Research Roundup: E-beat Questions: Favoring Sources? What about TV Envirocasts?

November 15, 2008




Studies show that news beats shape news content: Reporters from different beats tend to focus on different angles of the same story, and some reporters may become so embedded in their beat’s culture that they present their sources in a positive light or use sources’ definitions of problems without question.


To determine whether this holds true for environmental news, Michael McCluskey, an assistant professor in the Ohio State University School of Communication, examined environmental coverage from four different beats – the environment, business, politics and general assignment – appearing in nine newspapers in western Washington state. He also surveyed environmental groups in the region, asking them about their organizations’ goals and the size of their memberships, staff and budgets. He compared the survey results to 498 news stories appearing in the nine newspapers from 2002 through mid-2004, selecting news articles if they mentioned at least one of the environmental groups surveyed.


He found that environmental journalists were somewhat more likely than journalists on other beats to present environmental groups positively and they were significantly more likely to mention activists’ solutions to environmental problems. He also found that environmental journalists wrote more about grassroots environmental groups than political and business reporters, who tended to focus on “institutionalized” organizations, or those with longevity and more resources.


Meanwhile, environment reporters were more likely than reporters on any other beat to write about environmental groups with public relations expertise. Political and general assignment reporters were more likely than environmental journalists to write about groups whose staffs and/or members possessed journalism experience.


Topic coverage also varied by beat, the researcher found, with environmental journalists writing more about groups with goals to protect water and wildlife habitat but writing less about groups that focus on lobbying and fighting sprawl.


The findings did not clearly indicate that environmental journalists were writing for their sources. Rather, the researcher suggested, the results made sense, given that stories about sprawl and lobbying fit neatly into political and/or business coverage, while stories about water and habitat protection “reflect the type of rehabilitation efforts that fit squarely on the [environment] beat.”


Environmental journalists write stories “that involve environmental groups possessing different resources and pursuing different types of goals than writers on other beats,” the researcher concluded. “Those contextual factors – more stories about grassroots groups and groups with experienced PR practitioners” may be contributing to a pattern of coverage distinct to the environment beat, which suggests the need for more study, he wrote.


He cautioned that his findings were preliminary because of the study’s narrow focus on the U.S. Northwest and the relatively small range of environmental groups surveyed.


For more information, see Michael McCluskey, “Reporter Beat and Content Differences in Environmental Stories” in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Volume 85, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 83 – 98.





The TV weather report is an understudied aspect of journalism, yet weathercasters often are the most, and sometimes the only, scientifically trained members of broadcast news staffs, a recent study suggests.


Kris Wilson, a senior lecturer for the Emory University journalism program in Atlanta, recently reviewed prominent communication journals to find very little research about weathercasters. This ignores the important role that weathercasters play as communicators of scientific and environmental information, Wilson suggested. Weathercasters do more than relay meteorological news and have covered a wide range of stories, including explaining the latest global warming findings and interpreting radar images of Columbia space shuttle debris as it fell over Texas. Weathercasters also may be the most graphic-savvy members of broadcast news staffs, providing explanatory images of forest fires, criminology techniques and other science-based stories for main news segments.


As a step toward correcting academic inattention to weathercasters, Wilson surveyed 217 randomly selected U.S. TV weather reporters representing 127 markets in 48 states to learn more about what they do. According to the survey results:


• 93 percent of respondents said their TV stations did not employ science or environment reporters, a finding that matches results of surveys conducted by David Sachsman, James Simon and JoAnn M. Valenti and confirms “that [weathercasters] may be the only science-trained member in the newsroom and called upon for scientific expertise,” Wilson stated.

• About 20 percent of respondents said they regularly reported environmental news, for an average of three environmental stories reported per month among this group.

• Forecasting weather takes up 36 percent of a weathercaster’s day, while community service – visiting schools and speaking to community groups – comprises 15 percent of a typical day. During community visits, weathercasters address current issues in the news and explain the role of science in society and thus “may be a place where significant science communication occurs,” Wilson wrote. About half of a typical weathercaster’s day is spent preparing graphics for the weathercast and, as noted, they might also prepare graphics for science-related stories presented during newscasts.

• The main weather segment is longest in the smallest markets – 3 minutes and 35 seconds on average – and shortest in the largest markets, or 2 minutes 51 seconds, offering smaller markets more opportunities for increased coverage of the environment. However, TV weather staffs are larger in larger markets, indicating that they too have opportunities to provide environment and science news, Wilson suggested.

• More than half of the female respondents – who comprised only 15 percent of those surveyed – said they reported the weather on weekends, compared to one-fifth of their male counterparts who report on weekends. Those working weekends performed reporting duties on other days, offering another “untapped opportunity for increased science reporting in general and for an increased profile for women weathercasters specifically,” the researcher observed.


Wilson noted that efforts to provide science training for weathercasters are increasing, including those offered by the nonprofit National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), established by Congress in 1990 to increase environmental knowledge in the United States. Quoting a NEETF official, Wilson wrote that the foundation considers weathercasters “the single largest cadre of trained scientists in the media today” with “particular promise for providing the viewing public with organized information on environmental systems and causal relationships important to public understanding of environmental science.”


In its first project, NEETF worked with Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., to increase audience understanding of the Chesapeake watershed. Ryan and others are transforming weathercasts into “envirocasts,” Wilson wrote, concluding that the “days of television meteorologists doing little more than predicting the weather may be numbered as the forecasts of the future increasingly will include tips for viewers on how to dodge environmental threats and manage their health.”


For more information, see Kris M. Wilson, “Television Weathercasters as Potentially Prominent Science Communicators” in Public Understanding of Science, Volume 17, No. 1 (January 2008), pp. 73 – 87.


Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmental communication. 


Jan Knight