Data Journalism Is Disrupting Climate Change Coverage

22 October 2015


James PainterWith the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21 just one month away, GEN takes a look at how the media is covering climate change in an interview with Dr James Painter, Director of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Dr Painter writes regularly on the issue of climate change in the international media and also speaks at major international conferences for academics, journalists, policy makers and scientists. He is the author of four RISJ publications: Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond (2010); Poles Apart: the international reporting of climate scepticism (2011); Climate Change in the Media: reporting risk and uncertainty (2013); and Disaster Adverted? Television Coverage of the 2013/4 IPCC Climate Change Reports (2014). In conversation with GEN, Dr Painter says that the influence of millennials on the media, digital disruption and data journalism are all having a huge impact on the progression of the climate change story. 

What changes (if any) have you noticed in the media’s coverage of climate change due to the influence of new media and data journalism?

There are huge changes, as is well-known, in the provision and consumption of news in most countries as a result first of the online revolution, and now as a result of the digital disruption caused by the rise of social media, smart phones and visuals.

Past, Present and Future of CO2

Data Journalism Winner 2014 - The Past, Present and Future of CO2

Here are three changes worth looking at in the coverage of climate change as a result of these changes:

* The rise in much better graphics and visuals to portray the science of climate change. Most media organisations are dedicating more resources to this area.

* The arrival of new ‘digital natives’ who are dedicating a lot of coverage to the environment and climate change, in part because they believe their target audience (millennials) are very interested in this topic. Examples are BuzzFeed, Vice, and Huffington Post who have rapidly increasing audiences in many countries, eclipsing or overtaking those of legacy media. 

VICE climate change blog

The VICE News blog covering global environment issues and climate change

* The rise of several high-quality niche sites offering specialist information on climate change are a very good source of information for journalists. However, sceptical bloggers and online sites are also influential over some right-leaning media organisations. 

From a media-monitoring perspective, how has the media reacted towards climate change issues this year? Has there been much reaction? 

Research suggests that so far this year, there has been an increase in the quantity of coverage of climate change issues compared to the trend of low coverage in 2012-14, but there are strong national variations. The best chart which illustrates this is here:

Climate Change Chart

The same website gives breakdowns for the quantity of coverage in 2015 compared to previous years by country, including Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, the UK, and the USA. The quantity of coverage in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America (with the exception of Brazil) is much lower than other parts of the world such as Europe, the USA and Oceania. The end-of-year figure for 2015 is likely to be higher than 2014, which was in turn higher than 2012-2013. The drivers of coverage - at least in the Western media - are interest in the UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015, the Pope’s statements on climate change, the divestment campaign, and the rise of alternative energy sources.

Would you say that climate change media coverage is largely negative or positive?

If by ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, you mean ‘stressing the need for action’ or not, then I would say that there is an increasing trend for more stories to be published or broadcast in which politicians, scientists or other interviewees stress the urgency of reducing greenhouse emissions. This was true for example of the coverage of the reports by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013/4 compared to the previous reports in 2007.


IPCC Report: Climate Change 2013 - The Phsycial Science Basis

If by ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, you mean more or less accurate stories judged by the extent to which they reflect mainstream climate science, than I would say that the trend in some countries is for the coverage to become more politicised along ideological lines. This is particularly true of Anglophone countries like the USA, the UK and Australia. Here print media will often follow a particular treatment of the climate story according to their ideological bias rather than a more objective assessment. So for example, the Daily Mail in the UK often gives plenty of space to sceptic arguments, whereas the Guardian is now a campaigning newspaper in favour of divesting from fossil fuels.

Guardian and Daily Mail

 Sceptical report on climate change in the Daily Mail and the Guardian reporting on its climate change campaign

If by ‘positive’, you mean stories about people, countries, cities or companies taking action to reduce emissions, then there is some evidence of a slow trend towards more such stories in some media (such as local media in the USA), although the vast majority are still about the dangerous consequences of climate change.

How would you describe the changes that have taken place in terms of the media’s reaction to climate change reporting over the past ten years? 

