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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
"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