How the Media Can Improve Their Climate Coverage

Former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, shortly before stepping down, said he felt the media was failing to meet the challenge of covering the climate crisis; it's a view shared by many others in the press, even as seriousness of the danger posed by climate change is increasingly recognized.
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By Stella Mikhailova, MSc in Sustainability and Management, University of Bath

With the wave of media coverage surrounding the COP 21 climate summit in Paris, it might be hard to believe that climate change and other environmental issues suffer from a lack of coverage in the press. But, while major events like the COP can lead to brief peaks in reporting, media outlets continue often to struggle to engage both themselves and their readers in these issues. The former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, shortly before stepping down, said he felt the media was failing to meet the challenge of covering the climate crisis; it's a view shared by many others in the press, even as seriousness of the danger posed by climate change is increasingly recognized.

At this year's World Resources Forum (WRF) 2015 in Davos, close to 500 environmental experts from more than 100 countries gathered in Switzerland, discussing ways to solve the world's most pressing environmental crises, including climate change. Pro Journo spoke to WRF participants to hear what problems they see with current media reporting of environmental issues and how it might be improved.

Reduction in Climate Change Coverage?

"Environmental issues became less high on the agenda," said Thomas Gotting of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, a WRF participant. "Not because they are less interesting or concerning, but because other topics are covered more." For Gotting, issues like the refugee crisis, unemployment and the 2008 global financial crisis have received most of the media's attention.

Indeed, there is evidence that since the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, media coverage of climate change and environmental issues has decreased. Since 2004, Max Boykoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has collected data on global newspapers' coverage of climate change. His research shows that after two surges of interest in the subject, which happened after the 2007 publication of the IPCC's fourth Assessment report and the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, media coverage of climate change has dropped.

Jocelyn Blériot of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation agrees that high-profile events create major sources of news concerning climate change. "There was no international event around these issues, and in 2009-2015 all focus was on the economic crisis," he said.

Yet a quick poll during WRF 2015 showed that 18 out of 25 participants polled actually noticed an increase in news coverage of climate change after 2010.

One of the reasons for this may lie in the difficulty of defining what climate change news actually is. The Daily Climate, an independent media aggregator, showed an increase in news coverage in 2013, as it compiled a wider range of stories on climate change. As opposed to Boykoff, who counts articles featuring the phrases "global warming" or "climate change," the Daily Climate focuses on "fracking," "pipelines" and "oil sands," although these topics do not necessarily involve discussions about the implications for climate change. Both techniques have their pros and cons. But generally, the problem lies in the quality of the articles' content rather than in the quantity of news pieces on the subject.

Main Problems of News Coverage

"I regret the way it's being covered," said Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network. Most WRF participants agreed that paying the same attention to scientific facts and the opinions of minorities who do not agree with the current climate change consensus are some of the biggest problems in news media coverage. This trend is not new. Back in 2014, the BBC was openly criticized by members of Britain's Parliament for giving the same weight to scientific facts and general opinions.

Many WRF participants see a decrease in the quality of news articles as a consequence of the media's existing business model. "Media is commercial," said Arthur ten Wolde, director of Circular Future. "So they have to make money in the short run, and you do it by creating a debate. So you want someone from one point of view and the climate skeptic with the opposite point of view. So both television and newspapers have 'the debates!,' which in itself suggests that there is no consensus [on climate change]. But there is consensus!"

According to WRF attendees, another problem is that current news about climate change is very impersonal and fails to reach readers. The media make it look as if global warming is happening somewhere far away from them. "What are we doing daily? We are eating, we are wearing clothes, we are living, housing. I think it [climate change coverage] has to be connected to daily life. I think it's rather important if media finds these links between daily life and professional life. They have to work on this," said Holger Rohn of the Factor 10 Institute.

The last major problem is insufficient coverage of concrete examples on how to tackle the problem. At a recent forum in New York attended by Blériot, Ariana Huffington gave a talk on how the media should provide solutions and not focus on only the problems from climate change. "And she is right. It's all about the problems," said Blériot. "The solutions don't get half the exposure they deserve."

Claude Fussler of the CO Forum believes that negative news is the price we have to pay for a lack of action on climate change. He argues that as there is nothing good about the problem, it should not be covered in a positive way. However, most of the other experts present said that climate change's negative image makes the stories less interesting. As a result, people get bored and do not feel inclined to change their behavior.


What does it take to change this situation and make the news more appealing? "It always takes creativity and imagination," said Wackernagel. For ten Wolde, the issue's complexity and journalists' lack of time to cover it properly are just an excuse. He shared a creative example from the Netherlands, where a local newspaper due to lack of resources used 10 students to write articles and produced "extremely thorough reports."

Covering more concrete stories about climate change is another important step. Colin Paul of Act on Climate suggested that newspapers have a positive impact when they try to report on situations where businesses and individuals are taking concrete steps to counter climate change, such as installing solar concentrators. He said that the role of newspapers is not to change people's beliefs but to show a business case for sustainability. Fussler agreed that emphasizing the human nature aspect of climate change and focusing on the necessity to act are both essential.

Collaboration with scientists and their research findings is another key solution to the problem. "Scientific journalism should be at the forefront," said Blériot. "It's not a question of opinion." Using scientific results and limiting coverage of opinions not supported by facts are seen as the most important approaches that journalists should consider when covering climate change.

Data Journalism as Bridge Between Science and Media

While using research findings is a commonly recommended practice for journalists, researchers admitted that they experience difficulties communicating their results to the broader public.

Florian Ramseger, a product specialist at Tableau, said that one of the problems in environmental coverage is finding a link between local events and large-scale issues. Journalists tend to cover one aspect--individual, narrow stories--while scientists look at the problems very broadly and globally.

For Ramseger, data journalism helps bridge these two extremes. "It can visualize how the story of an individual city, individual summer and individual event compares to the long-term development in a country," he said.

In this case, data journalism may help journalists see the broader picture while allowing scientists to find some local practical implications to their research.

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