News Coverage of Climate Change

Plus Endangered Species Act Protections for Crayfish and More

Have Newspaper and Television News Reporting on Climate Change Declined?

Looking back over 2020, the year of COVID-19, it seems almost all the news was of mask mandates, closed schools, closed restaurants, and overburdened hospitals.

According to Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO), a news investigative organization that is an international, multi-university collaboration, worldwide media coverage of climate change dropped a lot during 2020, falling by 23 percent from 2019. Yet that coverage was still higher than in other recent years: 34 percent higher than 2018, 41 percent higher than 2017, and 38 percent higher than 2016.

January 2020 was the high point of news coverage for climate change. Around the world, more climate change stories made it into newspapers, television news, and other news sources than in any month since MeCCO started monitoring climate news 17 years ago.

But COVID-19 changed all that. In March, when the virus went from a few isolated cases to a global pandemic, newspaper coverage of climate news in the U.S. dropped 28 percent, television coverage plummeted 43 percent. Coverage in Spain dropped 46 percent, Australian coverage tumbled 61 percent, with other countries around the world showing similar declines. MeCCO says the decline remained throughout the year, owing mostly to coverage of the pandemic.

MeCCO has tracked press coverage of global warming in the United States since 2004. For television, they have kept their eyes on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC. CNN had, by far, the most coverage of global warming or climate change, recently airing over 200 segments on climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, Fox News often had the second-most airings of segments on climate.

MeCCO has similarly tracked climate coverage in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The amount of coverage in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal has remained pretty much unchanged since 2004, with only a few dozen stories published monthly, while The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have published much more, sometimes over 100 stories a month from 2016 to the beginning of 2020. The New York Times distinguished itself by publishing the most about climate change, sometimes exceeding 300 or 400 stories a month.

News Stories Need to Report the Basic Facts on Global Warming

And yet, does this coverage, amounting sometimes to more than one story a day in The New York Times, convey to its readership the importance of what is going on?

Within the last six or seven years, research has found that concern about climate change correlates with knowledge of basic climate science. The better-informed folks are about how and why their world is warming, the more likely they will care about what happens to the planet and will care what happens to the lakes and forests in their region, even their neighborhoods, because of climate change.

Although a majority of Americans (69 percent) realize that global warming is happening now, only 12 percent know that it has to do with gases in the atmosphere trapping heat. Only 17 percent of the U.S. population is aware that more than 90 percent of climate scientists have reached consensus that the present warming of the world is caused by humans. Other surveys have found that most folks cannot make the connection between the burning of fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, petroleum—and the resulting CO2 as the primary cause of climate change.

Could it be that the newspapers and television just aren’t conveying the basic facts about global warming to their readers and viewers? Two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, David M. Romps, Department of Earth and Planetary Science and director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center, and Jean P. Retzinger in the Media Studies Department, examined how well news sources report the basic facts about climate change. Their work was published in Environmental Research Communications in August of 2019.

They chose five facts that are pretty much the essentials people need to know to understand the phenomenon of global warming. They are as follows:

  1. Global warming is happening now.

  2. The mechanism of global warming has three components:

    1. Burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum [oil]) produces carbon dioxide.

    2. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere.

    3. That trapping of heat causes global warming.

  3. More than 90 percent of climate scientists have reached a consensus that global warming is real, happening now, and is caused by humans.

  4. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere right now is the highest it has been in thousands, perhaps millions, of years.

  5. Global warming is permanent, or at least something we will have for thousands of years.

Romps and Retzinger focused their study on The New York Times, “because of its reputation as the nation's paper of record and for its excellence in reporting on environmental issues,” as they say. They then used ProQuest, an information and content provider, to search for the newspaper’s stories on global warming and climate change. They also asked hundreds of undergraduates to comb through the articles to identify any time one or more of the five basic facts were mentioned in an article.

The team found that during the 1980s, the facts of global warming often were part of climate stories, but in the most recent years, the facts are hardly mentioned at all. During 2019, for example, the scientific consensus on climate change was mentioned in only four percent of the Times’ articles. That CO2 is the highest it has been in thousands or millions of years is mentioned in just one percent of the newspaper’s articles. Similarly, the other facts were mentioned at rates between one and four percent.

Romps and Retzinger emphasize that the basic facts can be easily incorporated into news stories and urge journalists and editors to do so as a way to create a better-informed and more involved public regarding climate change.

Have the New York Times and other news outlets been listening?

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Norway’s Experiment in Climate Communication

Maybe the U.S., as well as the rest of the world, could look to Norway for inspiration on climate change education. Norwegians have tried a simple idea: they had their meteorologists, the ones on their local television stations, incorporate climate change news into their broadcasts.

At the beginning of 2019, they started TV Meteorologists as Climate Communicators (MET Norway), a two-year project to inform the public about climate change by integrating science-based reporting on climate change into local weather reports. The project emphasized local topics—subjects such plants blooming earlier in the spring or cities being plagued by hotter days in the summer—in their reporting.

They based much of their programming on Climate Matters, from the United States, and the Australian Climate Communicators. Climate Matters is run by the NGO Climate Central and George Mason University, with contributions from NASA and NOAA. The organization includes scientists, data analysts, and artists who make easy-to-understand graphics, videos, and other materials for journalists to use in their reporting on climate change.

In Australia, Climate Communicators, which is part of Monash University’s Climate Change Research Hub in Melbourne, has helped TV meteorologists to focus on the effects that climate change is having and will have on things in the television viewers’ locale, rather than explaining it in terms of global phenomena.

MET Norway also relied on recent research published in July 2020 that found when climate change is incorporated into local weather reports, viewers understood that global warming is real, human-caused, and could cause harm to their community. Viewers also understood some of the science of climate change, considered it personally relevant, had greater concern about it, and wanted to learn more about it. The researchers found that all of this could occur, even when the climate news was under six minutes of broadcast time.

Using presentations, discussions, and workshops, they first trained the TV presenters in climate science and climate communication. They also created programming on climate change that focused on local broadcasts and local broadcasters. The presentations avoided statistics and focused on local rather than global stories; made stories on current changes, not ones in the future; and the stories focused on the effects of global warming rather than solutions.

Most of all, the stories gave ways in which climate change might affect the folks watching the show, e.g., higher electric bills, more wear and tear on their homes, poorer health.

An estimated 20 percent of the Norwegian public has seen the climate change broadcasts. Notably, newspapers and other news outlets have taken notice of MET Norway. The effort was mentioned 359 times in the news in 2019 and rose to 835 mentions in 2020, with a corresponding increase in MET being the subject of social media posts. In polls, 85 percent of respondents said that they have a high degree of trust in the scientific research—a six percent increase, as well as more than 80 percent saying they had a high degree of trust in the TV meteorologists.

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Other News

Protection for Florida Crayfish

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing protection for 7177 acres of habitat for the Panama City crayfish.

The crayfish is native to marshes in northern Florida. Due to sprawl and other habitat loss, only 12 populations of the crayfish remain. (Center For Biological Diversity)

Nineteen Other Species Need Protections, Too

The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect 19 species across the United States, including the Hermes Copper butterfly, an insect that friends and neighbors of mine have been working to protect.

The center notes that, on average, it takes 12 years for a species to become listed as endangered, and 47 species have gone extinct during these delays. (Center For Biological Diversity)

And…

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