News Coverage of Climate Change Fell Further in 2012



Widespread drought, super-storm Sandy, and a melting ice cap failed to revive the media's interest in climate change in 2012, with worldwide coverage continuing its three-year slide, according to a media database maintained by the nonprofit journalism site The Daily Climate. The decline in the number of stories published on the topic — 2.4 percent fewer than 2011 — was the smallest since the United Nations climate talks collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009.

Coverage of climate impacts — extreme weather, melting glaciers and Arctic ice, warming temperatures and more — dominated climate news, accounting for almost one of every three stories written on the topic in 2012. That is the highest proportion in the five years that the website has been tracking coverage.

But coverage rebounded in some areas, particularly by the editorial boards of the world's newspapers. Separate analyses by other media watchers even showed an uptick in some climate-related reporting. Whether this represents a one-year blip or the start of a trend remains unclear, journalists and media researchers say. "I ask myself, 'In twenty years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn't we focus more on that?'" said Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor of The New York Times.

The Times published the most stories on climate change and had the biggest increase in coverage among the five largest US daily papers, according to media trackers at the University of Colorado. "Climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time," Kramon said.

Last year 7,194 reporters and commentators filed 18,546 stories, compared to 7,166 reporters who filed 18,995 stories in 2011, according to The Daily Climate. The numbers remain far from 2009's peak, when roughly 11,000 reporters and commentators published 32,400 items on climate change, based on the news site's archive.

Still, there were some surprises. Stories linking climate change to sea-rise, weird weather and other events showed an all-time high, according to the archives: Some 5,800 stories were published on this facet of climate change, 37 percent more than 2011 and 25 percent more than during the 2009 peak. And newspaper editorial boards, after growing markedly silent on the topic in 2010 and 2011, gave slightly more voice to the issue in 2012. Daily Climate's archives show 633 editorials for the year — nearly 10 percent more than in 2011.

Daily Climate is an independent, non-profit news site covering climate change. It relies on a team of researchers and editors, using customized searches, to compile a daily aggregation of climate coverage by global "mainstream" media: newspapers, TV and radio outlets, as well as select news websites from center-left to center-right. The aggregation is meant to provide a broad sampling of the day's coverage, not a comprehensive list. Daily Climate does not capture every story or byline produced on the topic. But search methods and parameters are kept consistent from year to year, facilitating a comparison of media trends dating back to 2008, the first full year of the news service's operation.

Other media analysts noted a rebound in climate coverage in 2012. Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has been tracking television coverage of climate change since the 1980s. Last year, the news operations at ABC, CBS and NBC almost doubled their coverage of climate-related issues, airing 29 stories — compared with 15 stories in 2011. The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado has tracked media coverage of climate change since 2000. Researchers there saw an uptick across all media in 2012 as well: Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and the five largest US daily newspapers.

And separate analysis by Bill Kovarik, professor of communications at Radford University in Virginia, of the Lexis Nexis media database found that the four largest US daily newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, and the Washington Post — published a total of 1,770 stories total on climate change last year. That's about 10 percent more than 2011's tally, Kovarik noted, but it is 11 percent below the number of stories the four papers published on the topic in 2010.

There are some discrepancies among the databases: Daily Climate, for instance, did not reflect the rise in The New York Times' coverage seen by the University of Colorado and Lexis Nexis.

What drove the change is less clear. Anomalous weather, particularly the Midwest drought and Hurricane Sandy, focused much of the media's attention in 2012 on links with climate change, analysts say. Of the 29 network news stories on climate tracked by Brulle, for instance, seventee centered around extreme weather and climate.

And 2012 offered several opportunities for climate change to become a broader story for the public, said Max Boykoff, assistant professor at the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Looking from the 1980s on, Boykoff has found climate reporting generally falls into four main themes — political, scientific, meteorological, and cultural — and that coverage intensifies and is sustained when events cross one or more boundaries. Hurricane Sandy's impact on the presidential election was one example from 2012.

With President Obama starting his second term and the first major climate assessment since 2007 expected from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the climate story will likely continue to cross those boundaries in 2013, Boykoff said. "We may see these things coming together in 2013. It could be an interesting year."

Of course, some of the focus on climate change may have more to do with an increasing recognition of the issue's importance by news outlets. Kramon, The Times' assistant managing editor, attributed last year's uptick in the paper's coverage to the fruition of a 4-year-old effort to group top reporters on a separate environment desk. The paper has six reporters in the cluster, plus others covering the subject from other desks, as well as several editors — in particular the environment editor, Sandy Keenan — who all are "very comfortable" with the topic, he said.

"That's just part of a bigger effort by the paper," Kramon added. "I think everyone here agrees that if it's not the most important story, it's one of the most important stories."

Specialized outlets — as well as the many bloggers writing on the topic — tend to push climate news into more mainstream and general publications, say editors and researchers.

Looking worldwide, many major news wires and outlets gave the issue roughly the same amount of ink in 2012 as in 2011, according to the Daily Climate's archives: The Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian and the Washington Post, among others, were fairly flat or saw slight rises in bylines. The BBC continued its three-year slide, publishing 277 stories in 2012, 15 percent off 2011's tally and almost 60 percent fewer stories than its 2009 peak.

Making up ground in 2012 were a proliferating number of specialized media sites, like Climate Central, which published at least 368 stories last year largely via two reporters, Andrew Freedman and Michael Lemonick; and Inside Climate News, which published some 157 pieces. Scientific American and The Hill, a Congressional newspaper focusing on lobbying and politics, also covered the issue aggressively in 2012, with 169 and 202 stories respectively from the two publications. Those specialized outlets — as well as the many bloggers writing on the topic — tend to push climate news into more mainstream and general publications, say editors and researchers.

Finally, the most active reporters on the beat filed more stories in 2012 than in 2011. The pool of reporters writing 30 or more stories last year — about a story every 12 days — stayed flat in 2012. Last year 54 reporters cleared that bar, against 55 in 2011 and 86 in 2009.

The Daily Climate picked up 3,038 stories from those reporters in 2012 — 16 percent of the total for the year and 5 percent more than that pool filed in 2011. Climate Central's Andrew Freedman led the pack, with 172 stories aggregated by The Daily Climate. Fiona Harvey of The Guardian had 135 items in the website's database, with Michael Lemonick of Climate Central, Bob Berwyn of the Summit County (Colo.) Citizens' Voice, Ben Geman of The Hill, and Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian rounding out the top six.

Byline counts are an imprecise and flawed way to measure a journalist's productivity. A groundbreaking investigation often requires weeks or even months of research and reporting. And Daily Climate only sporadically aggregates blog posts, a format many reporters use for more daily fare.

This report was originally published by