Journalists should not forget climate change, say experts | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 20.06.2010
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Journalists should not forget climate change, say experts

A British study shows journalists are overlooking the issue of global warming in favor of more sensational stories, an issue that will be discussed at this year's Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum.

Mist rises from a glacier in front of Mount Everest

Himalayan glaciers are melting slower than originally thought, but now media interest may be drying up

It's been a difficult few months for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the foremost bodies charged with evaluating the risk climate change.

Since the unearthing of an embarrassing error in the most recent IPCC report - the statement that the Himalayan glaciers might be gone by 2035 - the hunt for further IPCC blunders has been on, drawing in scientists, bloggers and journalists from all over the world.

Yet some experts argue that, the occasional scandal aside, climate change is a subject that receives relatively little media attention. Three years ago, Dortmund University professor of journalism Holger Wormer described climate change as a "shooting star" topic for the media. At the time, he and others in the scientific and journalistic communities had big ideas about the role the media could play in the struggle against global warming.

Falling by the wayside

An oil-covered pelican is seen on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast

Environmental disasters could be drawing media attention away from climate change

Today, according to Wormer, climate change is a topic that has fallen from editorial grace. "We now have a lot of other things on our agenda, things that are developing and that have more impact than they did three years ago, for example the financial crisis," he said. "These things have pushed reporting on climate change into the background."

Wormer said that with other, more pressing environmental stories on the table - the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or, in Germany, recurring discussions over nuclear energy - the "slow and steady" threat of climate change has been pushed to the side and is now a topic that appears more often in the context of wider environmental or political coverage.

"I think we started a bit too late with serious reporting on the topic. The reporting increased significantly only when there was more interest in climate change in the political agenda," he said.

Wormer's concern appears to be backed up by the numbers. Last year, researchers from the University of Liverpool in the UK released the results of an exhaustive study of climate change coverage in British newspapers. They found that between 2000 and 2006, the number of articles addressing climate change was modest: coverage peaked at around 100 articles per month.

"Just to give you a comparison, the number of stories on health or crime were at about 400 to 500 stories per month the whole way through the period," said Neil Gavin, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool and lead researcher of the study.

A selection of newspaper front pages

Stories on emissions trading schemes are relegated to the business pages

Big topics still 'niche'

Gavin, who has written and researched extensively on the relationship between climate change and the media, said even fewer journalists were attempting to tackle climate change-related topics like emissions trading schemes (ETSs), the market-based approach to controlling pollution that provides big emitters with economic incentives to reduce polluting emissions, or peak oil, the point at which global petroleum discovery will peak, after which production will go into permanent decline.

When these terms do appear in newspapers, he said, they tend to be treated as niche topics, appearing in the business pages rather than in the news section of papers. This has implications for accountability, he said.

In the European Union, a major ETS has been in place since 2005 and has already entered into its second phase, but Gavin said his research recorded only around 20 mentions of the scheme between 2000 and 2006. "Where is the accountability of the European Union? What kind of corners [could be] being cut in phase two and three?"

What's more, the Liverpool researchers found that in some newspapers, a significant amount of what little coverage appeared was focused on skeptical reporting. "In the top-selling newspapers like The Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Sun and their Sunday sister papers, 25 percent of the coverage ran along climate skeptic lines," said Gavin.

Wormer said that despite recent revelations of mistakes in the IPCC reports, there isn't necessarily any reason for journalists to give more attention to climate skepticism. "We should also be aware of the huge amount of pressure, the lobbying and the PR that goes into trying to [create] doubts over the science," he said, citing the similar levels of pressure and skepticism in the last century over whether cigarettes posed a health hazard.

'Keep it simple'

European Union Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard

Hedegaard says journalists can help by sticking to the facts

Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action and the former Danish minister for climate and energy, said the role journalists can play in helping to tackle climate change is a simple one.

"I think the media could help a lot by simply communicating the facts," she said. "And take care that when you have one or two errors in a huge report done by thousands of scientists not to communicate the message as if one or two errors would change the whole finding of the [report]. I think it's very important here to get the proportions right."

Hedegaard, herself a former television journalist, said while it would be wrong for the media to ignore climate skepticism altogether, it is also wrong to uncritically accept skepticism in the name of balance.

"The easiest thing in the world is to invite a guest who says that the planet is flat, and somebody who says, no, it's round. And the reporter's job there is not just to hold the microphone and say, 'OK, A says it's flat, the other one says it's round,'" she said.

"It is sometimes also [necessary] to be equipped to say something is factual, something is right and something is wrong;" she said. "That is not being biased; that's just to help the listeners, the viewers and the readers to orient themselves in a jungle of information."

Author: Sophie Tarr
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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