Just because mainstream coverage of climate change is waning doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about it. Candis Callison, a UBC professor with an interest in climate change coverage, argues that new media presents new opportunities for covering a topic that has traditionally posed trouble for journalists because it neither bleeds, nor leads. 

Just because mainstream coverage of climate change is waning doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about it. Candis Callison, a UBC professor with an interest in climate change coverage, argues that new media presents new opportunities for covering a topic that has traditionally posed trouble for journalists because it neither bleeds, nor leads. 

 

Reporting on climate change is on the wane in major newspapers across the country, but does that mean Canadians aren’t talking about it?

Last month in the Toronto Star, Antonia Zerbisias cited new research that shows a steady decline of stories on climate change and global warming in major Canadian newspapers since a peak in 2007.  In the U.S., it’s not much different: coverage has dropped by more than 40 per cent since 2009.  Zerbisias contrasts these findings with the steady rise of those who believe climate change is a threat resulting from human activity. She asks whether or not it’s the Internet that’s “keeping the issue alive” by providing a way for people to address, analyze and advocate issues around climate change.

Angst over a lack of mainstream media coverage is nothing new for those keeping track of climate change.  Reach back to 2007 and the seminal Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that stated unequivocally that climate change is already happening and is caused by humans. Or even further, to Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning film. At both times, many were similarly concerned that major media weren’t doing their job.  Look at the stark lows in coverage in 2002-2004, and it’s not difficult to imagine what the conversations were like then.  

From my front row seat as a graduate student at MIT undertaking climate-related research, what I continuously heard during this period were scientists, science policy experts, and activists voicing, to put it mildly, their lack of admiration for climate change reporting. Many mused openly about what would catalyze public sentiments and political actions that might avert a warming world and its consequences.  I vividly remember one prominent scientist in a speech to hundreds of MIT students waxing nostalgic for the days of Walter Cronkite when, he surmised, it was possible for one authoritative voice to declare what the public should care about.  

Fantasies of a united public, authoritative media and science aside, even the widely cited social scientist Maxwell Boykoff, acknowledged to Zerbisias that “traditional media…has really atrophied over the last few years.” Boykoff is a major voice in these nearly decade-old media critiques because of his oft-cited 2004 co-authored paper, “Balance as Bias.” He, like many others, notes that alternative sources are rapidly expanding. 

The proverbial game has changed then, but how and what will result from these changes is still very much in flux.

Inside news organizations and journalism schools, we are all well aware of the economic shifts that are restructuring the way newsrooms run and how stories are found and told.  It’s clear too that mobile devices, Twitter, and Facebook are irreversibly changing the way news is being accessed, shared, and discussed by audiences.

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What is less clear is the impact of a plethora of sources and new platforms on an issue like climate change.

Climate change has always been notoriously difficult to cover because as many reporters have pointed out, it doesn’t bleed (or lead), it oozes.  But blogs, social media, and highly divided and devoted followings online have begun to affect that.  One only has to track the prominent transformation of The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin from reporter to blogger to get a sense of what it means for journalists to be situated within this much larger, more boisterous online conversation about climate change.

Climate news and feature stories that do end up in major media sources are now subject to immense scrutiny, criticism, and counter-claims from concerned audiences with diverse perspectives and vested stakes.  This is what a plethora of new sources online facilitate, and it is in part what makes covering climate change a more challenging task than it’s ever been. For those engaged in this issue, how evidence is deployed, who is speaking for it, and where scientific knowledge has been produced are vital details.

The role imagined for journalism in our democracy has traditionally been one of informer, agenda-setter, and watchdog.  This function of forum-provider, chief discussant, and extant verifier is still a very new one for journalists and news providers to navigate, or even understand.

Media historians have shown that every new media is introduced with fanfare, heralding imminent revolution. Instead of instant changes, what usually happens is a reorientation of what and how existing and new media get deployed and used.  We are in the midst of such a change, and observing these processes in part forced me to begin thinking beyond the lockstep democratic ideal of media providing information and citizens taking action as a result.

Instead, in my research I’ve begun to argue that we must think more broadly about what public engagement looks like, and acknowledge the wide variety of ways that information reaches citizens.  Simply put, social and new media provide an avenue for stories to circulate, and socialize – an avenue for facts to be invested with meaning, ethics, morality, and a rationale to act. 

Mainstream media tend to put things in neat categories like science, business, health, international.  Social and new media are messy.  They regularly blur the lines, connect dots, and mobilize their own sets of arguments and expertise.  For example, it’s clear to those using their social networks and presence online to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline that climate change and the tar sands development in Alberta are intimately connected with global ramifications. But in most business sections of Canada’s newspapers, climate change is not likely to appear in connection with reporting on resource extraction.

How the evidence and stories that do end up in mainstream media related to an issue as pressing and solidly evidenced as climate change are heard and attended to by those engaged (or not) remain varied.  Certainly the chatter online is only growing and therein persists a need to continually rethink what role mainstream media plays in engaging and mobilizing Canada’s diverse citizenry.