The deafening silence around climate change in the US presidential campaign has left leading climate scientists baffled by the absence of debate about the “greatest issue of our time”. Some commentators have laid the blame firmly on the US media for sticking too closely to the political agendas set by the candidates.
But it is not just in the US where climate change and environmental issues have been virtually ignored. In the UK, a study by Loughborough University found that during the Brexit referendum, television news bulletins in the six-week period in May and June dedicated no time at all to environmental issues – despite the fact that much of UK environment policy is determined by the EU. Print media did little better.
So what’s going on? Part of the challenge is that TV editors often see climate change as too niche or too preachy. Another is that many audiences find the issue too remote, too frightening, or too consistently depressing. In many countries too, experienced specialist reporters, including science and environment correspondents, are on the decline because of cuts driven by dwindling revenue for legacy media.
In the UK, a 2016 report showed that of the 700 journalists surveyed, just over half self-identified as specialists. But while the most populous beats were business, culture, sport, and entertainment, there were “few politics, science, or religious specialists”.
New kids on the climate beat
The gap is partly being filled by “digital-born” players such as Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice, who are the subject of our new book Something Old, Something New. In its 2016 Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute for the first time asked online users what media sources were most consulted for environment news.
Of those in the UK who self-identified as “highly interested” in the environment, more than half accessed news from the BBC on a weekly basis, making it by far the most popular news brand online. But after the BBC, Huffington Post was used by just under a fifth. Among those with a high interest in news about the environment, it is as popular as both the Guardian and Mail Online. (See Figure 1)
BuzzFeed News is less accessed, but among those with high interest in news about the environment it is as popular as Sky News and the Telegraph online. Vice News has a small reach, but online it is comparable to The Times, due to the impact of the Murdoch’s flagship’s pay-wall.
In the US, Huffington Post was the most popular online news destination for those highly interested in environment news. BuzzFeed reaches as many as the New York Times and the Washington Post (see Figure 2).
The relative success of Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice was one of the reasons we chose to analyse their climate change coverage and compare them to legacy media. All three give editorial priority to environmental issues, all three have invested heavily in different language sites or country-specific sites, and all three are “digital natives” with a strong interest in which format works on which platforms.
We took the Paris climate change summit of December 2015 as our case study, in part because recent studies have shown that such summits generate “networks of co-production” and a “camp feeling” where journalists often report in a very similar style and emphasis to each other.
An examination of more than 500 online articles by five different traditional and new media organisations in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US showed that the new players adopted a range of new approaches including informal tonality, “immersive” personal narration journalism, and often an emphasis on different themes.
Of course, HuffPo, Vice and BuzzFeed are very different to each other in terms of their business models, distribution strategies and overall editorial priorities.
Countering climate silence
All three did a lot of straight reporting and analysis of the summit. But we found some key differences between them and legacy media. Vice stood out for its style of “immersive” video reporting, where the reporters take their audience on a journey with them.
BuzzFeed used a more informal, irreverent and entertaining language, found for example in its article: “10 Adorable Animals that Climate Change is Killing Off”.
Both Vice and BuzzFeed were significantly more visual in their material, relying more on photos and videos.
Huffington Post often had the same focus and volume of coverage as The Guardian and The New York Times. But it placed much more emphasis on a positive, solution-based approach to climate change. Also, more than half of HuffPo’s articles were blogposts, usually adopting an activist viewpoint. Vice also gave plenty of space to activist and NGO voices.
We concluded that the three digital players were beneficial for public debate about climate change, as they had found new ways of covering the “old”, sometimes boring, often remote, theme of climate change. By thinking hard about what gets shared and liked on social media, they are helping to counter the “climate silence” and ensure that the issue remains interesting and relevant, particularly to younger audiences – something the legacy media would do well to take note of.