Climate Change Looms While Media Coverage Lags

The introduction of the Green New Deal (GND) and the ensuing onslaught of media attention seem to be ushering in a new era of climate change coverage. However, the mainstream media is still falling short in covering what the World Economic Forum and others have called the greatest issue of our time.

An article from Grist called attention to the recent shift in mainstream media climate coverage. In 2017, 79 percent of coverage was centered on the Trump administration’s denial of climate change, but more recent climate stories focus on newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-NY). Ocasio-Cortez, along with Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, introduced the GND, a wide-ranging bill designed to outline a plan to tackle climate change in February.

Regardless of its movement through Congress—or lack thereof—the GND is encouraging major news broadcasters to give more time to climate change.

Yet climate change is still not receiving coverage proportionate to the level of its threat.

A Media Matters analysis compared May 6 coverage of the birth of the royal baby, Archie, to the release of a stark U.N. summary report detailing climate change’s impacts on biodiversity from the same date. The report was covered that day by only one of the three broadcast networks’ nightly news—CBS Evening News—and two prime time cable shows—CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper and Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier. Furthermore, the Baier segment was laden with climate change skepticism.

Instead of covering the U.N. biodiversity report that day, ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News opted to include segments on Trump attorney Michael Cohen going to prison, a plane fire in Russia and the birth of baby Archie.

Media Matters also found that World News devoted more than seven minutes of coverage to baby Archie’s birth in the week after he was born. Meanwhile, World News spent just more than six minutes in total on climate change throughout 2018.

Newspaper reporting of climate change has also been scant. Media Matters found that just 22 of the 50 major U.S. newspapers covered the landmark U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last October.

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) referred to the media’s decision to minimize coverage of the climate crisis as a “journalistic failure [that] has given rise to a calamitous public ignorance, which in turn has enabled politicians and corporations to avoid action.”

This public ignorance is evinced by polls from Pew and other sources which found that only 5 in 10 Americans believed that climate change was both occurring and due to human activity. Moreover, 20 percent said that there is no solid evidence that Earth is getting warmer.

[Now Is The Time to Talk About Climate Change, So Why Aren’t We?]

Nevertheless, there are signs the tide is turning.

The Guardian noted an April report from University of Colorado-Boulder’s Media and Climate Change Observatory found that five of the largest U.S. newspapers have, “roughly tripled their coverage of climate change since four years ago.”

Beyond increasing coverage, some media organizations are working to better their approach to climate change. In a special report, CJR laid out suggestions for media to cover climate change in ways that resonate with readers. Among their solutions: “follow the leaders… establish a diverse climate desk but don’t silo climate coverage, learn the science, don’t internalize the spin… cover the solutions and don’t be afraid to point fingers.”

In April, CJR also announced a collaborative project with The Nation and other organizations aimed at “dramatically improving US media coverage of the climate crisis.”

Climate change will likely play a larger role on the debate stage during the 2020 election, but it is not clear whether coverage will make its way to primetime.

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