Improving the climate conversation

Media coverage of the UN’s Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009 "under-reported" the climate science, claims a new study published by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). It finds that most journalists “reported extensively on the drama and minutiae of Copenhagen”, but gave little explanation of the essential science behind climate change.

The analysis of the coverage of the summit from print media in 12 countries finds that articles written principally about the science of climate change represented less than 10% of coverage. Of the countries studied, Brazil and India provided the most coverage, followed by Australia, the UK and then China. Nigeria, Russia and Egypt gave the summit the least space in its newspapers.

A round table of scientists and journalists gathered at the British Council in London this week to launch the study and discuss the pertinent question: how to improve the coverage of climate science in the media? “There is an urgent need to find new ways to explain climate change in terms that people can relate to, rather than in degrees Celsius” said Emily Shuckburgh, a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey.

James Painter, the author of the report, said: “We need more discussion between scientists, journalists and policymakers on how to keep highly significant, slow-burn issues like climate change interesting and engaging to different audiences around the world.”

There was a certain amount of finger pointing: at defensive scientists unwilling to communicate their work to journalists; short-sighted journalists in pursuit of sensationalism; profit-driven news editors; and the general public for a lack of interest in issues that do not immediately affect them. But together with tired rhetoric, there emerged some constructive suggestions:

·       More engagement by climate scientists with journalists to explain where there is scientific consensus and where there is not;

·       More dedicated climate change press officers at universities and research centres

·       More media personnel at the IPCC (the single most authoritative source on climate-change science had just one paid media officer at Copenhagen compared with 20 sent by Greenpeace);

·       Less adversarial coverage of climate science, but more frontline reporting on what people are experiencing and what they are doing about it.

·       The American Geophysical Union was held up as model for innovative dialogue. The organisation has set up a 24-hour hotline, where volunteer scientists are available to answer journalists’ urgent queries.

Click here for the full report.