The Climate for Science Reporting

A new report shows a surge in climate change coverage

Early in December 2009, politicians, media representatives, and NGO officials queued up outside the Bella Center from eight in the morning until late in the afternoon for the Copenhagen climate-change summit—in freezing conditions: “Some…gave up, complaining that global warming had not reached Scandinavia.” This may be the only light-hearted moment in James Painter’s “Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond,” an eighty-nine-page report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism last November. Painter runs the institute’s journalism fellowship program, after a career at the BBC and other organizations covering climate change, the media, and Latin America.

The most striking single item in Painter’s report is a number: 3,221 journalists attended the Copenhagen summit—more than double the number of journalists at any of the twelve previous climate summits (surpassed only by the first one, in Kyoto in 1997, which included a great many television technicians required by the more labor-intensive technologies of those ancient days). Three thousand-some journalists does not quite put climate summits in the same league as coverage of the Olympics, the World Cup, or Will and Kate’s wedding, but it is comparable to the number of journalists covering US presidential elections.

Though 85 percent of the journalists in Copenhagen came from developed countries, there were still more than six hundred journalists from the developing world. Two hundred and forty-three journalists came from online publications, thirty-three of them from Google. The US, Germany, France, Japan, the UK, and host Denmark each had more than two hundred journalists at the conference. And Sweden, Norway, China, and Brazil each had one hundred or more.

With all of those journalists at their marks, the odds of substantive coverage appeared high. But in an analysis of newspaper coverage from twelve countries (based on one upscale and one popular paper in each country), Painter was dismayed that only 9 percent of the stories about the summit devoted half or more of their space to scientific questions. Given that the Copenhagen meeting was not an exclusively scientific meeting but a policy-oriented deliberative assembly, Painter’s complaint seems a bit wayward. Moreover, as Painter relates, the total number of stories was high. And while only 9 percent of stories devoted more than half of their space to science, another 13 percent committed 10 to 50 percent of their space to it.

And within Painter’s report there are other grounds for optimism. It has been well documented that journalists have too often given equal voice to skeptics of global warming, against the overwhelming consensus among scientists. (See Maxwell Boykoff and Jules Boykoff’s paper, “Balance as Bias,” a study of coverage from 1998 to 2002 in the US prestige press.) But Painter’s study does not confirm that trend: in the 427 stories he sampled, global-warming skeptics were quoted by name only twice, and the generic term “skeptics” was used four times. Painter himself sees hopeful signs in the global-warming blogosphere because it includes “serious and well-informed bloggers who are not driven by political ideologies or by money from the fossil fuel lobby.”

The main trouble with science coverage, suggest historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, is not that science journalists are insufficiently respectful of scientific consensus but that they insufficiently understand that consensus is all science ever provides. “History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof,” they write. “It only provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.” What Oreskes and Conway show is that global-warming skeptics, like acid-rain skeptics, smoking-causes-cancer skeptics, second-hand-smoke-is-dangerous skeptics, damage-to-the-ozone skeptics (many of them the same individuals), exploit the na├»ve popular belief that “scientific” means “absolutely certain.”

So while Painter’s report offers ample evidence of a surge of interest in climate-change reporting, and may even indicate improvement in the quality of that reporting, the question remains: Can journalists produce reasonable science coverage if the public holds unreasonable expectations of science?

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.