A tale of three studies on climate coverage

Covering the climate crisis requires the ability to look in many different directions at once, and reconcile them. Right now, it requires making room for urgent climate stories—from hurricanes in North America and record heat in Siberia to recently-updated future projections for global heating—amid an intensely crowded news cycle. As I wrote last week, it requires identifying and teasing out the intimate structural similarities and connections between the impact of climate change and this moment’s two biggest stories, the coronavirus pandemic and the movement for Black lives. It also requires, as Time’s Justin Worland suggested recently, looking forward in time, to imagine how future generations might assess the climate action we did and didn’t take in this historic year, and what we can still do now to influence the judgment of history.

And it requires looking back in time—to understand the roots of the ways we talk about climate change today, and how that legacy continues to influence our coverage. To that end, two recent studies are instructive. They shed light, respectively, on major outlets’ long-term indulgence of climate skepticism and the more recent impact of improved climate coverage in TV meteorology.

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The former study was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Rachel Wetts, an assistant professor at Brown University, took nearly 1,800 climate press releases that were issued, between 1985 and 2014, by business, government, and advocacy groups, and ran them through plagiarism-detection software to see how often they were cited in three widely-circulated US newspapers: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Wetts found that despite press releases discouraging action on climate change being relatively rare, the three papers were nearly twice as likely to cite them as releases advocating climate action, which were disproportionately ignored. She also found that releases issued by big businesses were more likely to be cited than those issued by groups that have scientific expertise, such as the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Geophysical Union. (The full, paywalled study is here. Grist also has a useful summary.)

Discouragingly, Wetts reported no meaningful improvement in her findings in more recent years, and found that the presence of the Journal, whose editorial orientation skews conservative, did not disproportionately inform her results. Instead, she suspects that traditional norms of journalistic objectivity (those again) have encouraged major outlets to channel the notion of a climate “debate” in their coverage, even though the science has been increasingly clear that there are not two sides to the question. “My findings suggest that journalists continue to provide ‘false balance’ on the issue of climate change, despite some scholars’ claims that this practice is a thing of the past,” Wetts writes. The study, she adds, also offers further evidence that “the structural power of business interests lends them heightened visibility in policy debates.”

By contrast, the latter study, published recently in Weather, Climate, and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society (and available for free here), offers a more positive assessment of a different area of climate coverage. The authors—academics from George Mason, Colorado State, and Ohio State universities, as well as a researcher from the AMS, and Bernadette Woods Placky of Climate Central, an independent group of scientists and journalists—assessed the impact of Climate Matters, a program, launched nationally in 2013 by George Mason and Climate Central with support from the AMS and two federal agencies, that helps TV meteorologists incorporate climate science into their broadcasts. (Climate Central is a partner on Covering Climate Now, a collaboration headed by CJR and The Nation that aims to make climate coverage more visible in local, national, and international media.)

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The study has some methodological limitations: its authors aren’t entirely disinterested, and measuring viewer responses to specific examples of coverage is very hard to do. Still, its results suggest that including climate change in the TV weather report may increase the scientific literacy of viewers. The authors found that in markets where the Climate Matters program has been active, people were more likely to strongly recognize that climate change is real, manmade, and a threat to humans—facts that Climate Matters uses to structure broadcasts—and were also more likely to perceive “proximate” climate harms to their families and communities. (The study did not find enough evidence to support a second hypothesis: that these effects are stronger among viewers who pay the most attention to TV weather forecasts.)

It’s increasingly clear that news consumers want more and better climate coverage. A third recent study, the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report, provided evidence of that, and of how people in multiple countries get their climate news. According to Simge Andı, a researcher at the Reuters Institute, more than two thirds of respondents to the institute’s international media-consumption survey said they think that climate change is a very or extremely serious story—a figure that rose in countries, such as Chile and South Africa, that have recently experienced severe drought. (In 2018, I reported for CJR from Cape Town on water coverage in South Africa.) Across all markets and age groups, a plurality of respondents said they paid most attention to climate news on TV, though younger consumers also rely on social media. Overall, just under half of respondents said that the media does a good job of accurately covering climate. Nineteen percent of respondents said we do a poor job.

The three reports mentioned here differ greatly in methodology, limitations, and scope. Collectively, however, they seem to offer the news media a pretty clear lesson: our audiences generally care about the climate story, and many of them think we could do better in covering it. To that end, we need to dispense once and for all with false equivalence and instead put climate science front and center—particularly in settings, such as the TV weather report, that are trusted, widely-consumed, and community-rooted. Among other initiatives, CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project is working to strengthen science-led climate coverage across the world’s media. If you want to get involved, you can find out more here. It’s not too late.

