What’s the future of climate coverage?

  • 23 Jan 2013, 09:40
  • Ros Donald

The new year has brought redundancies in the mainstream media as organisations attempt to cut costs. How can specialist climate coverage escape being confined to the blogosphere when news organisations are losing money and journalists are busier than ever? Carbon Brief talks to two online organisations that aim to bridge the divide between special interest and mainstream news on climate change. 

It's only mid-January, but two huge media outlets have already announced job cuts. In an email to employees, the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, announced the newspaper - one of the few remaining still to make a profit - will cut staff numbers through voluntary redundancies and focus on its digital offering. News agency Reuters, too, is shrinking. According to media blog The Baron, it admitted last week that the 60,000-strong company has announced redundancies. 

In this environment, it's clear that climate change journalism in the mainstream media is under pressure. For one, the New York Times announced it has dismantled its nine-strong environment desk. This leaves the Los Angeles Times the only one of the US's top five newspapers by readership left with a designated environment desk. And last year, BBC environment correspondent Richard Black left the BBC amidst wider job cuts at the corporation.  

Climate change is a complex scientific and political subject. On his departure from the BBC, the Science Media Centre said Black's familiarity with the climate beat stood him in good stead to cover the leak of climate scientists' emails from the University of East Anglia in 2009:

"The reason that climate scientists bemoan the loss of Richard is not because he gave them an easy time but because he knew his stuff so well and questioned them from a high level of understanding of the science involved and years of experience of following the complex and messy political machinations on this story."

Journalist and political analyst Andrew Freedman is also concerned about a general lack of climate  specialists in the mainstream media.  He says although the New York Times's decision may be positive in helping climate reporting migrate into other sections of the paper, it risks losing its environmental editing expertise. Meanwhile US television has been haemorrhaging environmental reporters for years. "CNN fired its entire science unit several years ago", he says. "This has hurt its coverage of extreme weather events". 

Recent coverage - at least in the US - suggests the media may be more willing to link extreme weather to climate change. But the relationship is nuanced, and failure to grasp this can mean more confusion for the public. Freedman says:

"Lack of specialism tends to lead reporters to fit every extreme event into a particular frame. So while the March heat wave in the US was likely due in part to manmade global warming, the drought that is lingering in the Midwest (of the US) was more a product of La Niña plus the heat. Yet I see story after story that implies the drought was caused by global warming."

Freedman is a senior science writer for climate website, Climate Central, which is made up of climate scientists and experienced science journalists, and designed to help connect the scientific community with the public and policymakers. He says:

 "We recognise that the mainstream media tends to cover global warming in fits and starts, and we're here to provide a steady drumbeat of accurate coverage of scientific findings." 

Alex Kirby, a former BBC environment correspondent, who presented Radio 4's  Costing the Earth, also highlights the sporadic nature of climate coverage. He told Carbon Brief that in his experience it's often difficult to push climate change to the top of the news agenda. He says: 

"Climate change is a process, not a standalone story, and it can be hard to compete with breaking news like the war in Syria or the economic crisis. In addition, you can't keep using the same old footage of climate conferences, you need to get new images to go with the story. But that's expensive, and media retrenchment has meant climate change stories can lose out."

Kirby and three other veteran environmental journalists founded the Climate News Network, a free service delivering reports on climate change science, which launched this year. He says: "We thought that the full story of climate change is not being told. We're all old friends and our jobs were to write about climate science and the environment.

"We thought we'd use our skills to help journalists all over the world get the material they need to write this kind of story".

He adds that the initiative focuses on journalists all over the world, making scientific literature more accessible and highlighting developments in climate science that might otherwise go unreported. Says Kirby: 

"We noticed there's an awful lot of stories no-one's touching. We're trying, at first, to short-circuit the research process it takes to find the good stories. But in all of this, what we really want is to get journalists equipped to cover climate change themselves".

Freedman also sees a role for independent outlets such as his in supporting mainstream coverage, highlighting new stories and shedding light on events. He says:  

"We  often do the stories that mainstream reporters may like to cover, but don't have the time of support of management to accomplish. As mainstream outlets find it more difficult to maintain their staffing levels given the economic challenges facing the media industry, the role of nonprofit media outlets is only going to increase."

But what about the blogosphere? More and more specialist blogs are appearing, with offerings that range from easy-to-digest science reporting to mind-boggling levels of detail. Kirby says he fears that if specialist climate reporting were confined to the web, it could become a "niche concern". He says:

"That's why we're aiming our efforts at mainstream journalists - whether they're new or old media. They're still gatekeepers who can get information out to the public." 

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