countries suffering from the effects of climate change, as well as a program to deal with deforestation and land degradation—Painter fears that “climate fatigue” is growing in the newsroom and among news consumers.
“Editors are fed up with the topic, the public are pretty fed up with the topic,” he said. “The onus is on the journalist to make, what is a hugely significant story, interesting and entertaining” as the U.N. negotiation’s process rolls on and all those involved, including the media, begin turning their attention to next year’s meeting in Durban, South Africa.