And Now For Something Completely Different

svobodaToday’s post comes from University Writing Professor, Michael Svoboda.  Professor Svoboda is both a passionate environmentalist and teacher.  He teaches  a UW-20 course titled, Global Warming & the Problem of Global Governance.  He writes today, in response to a recent post by Dr. Entman, Extra! Extra! Read All About It?


What level of change will meeting the challenge of climate change require? Some extra effort, some strategic substitutions, or something completely different? In my two-part response to Prof. Entman’s post—“Extra, Extra, Read All About It”—I first try to reframe the analysis, in part by asking where a work like Hot, Flat, and Crowded fits in a discussion of the media coverage of climate change, and then suggest that we acknowledge and respond to the Monty-Pythonesque absurdities of our politics.

Pt. 1 – The American Media Do Meet Lower (but very Human) Expectations

In his August 6th essay for this blog, Prof. Entman invoked cultural memories—preserved in the black & white films of the thirties, forties, and fifties—of sidewalk barkers announcing an “extra” edition of the daily newspaper. In those late afternoon or evening “extras” one would find the first accounts of what we now, referring to the long-established practices of radio and television, call a “breaking” news story, a story big enough to warrant a break in “regularly scheduled programming.” Prof. Entman criticized U.S. media for “utterly failing to offer a coherent climate crisis narrative” in their regular editions. To correct this failing, he called for something “extra,” for a more concerted effort to digest and deliver the information the American public needs if it is ever to respond effectively to the challenge of climate change. But is climate change best understood as “stop-the-presses” news? In this first of two posts on the media’s coverage of climate change, I want to argue that the issue is receiving more and better coverage than Prof. Entman’s essay suggests and that several “extra”s have already been published—in the form of books like Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

The mainstream media in the U.S. may not deserve any awards for the depth, breadth, or consistency of their coverage of climate change over the past year, but neither in my view have they fallen noticeably short of past performances. Prof. Entman pointed to two pieces of evidence for his more dour view. First, citing his own searches in Lexis-Nexis, he demonstrated that U.S. media ignored the urgent appeal of the scientists who gathered in Copenhagen this past spring to update the 4th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. And referring to a recent Gallup poll indicating that more Americans now thought the media were overplaying, rather than underplaying, the risks of climate change, second, he highlighted the mismatch between the scientific consensus and public opinion.

While it is a little disturbing that American media paid so little attention to the news coming out of Copenhagen, a more general search of U.S. newspapers and newswires—for articles on “climate change” during the first quarter of 2009—overloaded the Lexis-Nexis engine. This is not altogether surprising given that during those months the Environmental Protection Agency was formulating its position on greenhouse gases, Waxman and Markey were putting together the first draft of their climate change bill, and the United States Global Change Research Program (GCRP) (formerly known as the United. States Climate Change Science Program) was releasing the last of its required reports, including the penultimate draft of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.[1] Those GCRP reports were just as hardhitting as the Copenhagen Synthesis Report[2], but their punches were all aimed at the U.S. Thus, it’s not altogether surprising that U.S. media favored U.S. news over a report coming out of Europe. When combined with routine coverage of related science news, I suspect the media’s coverage of the GCRP reports, of the Waxman-Markey bill, and of the EPA added up to more-frequent-than-usual coverage of climate change in the first months of 2009.

How then can we explain the results of the March Gallup Poll cited by Prof. Entman? Remember that the Gallup Poll asks respondents a contextual question: “Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming—(a) generally exaggerated, (b) generally correct, or (c) generally underestimated?”[3] If climate change is regularly in the news (due to the coverage of EPA, of Waxman-Markey, and of the GCRP reports), and we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, then perhaps more people will think there is more than enough talk about global warming, that, in other words, coverage is “exaggerated.”

