CNN in Lead on Global Warming

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

After Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans last year, news reports on global warming became more commonplace. But nearly two years ago, CNN anchor Miles O’Brien had to fight to get the story heard. “We fought internally tremendous editorial battles because, frankly, we were pushing the story along,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Mr. O’Brien spent more than a month traveling to the Arctic Circle, New Orleans and the South Pacific to craft what became a one-hour “CNN Presents” documentary that ran March 27, 2005, and highlighted the issues of global warming. The piece addressed how polar bears near Hudson Bay in Canada were losing feeding grounds as the ice vanished and how people in the South Pacific might see their homes drift off into the ocean as temperatures and sea levels climb, among other impacts of the climate change.

The documentary also addressed the politics of global warming, such as efforts to pass bills that limit greenhouse gases and efforts on the other side to fight those bills.

CNN was out in the forefront of coverage of global warming then because it devoted the resources to a project of this scale. The effort included long hours of research on the science behind global warming, overcoming the challenges of covering a science-heavy story and understanding the funding sources for scientists who study global warming.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time educating ourselves and our gatekeepers at CNN about this story,” Mr. O’Brien said. “There was a false equivalency that was part of the conventional wisdom between certain scientists who are largely discredited and are tainted by their funding sources. We were giving too much credence, I felt, to a group of people who were tainted by their affiliation and their funding. But we had the time to bring forth the narrative in a way people could understand where they were coming from, and you could still make your own decisions.”

CNN was one of the first mainstream outlets at the time to cover global warming in such depth and to delve into the science in a way that made sense to a mass audience. “I think our story helped [coverage of global warming] along. We were really on the vanguard,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Since then we have seen the story gradually shift. The important shift is into the debate of what to do or what not to do.”

CNN will continue to cover the environment in-depth, he said. Mr. O’Brien will travel to Antarctica in November to produce a series of climate change stories.

“If my boss is willing to send me to Antarctica to do climate change stories and other stories, that tells me there is a commitment and they feel viewers need to know about this,” he said. CNN is also in the early stages of another long-form treatment of global warming slated for next year.