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U.S., European Media Still Worlds Apart on Climate Change Coverage

Europeans accuse the U.S. media of giving climate skeptics a disproportionate voice and perpetuating a debate that has been settled among scientists

By Tom Vandyck,

Jul 6, 2011
Journalists with Yvo de Boer, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCCC

"American papers still have that wall between an editorial page and a news page. It's naïve to believe that a journalist doesn’t have a point of view, but you try to not insult your readers. You've got readers who are, of course, members of the Tea Party, or who believe climate change isn't real. But we also just ran a story about scientists who are getting tons of funding to prove climate change isn't real."

According to Boykoff of the University of Colorado, a number of factors contribute to the difference. Firewalls between opinion and news are more impenetrable in U.S. newsrooms. State-owned media such as the BBC in the U.K., and similar broadcasters in other European countries, have agenda-setting clout that American media lack. Most major U.S. media outlets are corporate owned, leading to a different newsroom culture.

Many American papers are owned by national chains, such as Gannett, the New York Times Company, and the Chicago-based Tribune Company. Few do their own climate reporting, relying instead on syndicated content.

"We use wire service coverage, we don't have anybody covering climate change," said Jenny Green, managing editor at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which has a daily circulation of 180,000 and a newsroom staff of almost 90.

By comparison, the Belgian paper De Morgen, with its newsroom staff of 50 and circulation of 52,000, does employ a full-time climate writer.

"I feel like a lot of North American journalists that I’ve talked to over the years feel constrained by some of these things," said Boykoff. "These are smart folks that often times are swimming upstream against the current. The journalists themselves are just as savvy as the ones over in Europe, but the way that they can do their reporting over there is different."

Polarized and Paralyzed

While in Europe the media consensus about climate change coincides with political plans to reshape climate and energy policy dramatically, coverage in the U.S. reflects a much more polarized — and paralyzed — political landscape.

The EU plans to reduce its carbon emissions, lower its energy consumption and raise its renewable energy production all by 20 percent by 2020. Britain recently launched a massive push to insulate private homes and businesses, and Germany has decided to double its renewable energy generating capacity by 2022.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., climate policy remains mired in partisan squabbles. A federal cap-and-trade plan is a non-starter in ideologically polarized Washington D.C., where any meaningful action on the issue during President Obama’s first term in office seems unlikely.

To what extent are these policy differences a consequence of media coverage?

"The media play a part in shaping public perception, and policymaker perception and actions on climate change," said Boykoff. "It's not insignificant, but to really understand how significant it is — it's difficult. It hasn't been done yet."

"As a consequence of the way papers in Western Europe assess that climate change is real, the public debate in Europe, in my opinion, goes more in the right direction," said Vandermeersch of the NRC Handelsblad in Rotterdam, who also pointed out that ideologically slanted newsrooms in his part of the world are increasingly a thing of the past.

"I think we have a better educated public in Europe than in the U.S., where fake arguments are still on the table, because of that kind of journalism."

Tipping Point

But things are changing stateside, said Neuzil of the University of Minnesota. "The journalists that I know in the mainstream media have more actively reflected the scientific consensus in recent years. They’re not as worried about finding a denier quote every time they do a story."

The tipping point came in 2005, said Boykoff, with hurricane Katrina, and the release of former Vice-President Al Gore’s documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

"There were a number of important events around that time that changed the landscape for that kind of reporting. But meanwhile in television news, it continued. That could be partly just because television news isn't able to go into the specifics and the contours of complex issues like print journalism can. It became less about U.S. anomalies versus the rest of the world and more about what medium we’re talking about."

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