A problem: Climate change remains mostly a political story

One of the standout moments in the last weeks of the heated U.S. Senate race in Colorado pitting Republican Ken Buck against Democrat Michael Bennet came when Buck appeared on the stump with famous climate-change-denying U.S. Senator James Inhofe, who believes global warming theory is a hoax. For a few days in Colorado, climate change was a mainstream news story again, yet another version where climate change was framed as a matter of politics.

That’s an ongoing problem, according to the nineteen MediaClimate scholars, who have just published a book on media coverage of the last two United Nations climate summits called Global Climate, Local Journalisms. The fact that journalists overwhelmingly write about climate change as political news and in stories that lean heavily on politician-lawmakers as sources gives the views of people like Inhofe vastly disproportional power on the issue.

In the popular media, in the U.S. and in countries across the globe, members of the scientific and business community are cited less often than politicians by a wide margin.

“Politics is the avenue through which people come to understand climate change, which may be a way to say that politics is a way people come to misunderstand climate change or, more accurately, how they come to understand mostly just the politics of climate change,” said University of Denver media studies professor Adrienne Russell, one of the authors of the book.

Russell told the Colorado Independent that recent statistics on public perceptions of climate change make more sense when seen in that light. As has been widely reported, climate change denial is increasing among the public even as the science becomes more robust and policy changes to address the issue take effect and the clean energy industry advances.

“In Copenhagen during the last summit, you had new-energy business people trying to tell their stories. Yet reporters from every country were largely quoting only politicians,” Russell said. “Granted, it was a United Nations summit. The big story was what policy would come out of the gathering. Yet, major business and science players were there too.

“Danish Climate Consortium representatives told me that the case they wanted to make at the summit was that alternative energy models developed in Denmark demonstrated that development could successfully take place without adding to global warming. The models show there is money to be made and infrastructure to build and energy to use in a post carbon-fueled world. This is a business topic. The story is that it can be done very successfully. Yet, by comparison to politicians, they were left to wander in the media wilderness.”

A chart from the book on journalism story sourcing at the UN summits:

Other interesting findings related in the book include the fact that reporters from nations more vulnerable to climate change– countries such as Bangladesh and Egypt– write more urgently and often about the topic than reporters based elsewhere. Also, women are rarely included in climate change reporting, making up a scant 12 percent of story sources.

In her chapter of the book, Russell found that coverage of climate change in general and of the climate change summits in particular was more robust online than offline. She said reporters at mainstream outlets were producing way too much material to be reprinted in the newspapers they worked for and that the online work being done by people like New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, for example, was more insightful and rapid fire and leaned on more diverse sourcing. Revkin’s Dot Earth blog is hosted on the New York Times platform.

Russell said that despite the million laments about the death of journalism brought by the Web, she viewed the coverage she studied for the book being produced by U.S. journalists online as a source of great hope.

“There is real energy and credibility in the material, which is feverishly followed and fact checked in real time by readers and other journalists. The sourcing is different from the sourcing of offline stories, which I think is a welcome change. Significant is that professional models of journalism for a century-plus have been mostly exported from the United States to the rest of the world. In that light, I look at many of the changes in U.S. journalism tied to the Web as a sign of larger changes to come and for the better.”

Inhofe, incidentally, was one politician who got a cool reception in Copenhagen. The few reporters who showed up for the fleeting staircase press conference he called asked him for details to support his claim that a global warming “hoax” has been perpetrated over decades by scientists all over the world.

“It started in the United Nations,” Inhofe said, “and the ones in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.”

A reporter for Der Spiegel told him he was ridiculous.

[ Image: Aaron Koblin video of flight patterns over the U.S. About 2 million Americans travel by air every day. ] —
Note: Prof. Adrienne Russell is related to the author of this post.

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