I shouldn’t have been surprised when I first saw this graph charting newspaper coverage of climate change in 40 newspapers worldwide. But the unprecedented nature of the sudden spike seen in December did give me a start.
Max Boykoff, now my colleague here at the University of Colorado, and Maria Mansfield of Exeter University in the U.K., have been updating this graph monthly since 2004. It captures all articles in the newspapers that mention either “climate change” or “global warming somewhere in the text.”
I was curious about Max’s reaction to the spike in coverage. Here’s a short Q&A based on some questions I sent to him by email:
Q: What was your reaction when you first saw the chart?
A: In these 50 newspapers, relative to the amount of coverage there had been in in them previous months, I was surprised to see such a dramatic spike for December. PEJ has been noting increased attention in new/social media for climate change over the last few months, but not picking up on as much an increase in attention (relative to other issues) in traditional media.
Q: Obviously, COP15 spurred this dramatic spike in coverage. But why did COP15 blow all the other upsurges out of the water?A: This was a highly anticipated meeting, and the UEA CRU email hacking incident likely fed into the month’s numbers. There were news hooks aplenty not just for the shrinking environment/science journalist community, but also for those covering politics, business, society and so on. Also, the news hole during this time didn’t get swallowed up by other big issues…an example might be the tragedy in Haiti now. If this had happened December 12 rather than January 12, this likely would’ve looked much different.Q: North American coverage lags behind that in Europe and Oceania. It makes sense that Europe would have more coverage, because interest is probably higher there, the conference was held there, and the ranks of European environmental journalists haven’t been savaged like they’ve been in the U.S. And Oceania’s bigger spike makes sense too, since island nations are expected to bear a disproportionate brunt of global warming from rising seas. But do you think there was less discourse overall in the United States than in those places? Or is it possible that more of our discussion happened on partisan television news channels and, even more so, in the blogosphere?A: Part of the answer is embedded in your question here: I agree with your assessment of the factor of how it was held in Europe. But related to other contextual factors grabbing news attention like I mentioned above, I suspect the focus on the health care debate in Congress drew some attention from possible coverage…the heavy cuts in environment/science journalism in North America likely factors too.
Something important here to mention though is that Maria Mansfield and I had to make choices of which newspapers we incorporated, based partly on influence/circulation, and partly on our ability to get reliable access to their archives back to January 2004. That shaped our start date too. In so doing, we have 15 newspapers in the Asia/Middle East region, and 14 in Europe, but 9 in Oceania, 9 in North America and 3 in South America/Africa. So there is limited explanatory power in the absolute numbers compared across regions. Most useful is the ability here to get a sense of trends over time.Q: What do you suppose this might mean for public opinion?A: That’s a big and ongoing question. These numbers deal with amounts of coverage, not content. A given person can read/skim an article and interpret it or respond/resist the information in countless ways. It is a rocky and twisty ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ between the production of media representations and collective public opinion. But increased coverage in the public space certainly can keep it on the public and policy agenda.