Climate science under-reported at Copenhagen

Climate science under-reported at Copenhagen

Media coverage of the UN’s Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009 ‘under-reported’ the climate science, according to a new study published by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

It finds that most journalists reported extensively on ‘the drama and minutiae of the negotiations’ but that in the balance between capturing the drama and explaining the essential background to climate change, the science received scant coverage.

An analysis of the coverage of the summit from more than 400 articles published in two print media in 12 countries finds that articles written principally about the science of climate change represented less than a tenth of all the coverage surveyed. Nearly 80 per cent of the articles mentioned the science in less than 10 per cent of their column space.

The study was carried out with the close collaboration and assistance of the British Council’s Climate Change programme and written by James Painter, a researcher at the RISJ. It reveals marked differences in the coverage in the Western press as compared with the rest of the world. It finds much of the science reporting in the Western press was centred on the story of the hacked emails at the University of East Anglia or ‘climategate’. The views of climate change sceptics were quoted in the Western press but not by media in the developing world, the study finds.

Using official UN figures, this is thought to be the first detailed assessment of who attended Copenhagen. Around 2,000 members of delegations from 250 universities were present at Copenhagen, including 280 professors. But scientists from universities represented only 12 per cent of those quoted on the science, according to the study. In articles where climate science was covered, representatives of international and national bodies (including governments) were quoted far more than university scientists.

It suggests that part of the explanation for scientists from universities not having more of a voice at the summit was that they had far fewer communications officers or media relations personnel at Copenhagen than other organisations at the event. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the single most authoritative source on climate change science, had just one paid media officer at Copenhagen. Greenpeace alone had more media relations personnel than the total number from all the universities– 20 compared to 12.

James Painter said: ‘The science of climate change was under-reported when the opportunity was self-evident. Getting the science into the media will remain even more of a challenge at a time when audiences and editors in many countries are suffering from climate fatigue.

‘We need more discussion between scientists, journalists and policy-makers on how to keep highly significant, slow-burn issues like climate change interesting and engaging to different audiences around the world.’

The study surveyed over 50 environmental journalists and scientists across the 12 target countries post-Copenhagen about how climate change science might be best communicated. The recommendations include:

*More (re-)engagement by climate scientists with journalists to explain where there is scientific consensus and where there is not

*More dedicated climate change press officers at universities and research centres

*More media personnel at the IPCC

*More imaginative use of new media

*Less adversarial coverage of climate science, but more frontline reporting on what people are experiencing and what they are doing about it.

The countries and media included in the study were Australia (Sydney Morning Herald, The DailyTelegraph), Brazil (Folha de Sao Paulo, Super Noticia), China (People’s Daily, Beijing Evening News), Egypt (al-Akhbar, al-Masri al-Youm), India (Times of India, Dainik Baskar), Italy (Corriere della Sera, Il Giorno), Mexico (Reforma, Uno Más Uno), Nigeria (Guardian, Sun), Russia (Kommersant, Komsomolskaya Pravda), United Kingdom (Guardian, Daily Mail), USA (New York Times, New York Post), Vietnam (VietnamNet, Zing). The period monitored was the first and last three days of the summit.