In terms of volume, the coverage tends to be cyclical. Major UN conferences, major reports or politicians making important speeches tend to drive up the coverage. In terms of the angles of coverage, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the climate change story both in print media and particularly television, still often tends to revolve around the disaster/catastrophe’ theme, which places a strong emphasis on the adverse impacts or ‘crisis’ elements of the climate change story, such as Arctic ice melt, more drought or more extreme weather events. Another common theme is ‘uncertainty’ frame, which emphasises the many uncertainties surrounding climate science including ranges of projections for possible outcomes, the presence of sceptical voices or duelling experts, and/or the inclusion of words like ‘may’, or ‘possible’.

100 years of Australia temperature Data Journalism Project by Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2014

However, there are plenty of other ways of treating the climate change ‘mega-story’. Another common theme is ‘opportunity of action’, where media reports stress the opportunities and benefits from low-carbon development, such as cleaner transport, better health and greater energy security. Another theme, particularly found in the business press, is where journalists or commentators talk more in terms of ‘risk’ and ‘risk management’ where the odds, probabilities or chance of something adverse happening are given, or where every day concepts or language relating to insurance, betting, or the precautionary principle are included.

Another major change is that many correspondents now link the climate change story to the energy story, and report extensively on changes in the energy market, including the rise of solar energy and other renewables, the boom in fracking, and moves to divest from fossil fuels, and government policies towards the energy sector. 

In the nineties, the media talked a lot about the o-zone layer problem. In the early 2000s, there was climate scepticism and then came the film An Inconvenient Truth about Al Gore’s Presidential campaign to educate citizens about global warming. What do you think will be the key themes over the next ten years?

Al Gore Global Warming

Al Gore's campaign: An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning

I would guess that the climate change story will revolve more around:

* As extreme weather events become more common or more intense, journalists will focus on their impacts, and whether such events have become more likely as a result of climate change. (This is called the science of Probabilistic Event Attribution.)

* There will be more local stories in local and regional stories on such events affecting local people.

* The switch to more renewable energy, the obstacles and benefits, will become even more of a common theme.

* If the current momentum around countries making voluntary pledges to reduce emissions continues, then there will be plenty of media coverage around whether the countries stick to their pledges, whether they are sufficient, and whether they are increased.

* Climate change as one exacerbating factor in such political issues as conflicts, migration and health will gain more coverage.

* There may be more stories about the more positive aspects of climate change. The Guardian, which probably has more coverage than other media outlet on climate change and more resources dedicated to it, recently said it would try and write more stories about hope, which they see in the many voices who are now calling for action from their leaders, in the rapidly falling cost of renewable energy, in the pledge by G7 countries to phase out coal power, and in the communities and innovators around the world who are getting on with the job rather than waiting for the politicians. 

Earth Alert

Winning GEN Editors Lab Final 2015 news prototype by RFI- France 24

Can the media’s reporting of climate change be improved? How?

There are several ways but here are four:

1) Have dedicated correspondents assigned to covering the climate change story, rather than rely on general reporters. It needs specialist expertise.

 CPN chart

CPN : Six month media synidcation for sharing climate stories, coordinated by GEN

2) Don’t see the story as just an environmental one – it has many dimensions, including health, business, energy, international relations and food security. Take it out of the environmental ghetto.

3) Very few stories include both an account of the real or potential consequences and what can be done to address climate change. Try and include both in the same story.

4) Allocate more reporting budget for foreign or local correspondents to travel to areas already affected by climate change. Some western foundations or NGOs have money available to help fund such trips.


 Replay of the first COP21-CPN Briefing with Laurence Tubiana

The recent Social Good Summit held during Climate Week examined the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives. Can you tell me about some of the key new media discussions held at that Summit?

I did not follow this summit closely, but interesting discussions held about the media’s role in promoting action on ‘good causes’, and the power of good story telling via social and legacy media are available via the Mashable website


For Further information, contact Karen Burke - GEN's Director ofCommunications - via email: kburke@globaleditorsnetwork.org 

See Also:

Climate Publishers Network -  A mutual syndication of articles related to climate change free of charge during the run-up to COP 21 coordinated by GEN.

* France 24 - RFI win Paris Editors Lab with their #COP21 climate change app

* Data Journalism Winner 2014 - The Past, Present and Future of CO2

 Past, Present and Future of CO2

* Data Journalism submission 2014 - 100 Years of Temperatures in Australia

100 years of Australia temperature

* Data Journalism Project 2014 - 80 Years of Summer 

80 years of summer

Photo Credits:

Al Gore's campaign: An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning by Hajime Nakano