Dr. Farnsworth: Event-Driven Environmental News in the U.S. and Canada

Editor’s note: Hurricane Sandy devastated the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in the last week in October, which was just one week before Election Day on November 6, 2012. Subsequently, the news coverage of the storm and its aftermath became intertwined with the news coverage of the election. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg specifically cited the storm in his official endorsement of President Obama on November 1, focusing on climate change for both being responsible for the storm and the impetus behind his endorsement.

Written well before Hurricane Sandy, Dr. Farnsworth’s insightful research into TV coverage of energy and environmental issues, both in the U.S. and in Canada, looks into how events such as big storms, manmade environmental disasters and more can serve as “news pegs” for journalists. In the blog post below, he describes this phenomenon and how, after an initial spike in stories and discussion of environmental issues, journalists stop covering the environment and there is no continual analysis of how we as a society should deal with climate change issues. The key insights into the media’s portrayal of these issues gained from his research are both incredibly relevant now, in the wake of the storm, and will continue to be in the future. His full research article, co-authored with Stuart Soroka, Lori Young and Andrea Lawlor, will be published next week in Electronic Media and Politics.

For journalists, the first step in writing or producing a story often involves the search for a news “peg.”  Sometimes you don’t have to look very far. When something important (and ideally distinct from the norm) just happened, you report it. When something important is about to happen soon, you report it. Timeliness and novelty can be reporters’ best friends. Action or, failing that, pending action, is a wonderful news peg.

The problem for a news organization comes when reporters try to write about something that may happen in a distant future. Most journalists cannot just write about what they want to write about, after all— not if they want to keep their credibility intact.

The greater the distance between now and when something might happen, the harder the story’s existence is to justify to editors and readers. Particularly if the issue is contentious, critics may accuse a reporter of bias in choosing to write a news item tagged as speculative. Hence the need for a “news peg” on which to hang a story that talks about longer-term trends. In addition, as Anthony Downs (1972) observed in his study of the “issue-attention cycle,” long-term matters suffer from lack of public and journalistic attention once the novelty of a given topic wears off.

As Shanto Iyengar (1991) observed, journalistic norms also push a lot of news reports in the direction of “episodic” coverage of the latest developments. Reporters tend to eschew more “thematic” treatment of stories, which involves putting the stories into context and identifying longer-term trends. Episodic stories are easier to report and generate fewer objections from would-be media critics. The more a reporter tries to place stories into a larger framework, the more likely readers or viewers may object to the interpretations that can come from adding a particular context.

Hurricane Sandy, one of the most damaging storms to hit the Eastern Seaboard in years, created a massive housing and health crisis in the New York City area just before the 2012 presidential election. As hundreds of thousands of people struggled without electricity or heat in their homes, reporters in the storm’s wake revisited the issue of climate change, as they do after many natural disasters.

Absent the news peg of a severe storm, climate change stories may be seen as biased news framing. After all, the global warming debate is just the sort of contentious topic that generates strict outside scrutiny of news content in the United States. Although there is an overwhelming belief among scientific experts that the planet is warming and that humans are responsible for that change, political opinion regarding this topic divides closely along partisan lines. The longer the U.S. Congress debates whether the planet is warming, the larger the number of people who tell survey researchers, erroneously, that there is no scientific consensus. Academic studies of media content, most notably those by Maxwell Boykoff, (2007a2007b) have found that, if anything, reporters have given far more attention in their stories to global warming skeptics in the scientific community than their tiny numbers would suggest.

Recognizing this deficit of news stories featuring reflected the scientific consensus regarding the evidence of global warming, several colleagues and I started studying U.S. television news content of energy and environmental news, particularly news relating to climate change.   This paper, co-authored with Stuart Soroka (a McGill University professor), Lori Young (then an M.A. student at McGill University and now a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania), Andrea Young (a doctoral student at McGill) and found how fleeting discussion of climate change issues can be on the leading newscasts of the US and Canada.

A lot of my previous research (much of it co-authored with S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University) has focused on the shortcomings of television news coverage of the presidential campaigns and governance. The heavy focus on horse-race campaign news at the expense of more substantive matters triggered questions about how well the media would report on a high-profile issue like the environment. Earlier research collaborations comparing US and Canadian news relating to the coverage of the US war in Iraq and nomination politics in the two nations suggested considerable cross-border differences in news coverage despite the geographic and cultural proximities. Because environmental matters involve many issues that have impacts on both sides of the US-Canadian border, looking at climate change news seemed a particularly interesting avenue for exploration. In this new study, our US news dataset involved the content analysis study of the 1,396 news stories relating to energy and the environment that aired on the NBC evening news between 1999 and 2009. We found that coverage of global warming tended to take place primarily in the immediate aftermath of weather disasters. Heat waves and hurricanes make it easier for reporters to discuss global warming by giving journalists a news peg on which to hang a contentious topic. But as soon as the weather cleared, the discussion of climate change evaporated as well. In order to give this study an international comparison, we also looked at the 1,789 evening news stories relating to energy and the environment that aired on CTV, Canada’s highest-rated private network, during the same period. Comparative cross-border studies of news have found that Canadian reports tend to be more substantive than American fare, particularly in the study of political campaigns.

In addition, Canada’s political elites are far more like to acknowledge the existence of global warming than the deeply divided U.S. Congress. Canada signed the Kyoto Agreement to curb greenhouse gases, while the Clinton administration never even sought a vote in the U.S. Senate on the Treaty, knowing it would fail. Public opinion in Canada is also more supportive of policies that would curb global warming, even if it costs jobs. So, one might expect considerable differences in the news content between the two nations given the considerable distinctions in elite and public opinion on either side of the border.

In fact, the two countries differed less on environmental news that we expected. The volume of environmental and energy news consistently peaked in the summer in both nations. Over the ten year period the annual amounts of coverage remained nearly constant. (There was a somewhat greater amount of coverage in Canadian news on environmental topics during nearly every quarter, but those cross-national differences were not large.)

Canadian news reports on climate change also tended to follow severe weather outbreaks. Like U.S. news, Canadian reports required the “peg” of bad weather to launch even brief reports that address climate change matters. Absent weather mayhem, there was little extended discussion of climate change issues in the television news reports of either nation. In weeks without exceptional weather events, reporters lack something on which to hang any longer-term reports of climate change.

This pattern did not change over the years contained in the decade of news examined here, even as environmental activists grew increasingly concerned about the planet’s ecological health. As a result, one can expect that public opinion likewise will continue to focus on climate change issues sporadically and largely following severe weather events in the years ahead.

Image credit: Thumb image by NOAA, feature image by Jessica Dimmock/VII Photo.

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Stephen J. Farnsworth, Ph.D., is professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the university’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Dr. Farnsworth is the author or co-author of four books and dozens of articles and book chapters on the mass media and politics. Dr. Farnsworth was a Canada-U.S. Fulbright Research Scholar at McGill University in Montreal and worked for ten years as a daily newspaper journalist before becoming an academic, mostly with the Kansas City Star & Times.