More people in the U.S. will also likely think coverage is exaggerated if, in the U.S., there hasn’t been a recent run of recording-breaking high temperatures or dramatically destructive weather events that fit popular conceptions of climate change. Two studies point out the role of weather in media coverage and public perception of climate change. A 2000 study by James Shanahan and Jennifer Good, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, suggests that media attention to “global warming” rises and falls with the temperature; record high temperatures increase mainstream media coverage.[4] And in their 2009 working paper, professors Patrick Egan (NYU) and Megan Mullin (Temple University) provide evidence that the public’s own attention to the issue also rises and falls with the temperature.[5] For a variety of reasons, including a La Nina pattern that seems to have dampened the effects of steadily rising CO2 levels,[6] few records have been broken in the U.S. in the past few years. So with lots of coverage of climate change but with no new weather highs—and many new economic lows—we should be surprised not that more people think the coverage is exaggerated but that most (57%) still think media coverage of global warming is generally correct or even underestimates the risk.[7] With a change in the weather—and I’ll have more to say about that in the second part of my response—we might see that measure exceed its previous high mark (66%).

Nevertheless, this marginal flip-flopping of American opinion on climate change would appear to support Prof. Entman’s major claim: the mainstream media have not provided the American public with a coherent narrative that enables them to see the ongoing story beneath the many changes of scene.

Which brings us to Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Mr. Friedman thinks of himself as a journalist, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded certainly provides an all-encompassing and coherent narrative that ties climate change (hot) to economic globalism (flat), and to the national security implications of an increasingly competitive worldwide search for resources, especially energy resources (crowded). Could we say that Friedman’s book, and the books of other journalists—like Elizabeth Kolbert,[8] Eugene Linden,[9] and Stephan Faris,[10] to name just a few—provide the “extra” that Prof. Entman is seeking from the media? If so, should that raise or lower our estimate of the odds that Americans will do something real about climate change?

The role of the book in the age of digital media and the Internet is an issue that I, as a former bookstore owner, would enjoy considering with the Class of 2013 as we discuss Friedman’s work over the coming months. The fact that the fall semester will end just as the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen begin should also provide us with many opportunities to revisit the essential question that underlies Prof. Entman’s timely essay: What can we expect of the media on an unprecedented news story like climate change?


[1] Karl, Thomas R., Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, eds. 2009. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press. The final report, released in June, is available online: http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts

[2] Richardson, Katherine, et al. 2009. Synthesis Report. Copenhagen: Climate Congress. The final draft, also released in June, can be downloaded from http://climatecongress.ku.dk/.

[3] Saad, Lydia. 2009. Increased Number Think Global Warming Is “Exaggerated.” Gallup, Inc. 11 March 2009. Accessed 19 July 2009. http://www.gallup.com/poll/116590/Increased-Number-Think-Global-Warming-Exaggerated.aspx

[4] Shanahan, James, and Jennifer Good. 2000. Heat and Hot Air: Influence of Local Temperature on Journalists Coverage of Global Warming. Public Understanding of Science 9: 285–295.

[5] Egan, Patrick and Megan Mullin. 2009. How Citizens Integrate Information Without Ideological Cues: Local Weather and Americans’ Beliefs about Global Warming. Accessed from All Academic 19 July 2009 http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/6/2/9/6/pages362968/p362968-1.php

[6] Schmidt, Gavin. 2008. 2008 Temperature Summaries and Spin. Real Climate 16 Dec 2008. Accessed 19 July 2009 http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/12/2008-temperature-summaries-and-spin/. See also this “hot-off-the-presses” refutation of recent “global cooling” by Hausfather, Zeke. 2009. Claims of a Decade of Cooling Refuted by Analysis Showing It Warmest by Fair Margin. Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. 18 July 2009. Accessed 19 July 2009 http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2009/08/warmest-by-fair-margin

[7] Saad 2009.

[8] Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2006. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury, USA. This book first appeared, in three separate installments, in The New Yorker. Kolbert has since interviewed Friedman for the online environmental “magazine” Yale Environment 360.

[9] Linden, Eugene. 2006. Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster. Linden covered environmental issues for Time for many years; he has also published work in Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, National Geographic, the New York Times, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.

[10] Faris, Stephen. 2009. Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley. New York: Henry Holt & Co. Stephen Faris is a journalist who has published work in Time, Fortune, Atlantic, and Salon.

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