Below, more on climate coverage:

  • More studies: For Grist, Kate Yoder reflects on two other recent studies exploring why many Americans still reject the facts on climate change. “The takeaway: Evidence alone isn’t enough,” Yoder writes. “The underlying reason people dismiss climate science, it turns out, has more to do with political identity than logic.” Elsewhere, Caroline Porter writes, in a recent report for the Center for Cooperative Media, that climate-journalism collaborations, including Covering Climate Now, are increasingly popular, and can “reduce the noise around issues of bias and mistrust” in climate reporting.
  • The Flood Watcher: Writing for CJR last year, Lucy Schiller profiled Eric Sorensen, a meteorologist at WQAD News 8 in Davenport, Iowa, who has incorporated the local effects of climate change into his work. Climate Matters has supported Sorensen’s work, yet he emphasized “how much work meteorologists must still do on their own, to educate themselves, to find novel ways of presenting on the climate crisis, and to convince station managers that environmental coverage matters,” Schiller writes.
  • Talking shop: Covering Climate Now has been hosting a series of “Talking Shop” webinars focused on various aspects of the climate story. Tomorrow at noon Eastern, we’re bringing together Worland, from Time; Al Ortiz, from CBS; Savannah Sellers, from NBC; Jane Spencer, from The Guardian; and Bill Weir, from CNN, to discuss climate coverage and the election. Attendance is open to journalists only, but you don’t have to be affiliated with Covering Climate Now to join. You can RSVP here.
  • Next steps: From September 21 to 28, Covering Climate Now will coordinate a week of increased climate coverage among its partner outlets, the third time it will have done so. To kick off the week, CCN partners including The Guardian, VICE Media Group, NBC News, and NowThis will invite first-time voters and other young people to collaborate with editors on special projects, including videos, podcasts, and social media content. You can find out more here.


Other notable stories:

  • Today, big tech’s most powerful executives—Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook; Jeff Bezos, of Amazon; Tim Cook, of Apple; and Sundar Pichai, of Google’s parent company, Alphabet—will collectively address antitrust issues (by videolink) before a Congressional subcommittee. The hearing will be unprecedented, not least because Bezos has never testified before Congress before. In a column last week, Kara Swisher, of the New York Times, argued that “it’s critical that lawmakers block out all the noise that has grown around the industry and aim at only discussing the repercussions of unfettered power.” As past hearings have shown, many lawmakers specialize more in noise than in tech.
  • For CJR, Emily Bell assesses the dilemma that another fast-growing social platform, the Chinese-owned video app TikTok, poses to newsrooms. “Although more heinous data breaches have occurred recently at Twitter, and the consensus is that Facebook is at least as leaky with personal data, TikTok’s status as a Chinese-owned company puts use of the app—and attendant risks and ethical concerns—in a different category,” Bell writes. 
  • Eighteen of the journalists who quit Deadspin last year in protest of meddling by the site’s private-equity owners are founding Defector Media, a new venture that will cover sports and whatever else takes its writers’ fancy. Defector has an ambitious business model: it will rely on subscriptions, be staff-owned, and enable employees to vote out the editor in chief so long as they have a two-thirds majority. “If you’re going to take a moonshot, you may as well do it exactly the way you want to,” Kelsey McKinney, a staffer, said. The Times has more.
  • Recently, the Washington Post pledged to appoint a managing editor for diversity and inclusion following a reckoning about representation, both at the Post and industry-wide. Yesterday, the paper named Krissah Thompson—a 19-year veteran of the Post, who currently serves as an editor in its Style section—to the position, In other job news, NPR appointed Nikki Jones as vice president of change management and transformation. 
  • Last week, a judge barred federal agents in Portland, Oregon, from targeting journalists and legal observers at protests. Yesterday, a group of journalists and observers claimed in court that since the order was handed down, agents have shot at them, maced them, and forcibly moved them on. Among other measures, their lawyers want the judge to hold two federal agencies in contempt of court. BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman has more.
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin writes in defense of the softball interview. Hard questions can be essential, he writes, and there’s a difference between softballs and pure sycophancy; still, “occasionally, a hard question puts the president—or someone of his ego—on the defensive, while the gentle one prods him to be more candid than he intended.”
  • In June, the group Data for Progress surveyed voters on various public-funding models for news. While respondents narrowly backed handing federal relief funds to local outlets and increasing funding for public media, they expressed stronger, bipartisan support for “information districts”—a levy-based model directly accountable to the community. Simon Galperin previously wrote about community information districts for CJR.
  • Maya Wiley, a commentator on MSNBC and NBC, is quitting that gig as she considers a bid to be mayor of New York. Wiley—a professor, civil-rights lawyer, and former head of the city’s police oversight board—would likely face a crowded Democratic primary ahead of the mayoral election next year. Emma G. Fitzsimmons has more for the Times.
  • And Tuesday was a banner day for inadvertent Kamala Harris news. Politico accidentally published placeholder copy naming her as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick. And Biden flashed private notes about Harris (“Do not hold grudges”) at the AP photographer Andy Harnick. Biden also confirmed that he will pick a running mate (for real) next week.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.