“Waves in a Shallow Pan”

Has climate coverage in the MSM lost its authority?

CAMBRIDGE—Like doctors gathered around the operating table in mid-surgery, a group of media experts at Harvard yesterday offered their diagnoses of the ailing body of journalism. The symptom: a surprising decline in public belief that climate change is real or important.

Around the time that Barack Obama was elected president, Americans’ support for addressing global warming and energy issues was cresting. Recent surveys from Yale and George Mason Universities and the Pew Center Research Center for the People and the Press have measured a stark shift in that trend, however. Respectively, the reports found that the number of Americans who think climate change should be one of the country’s top priorities has fallen to 38 percent and 28 percent.

There are many explanations for this trend—the economic crisis eclipsing environmental concerns perhaps chief among them. But where the media are concerned, the landscape of information available to the public has changed dramatically, said Andrew Revkin, who recently left his job as a daily reporter for The New York Times but continues to blog for the paper’s Web site. The mainstream press is no longer the presence and authority it was. The image Revkin suggested for the current state of the public discussion was “waves in a shallow pan” easily tipped, with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.”

Revkin—who appeared on a panel sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (and moderated by CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell)—is one of the Web’s most widely read environment reporters, yet his New York Times blog, Dot Earth, gets much less traffic than some independent competitors. Dot Earth has something like 300,000 unique visitors a month, he said; compare that to the reputed 4,000,000 monthly visitors to the site of Anthony Watts, whom he politely described as a climate “skeptic”.

Revkin said journalists will become less and less important as sources for climate information, which will have to come more often in the future from scientists themselves, or from the organizations conducting or funding research, such as the National Science Foundation. In particular, he likes the idea of using the Web to build a global conversation among young people in many countries who study climate issues and have local interests in policy outcomes.

“You guys have to be Twittering…to go after the flamers,” Revkin said to the scientists in the audience. Indeed, he and the panelists seemed to suggest the one clear factor in the decline in public concern about climate change was the movement sometimes referred to as “climate denialism,” and the ferocity of its Web campaign.

Matthew Nisbet, a communications scholar at American University, said the data shows that only about 7 percent of the population are “dismissive” of global warming, while those who are “alarmed or concerned” about climate change comprise 51 percent of those surveyed. But while the “dismissives” are apparently a very small group, they are adept at using blogs and social media sites like Twitter to amplify their views.

Nisbet also said journalists continue to frame climate stories in ways that don’t make them relevant or appealing to readers. Too many articles present the issue in terms of polar bears and the abstract “environment.” But data shows that people respond much more strongly when the press expresses the consequences of climate change in terms of human health.

“Public health is a dramatically underplayed part of this issue,” Nisbet said.

In one of Nisbet’s current projects, researchers have found that people respond very differently to climate change depending on how it is presented. Statements about the benefits (particularly public health benefits) of addressing climate change tended to elicit more positive responses from study participants than dire warnings about the impacts of global warming. Moreover, such framing not only engaged those who were already concerned about climate change, it appealed to the “disengaged,” “doubtful,” and “dismissive” categories as well. Statements that got positive responses across the board included:

• “[Providing] cleaner energy sources & more efficient energy use lead to healthier air to breathe.”

• “Taking actions to limit global warming – by making our energy sources cleaner and our cars & appliances more efficient, by making our cities & towns friendlier to trains, buses, and bikers & walkers, and by improving the quality & safety of our food – will improve the health of almost every American.”

Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said that while changing the frame of climate coverage might be a short-term fix, in the end the media should be fostering a conversation about better stewardship of the environment.

Revkin followed up by saying that the whole question of good information and bad information, and what the public knows about climate change, may be moot. We may be out of time. “We’re really not going to get this right,” he said. “We can’t deal with the information fast enough,” apparently referring to the pace of disinformation on climate change.

Instead, he said, “cut to the chase. Go to the energy question,” on which there is more agreement about the need to act. There will be massive new needs for energy in the U.S., and the country currently has no agenda for how to meet those needs. So, talk about how to sensibly do so. Create an energy agenda, Revkin said.

A podcast of the event, “Scientists, Skeptics, & the Media,” is available here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Philip J. Hilts is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT and teaches science journalism at MIT. He is also the author of six books, and spent twenty years working as a prize-winning health and science reporter for both The New York Times and The Washington Post.