Environmental journalism at the crossroads

Stefan Gustafsson Green media

A recent issue of Sports Illustrated featured stories about baseball in San Francisco, wrestling in Iowa, basketball in Texas—and climate change all over the world.

As usual, there was an athlete on the cover—Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins—but instead of winding up for a pitch, he was standing in a flooded stadium, with the headline: "As the Planet Changes, So Do the Games We Play: Time to Pay Attention."

The March 12 cover story discussed the scientific bases—greenhouse gases, melting glaciers and polar ice, rising oceans, dramatic weather swings. It described the effects of climate change on winter sports, including ice-skating in Holland, dogsled racing in Alaska and World Cup skiing in France. It also described what fans, athletes, teams and leagues can do—and are already doing—to address the environmental concerns raised by a warming planet.

Climate change also will be on the agenda as several hundred journalists, scientists and students join representatives of business, government and environmental groups Sept. 5-9 at Stanford for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. For the first time, the conference will bring together close to two-dozen top media executives—with editors from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times planning to attend—for a one-day invitation-only climate change seminar featuring briefings by leading climatologists, as well as communications and policy experts.

Experts say the Sports Illustrated story is an example of a new era in the coverage of global warming. Journalists on every beat are writing about it.

"The climate change story is being written in more forms, from more points of view and more angles than ever before," said Beth Parke, the society's executive director. "It is remaking the environment beat, because it is a story that touches every aspect of life."

She said the society is fielding calls from journalists who are looking at stories through an "environmental lens" for the first time, including people reporting on food, business and health.

While cutbacks at newspapers have resulted in the departures of seasoned science writers and environment reporters, and the industry is undergoing a "rather chaotic transition to digital newsgathering and news delivery system," Parke sees hope on the media horizon.

"The knowledge base of working journalists and editors in all forms of news media across many beats for better coverage of complex, climate-related issues is growing," she said.

That can be heard in the yearlong series "Climate Connections," a collaboration of National Public Radio and National Geographic. It can be found online in Grist.org, which is devoted to delivering environmental news and commentary to people in their 20s and 30s.

Parke said the biggest news of the year for environmental journalism happened last April, when NBC News named Anne Thompson as its chief environmental affairs correspondent. "Broadcast journalism, which had been the least well populated with environment reporters and has not been a leader in the field, has bounced back," she said.

However, Bud Ward, one of the society's founders, warned that media interest in the environment has waxed and waned over the years, and was at a low point as recently as 2000.

"That has changed somewhat in the last two or two-and-a-half years, mostly by climate change coverage, which has increased enormously," he said. "But I don't think the environmental news hole has increased much. It's been eaten up by climate change stories, an extremely important issue that has probably been underplayed for some time."

Not everyone is happy about the widespread coverage about global warming. Sports Illustrated received nearly 800 letters about its cover story, most of them taking issue with the subject matter and suggesting that SI stick to sports. In a letter to readers, editor Terry McDonell defended the magazine's decision. "In fact, aggressive coverage of environmental issues is part of the magazine's DNA," he wrote, citing—among others—a story by Wallace Stegner about the increasing stress on national parks, which appeared in 1955, during its first full year. The magazine, he wrote, will continue to cover environmental issues and their impact on sports.

Experts attribute the recent increased interest in and coverage of climate change to a variety of events, including Hurricane Katrina; An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary film starring Al Gore; the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on greenhouse gases; and the February statement by the International Panel on Climate Change that global warming was "unequivocal" and that human activity was "very likely" the cause of the rise in temperatures on Earth since 1950.

Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science, said a recent analysis of trends in media coverage of climate change by two major news outlets—the New York Times and the ABC Evening News—showed the issue is getting more ink and airtime.

For the analysis, researchers at the university's Political Psychology Research Group used the LexisNexis database to count the number of newspaper stories and broadcast news segments that mentioned "climate change" or "global warming" from May 2004 through April 2007.

"In the case of the New York Times this trend shows a smooth increase from 100 articles in the first three-month period to over 380 in the most recent three-month period," the report said. "In the case of ABC the trend is less smooth, but also shows a general increase with a marked spike in the most recent three-month period, moving from only one segment in the first three-month period to nineteen in the most recent."

Currently, Krosnick is conducting a survey to determine which effects of climate change the public finds most troubling, from local effects, such as rising sea levels and increased storm activity, to worldwide consequences, such as the extinction of animal species.

The survey, which is being funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, also will gauge how newspaper stories that include the views of both global-warming skeptics and global-warming believers affect public opinion about climate change, compared with stories that include only the views of scientists convinced it is a serious problem.

"We've been really struck by how low certainty levels are in this country about this issue," Krosnick said, referring to earlier surveys. "The question is: If we do this experiment, can we show that by presenting both sides of the story—so to speak—by giving the skeptic a voice, the news media have actually been contributing to this uncertainty?"

These days, many stories treat climate change as a fact—not as an issue to debate, but a problem to be addressed, said John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonpartisan group that investigates and exposes public relations campaigns by corporations, governments and industries.

"Despite a very successful 20-year public relations offensive by the fossil fuel industry, the public has realized that the climate is indeed changing," Stauber said in an e-mail message.

"Much like the way smoking has fallen out of favor with the public after 50 rather successful and deadly years of tobacco industry PR, so anti-environmental PR around global climate change is more and more seen as absurd. The growing scientific consensus has helped solidify both public opinion and the willingness of the media to treat this issue as real, and not as some media scare dreamt up by Greenpeace."

Stauber said the big question now is: "What, if anything, will be done by government to regulate industry in an effective way that protects and serves the public and planet?"