Climate Change Coverage Not Only Dips in Quantity, But Also Shifts in Its Presentation

January 15, 2012

The Beat

By BILL DAWSON

Early in 2011, editor Douglas Fischer of The Daily Climate analyzed his news-aggregating website’s archives for 2010. Fischer, an SEJ board member, concluded that news media coverage of climate change had “slipped to levels not seen since 2005” and that “Reuters again led the pack” by publishing the most stories on the topic.

Reuters continued to be a leader in the volume of climate coverage as 2011 wound down. By the time the limited accord at the Durban, South Africa, climate talks was announced in December, the news service had again published the most climate-related stories in The Daily Climate archives — 1,195, followed in second place by The New York Times, with 915.

(In 2010, there were 1,683 Reuters stories in the archives and 1,116 published by the Times.)

The ever-alert Joe Davis, editor of SEJ’s TipSheet and WatchDog TipSheet, told The Beat that he had noticed that Reuters reporters were especially productive in their pre-Durban coverage, compared to other news organizations.

A little checking turned up evidence of what he had observed. The conference ran from Nov. 28 to Dec. 11. In the month before it started — defined for these purposes as the period from Oct. 28 through Nov. 27 — a search of the Reuters archives produced 47 stories (including a few updates) with the keywords “climate”and “Durban”.

By contrast, searching The New York Times’ archives with those two keywords produced seven stories published in the same period. Searching the Washington Post’s archives turned up just four stories with “climate” and “Durban”.

Differently designed searches admittedly might have revealed more coverage by any or all of the three news organizations. For example, they may have published stories about, or at least mentioning, the conference that gave the location just as South Africa, but didn't mention the specific city.

Nonetheless, it seems fair to say Reuters did stand out for its devotion of a large amount of advance attention to the then-upcoming talks.

A month before the conference started, that coverage included stories reflecting the news service’s broad international focus — one on China's encouragement of developed nations to introduce climate-related initiatives to avoid “deadlock” at Durban, another on how the conference figured in a Commonwealth summit, and a third on the connections between the upcoming Durban talks and traditional farming methods.

On Nov. 28, the day that the climate conference got under way, Reuters published eight stories about the meeting, including one by Jeff Oelho and Nina Chestney with the arresting headline, “Can carbon for the price of a pizza save the planet?”

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Reuters’ continuation of its close attention to climate change did not signal, however, that it would necessarily continue presenting some related coverage online in the same, unified manner that it had been using.

In November, the news service announced that “Reuters.com is changing the way it publishes news about companies that make money supporting the environment or damaging it. We are saying goodbye to the Green Business section.”

It was not the first time that a prominent Web location devoted to the confluence of environment and economy had vanished or changed.

In January 2010, TheWall Street Journal pulled the plug on its highly regarded “Environmental Capital” blog. Four months later, The New York Times renamed its “Green Inc.” blog (about “Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line”) as "Green: A Blog about Energy and Environment” and gave it “a broader mission.”

In bidding farewell to its Green Business section, Reuters said in a blog post that it would no longer publish stories “about companies that make money supporting the environment or damaging it” on “their own real estate,” but instead place them on a couple of separate websites — one devoted to energy and another to environmental policy and climate change.

The news service also announced that it would no longer “be showcasing news by our esteemed editorial partners including Matter Network, InsideClimate News and GreenBiz.com,” adding: “One of the goals of the sustainability movement is to integrate its objectives into all facets of business. In this light, Reuters.com is ahead of the game as we enter a time when solar panel companies are mainstream enough to be on the regular business page and not siphoned off to a private green niche.

“Of course, green companies, technology and economies are not going away. At Reuters.com we embrace this opportunity to bring the business of the environment into the fold of the rest of the site, and welcome you to continue your dialogue with us as we branch out to yet another new chapter.”

The first commenter to accept that invitation was not happy with the change, however, contrasting it unfavorably to Reuters competitor Bloomberg News’ recent launching of a stand-alone business-environment site:

“Just as Bloomberg unveils a Sustainability site that blankets the topic, Reuters retreats. Portraying this as being ‘ahead of the game’ and deriding your previous effort as a ‘private green niche’ is a bit of fanciful spin.”

Bloomberg, announcing its new site, noted that “sustainability” means different things to different people, with business executives regarding it as “a long-term strategy to gain a competitive advantage in innovation, efficiency, reputation, and ultimately performance.”

The Sustainability section on Bloomberg.com will focus on actions by such business officials, the news service said. It explained:

“The goal is to uncover what businesses are doing, or what they need to be doing, to thrive as global competition intensifies for strategic resources. We feel this is a unique yet critical way to report on sustainability issues — from inside the companies who are defining it. If executives don’t commit to making sustainability a vital part of their company, more than just their businesses will suffer. The communities they operate in, customers, and other non-financial players are also impacted by business decisions.”

An early story on the new Bloomberg site by Kim Chapman and Alex Morales reported on the in-progress Durban talks under the headline, “Global Warming Fight Threatened by Debt Crisis.”

Featured stories on the site in the immediate aftermath of the conference included “Water Wranglers Help Fend Off EPA in Oilfields,” “China Step Toward Legal [Climate] Accord Seen As Obama Win,” “Kraft Pushes for 49-ton ‘Bridge Wrecker’ Trucks,” “China Marks Decade in WTO Amid EU and U.S. Criticism,” and “Wyoming’s Tainted Water Pressures EPA.”

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Yet another change in the presentation of environmental news occurred recently on the website of The New York Times, when it eliminated a page featuring articles from Greenwire and ClimateWire, two subscription news services that are published daily by Washington-based E&E Publishing.

The Times had begun publishing some of the company’s coverage about three years earlier. Typically, several new articles would be posted daily.

Journalists lacking the wherewithal to subscribe to E&E but still wanting to include some of its reporters' stories in their news diet are not out of luck, however. E&E is providing free access to a selection of its print and video stories on its own site at eenews.net/public. That public page is also accessible through a link at the bottom of E&E’s home page.

In a Durban-datelined story on the public page, E&E reporters Lisa Friedman and Jean Chemnick explained the agreement at the climate conference to begin negotiating a treaty that would require all major greenhouse-gas emitters, not just developed nations as in the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce emissions.

Their lead:

“The longest U.N. climate conference in history ended at dawn yesterday with diplomats swinging a pick-axe at the wall that has long protected developing countries from taking legal responsibility for fighting global warming.”

Greenwire was founded in 1991 by former New York Times reporter Phil Shabecoff as one of the Web’s first subscription news services, concentrating initially on aggregation and synthesis of coverage by others. E&E acquired it from National Journal in 2000, shifting the focus to original reporting by its own staff members. The company launched ClimateWire in 2008 and also produces other publications on energy and environmental topics.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2011-12. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.