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.