In Depth

Journalists Bring Global Warming Home

By Debra Kaufman

In Miami, WTVJ-TV special projects producer Jeff Burnside discovered an area of the Florida coastline that was a true flood zone, based on data from the federal government’s new laser-measured elevation study.

Then he found that new homes were being built there.

“We talked to homeowners in this neighborhood who had no idea their neighborhood would be inundated as sea levels rise and hurricane storm surges hit,” said Burnside.

Global warming is typically perceived as a story about far away — melting icecaps in the Arctic — and far in the future; both factors make the climate change story a hard sell to TV news directors and newspaper editors.

“The challenge has been to convince the local news manager that global warming can be a local story,” said Burnside. “For this story, neighborhoods that never imagined they’d be potentially inundated realized for the first time that they could be.”

Covering climate change has never been an easy task. For years, environmental journalists felt compelled to give equal time to the naysayers, but times have changed.

“I don’t think you see this false balance as much as you used to,” said Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein. “On the Internet you have some people who, no matter what the science says and what the numbers show, won’t buy it. But they’re not scientists. It’s mainly political.”

While the issue global warming been a major national environmental story for years, it now is also becoming an increasingly local one.

Society of Environment Journalists President Christy George, who is special projects producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, points to stories about the devastation the pine park beetle has created in the forests in the Rockies and widespread vector-born illnesses such as the West Nile virus as two examples of very visible and local global warming stories. “This story is getting less political all the time,” she said. “The science is just pouring in and is very conclusive.”

That doesn’t mean that U.S. newspapers and TV newsrooms are clamoring to cover climate change on a regular basis. The perception is that global warming is still a difficult, depressing story that people don’t want to hear, which makes news directors hesitant to assign it.

“It’s bad news and makes people feel powerless,” said George, “and it remains political because the solution is political. There are still a lot of downsides to doing this story.”

ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore notes that global warming is a “threatening” story. “It’s hard to take in what scientists are saying in terms of how dangerous this could be for civilization,” he said. “There’s hardly a day when I don’t find myself being dragged out of denial by talking to a scientist.”

National Public Radio science correspondent Richard Harris points to a January 2009 Pew Research Center poll that showed global warming at the bottom of a list of 20 “top priorities for 2009” that respondents want President Obama to address. “The public more and more believes that global warming is a real issue,” he said, “but they’re less and less willing to do something about it.”

Covering global warming is also complicated by the fact that many scientific issues related to global warming are still the subjects of research and debate. “Global warming is not one question, and that’s what people tend to forget,” said New York Times environmental reporter Andrew C. Revkin. “For example, there are people who widely disagree on how quickly the sea level will rise, and they’re not employed by Exxon.”

Revkin also points out the difficulty of teasing out policy from science in the debate. President Obama is currently being urged to join other countries that have pledged to keep global warming from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. “That number of 2 degrees Celsius was determined by policymakers, not scientists,” he said. “So the importance of that specific number is not based on science.”

Environmental journalism is also being hit hard by tightened budgets in the newsroom. “I have a tough time covering it, with the compression we face at The Times,” said Revkin. “We have shrinking story length and there’s a growing demand on the Web to be dramatic. It’s the same pressures faced by TV journalists, except it’s worse on TV. I can’t imagine anything harder to cover than global warming on TV.”

No one knows that better than WTVJ’s Burnside, who said he “sneaks an environmental story on the air about once a week. We don’t have the luxury of a focus on a beat any more.”

But he also reports that he is chipping away at resistance by educating his managers about what environmental coverage can be.

“They had an immediate impression it was a National Geographic kind of story,” he said, “But it includes drought, vector-born illnesses, economic stories about the oceans, hurricanes and so on. The breadth of environmental stories is massive.”

Climate change stories are a hard sell now, but there is movement afoot to create partnerships for more climate change news as well as train in-house resources to cover global warming topics.

Climate Central, a year-old nonprofit science and media organization, was created to provide “clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.”

Director of communications/senior research scientist Dr. Heidi Cullen, who formerly was a climate expert and correspondent for The Weather Channel, reports that Climate Central has already provided stories for “News Hour With Jim Lehrer,” Newsweek and Time.com, but the goal is to be able to provide more local stories.

“Our heart and soul is in developing relationships with news editors at local TV news markets,” she said. “A huge majority of Americans get their news from local TV.” Dr. Cullen reports that they’re “in the early phases” of developing partnerships with local TV news outlets.

At The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media (climatemediaforum.yale.edu), editor Bud Ward has held two workshops on climate change for meteorologists and weathercasters from the American Meteorological Society “to elevate the meteorologist within the station hierarchy to the role of scientist.”

“The key thing is that the meteorologist/weathercaster is the only scientist most Americans see on a day-in, day-out basis,” he said. “They’re in the key position to help inform the public on complex issues related to and beyond weather.”

Even so, Dr. Cullen is the first to admit that environmental journalists have a long road to travel to educate the public. “It’ll take a long time, but we have to build up peoples’ baseline knowledge of what climate is,” she said. “We’re getting around that by telling locally based stories with strong scientific content.”