Media Coverage of Climate Change Increased in 2019
By Michael Svoboda
"For the first time, environmental protection rivals the economy among the public's top policy priorities."
Pew Research Center's take on its mid-February poll results likely came as a surprise to many climate and media watchers, notwithstanding numerous indicators over recent months that concerns over climate change were gaining ground among much of the public.
Two multi-year trends led to this result: a steady decline in public anxiety about the economy since the decade-old recovery began in 2010, and a significant increase in concern about the environment over that same period, particularly since the 2016 election of President Trump.
The first trend is easy to unpack. Concern for the economy peaked during the 2008-2010 recession. Ten years of a growing economy slowly eased those fears among many. Trump's effect on this long-term trend is arguable, since the decline in worry from 2012 to 2014 is steeper than that for 2016 to 2020. It's widely accepted that incumbent presidents get more credit than they actually deserve for a good economy … and more blame than they deserve when the economy sours.
But Trump's election seems the likeliest explanation for the sharp increase in concern about the environment in 2017 and since. That's not unusual, as experts have found that support for environmental spending – one measure for "concern" – generally climbs during Republican administrations and fades under Democratic presidents.
Reports from Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, and from the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, reveal that the increase in concern reported by Pew correlates closely with media coverage of climate change. The three – public opinion, economic well being or malaise, and general media coverage – are closely intertwined.
The rise in coverage from 2016 through the end of 2017 can be attributed in large part to Trump's bellicose opposition to action on climate change, the singularly most highly visible environmental issue since well before he took office.
According to Media Matters, in 2017, "71 percent of [broadcast news] segments on climate change featured actions or statements by the Trump administration, most frequently the president's announcement that he intended to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement." By 2018, however, the initial outrage over Trump's contrarian stance on climate change had dissipated; again according to Media Matters, broadcast TV coverage of climate change dropped 45 percent.
Media Matters and MeCCO both report subsequent – and significant – increases in media coverage of climate change in 2019. Television coverage was up 138 percent; print coverage, by the five national newspapers tracked by MeCCO, was up 46 percent. (It should be noted that while the percentage increases are substantial, the total amount focusing on climate change as part of the full news coverage strikes many as woefully low.)
Media Matters attributes this increase in part to Covering Climate Now, the collaborative media effort spearheaded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation that was timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City in September 2019. That unprecedented initiative led to publication or broadcast of at least 3,640 stories, project managers indicate. (The Covering Climate Now project team is planning a similar media collaboration in concert with the 150th anniversary of the first Earth Day on April 22.) Media Matters also points to coverage decisions made independently by various cable, print, and broadcast news organizations.
But how were these 2019 developments experienced within news organizations?
By happenstance, on the same day that Pew Research Center released its February findings, Planet Forward, the environmental reporting platform created by George Washington University, hosted a panel discussion that featured representatives from broadcast, cable, and public television. Co-sponsored by Climate Nexus, "The Climate Is Changing. Is TV News Adapting?" provided individual and personal observations on the trends reported by MeCCO and Media Matters.
An Increase in Coverage
Two of the guests – CBS News Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Jeff Berardelli (a contributor to Yale Climate Connections) and Eugenia Harvey, executive producer of WNET's Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change – noted and complimented the spur provided by the Covering Climate Now initiative.
When CBS corporate officially signed on to the initiative, Berardelli said, journalists from nearly every news beat across the network came forward with story ideas.
At WNET, Harvey added, the initiative prompted new partnerships and allowed producers and reporters to share their stories with wider audiences. The longer-term increase in climate coverage at WNET, however, was prompted also by special funding provided by a donor who had recently realized how climate change could affect the lives of his grandchildren.
For Jen Christensen, health and climate unit producer for CNN, it was the economics of climate-related disasters that persuaded CNN decision-makers to increase coverage of climate change. Economic issues were one of the reasons CNN chose to produce the seven-hour "Climate Crisis Town Hall" with 10 of the 14 Democratic candidates vying for their party's nomination for president.
Changes in the Style and Mode of Coverage
Prompted by questions from Frank Sesno, a former CNN journalist and anchor who now directs GW's School of Media and Public Affairs, panelists also explained how the tenor of their organizations' climate coverage is changing.
In the Peril and Promise series at WNET, Harvey noted, the stories highlight issues of social justice. As Christensen's job title indicates, the health angle is critical to the stories she produces for CNN.
Berardelli added that colleagues at CBS had become more conscious of the timeframes they use in their climate stories: To be relevant to the lives of viewers, stories have to connect with problems they might encounter in human-scale time spans, like mortgage cycles. In California, "people are losing their insurance because of increasing fire risks," he noted. That's something every homeowner can understand.
Sesno also asked panelists about challenges they face in producing and placing stories about climate change. All noted that the almost limitless space afforded by digital media meant that stories that could not be fit into televised programs could still be posted online.
And rarely are they asked by their managers to "balance" their climate science stories: The scientific consensus on climate change is broadly accepted within their news organizations. Nevertheless, all three panelists acknowledged that climate change is still a divisive topic for some viewers. But by including alternative frames that appeal to conservatives (e.g. economy, personal autonomy, national security), they agreed, journalists could connect with these viewers.
Addressing climate change, Berardelli said, could result in "millions of high-paying jobs" and "could revive forgotten places in America."
And regardless of their political views, for Americans living in coastal communities that still rely on septic tanks, Christensen noted, rising sea levels could mean "you won't be able to flush your toilet."
Even religious objections to action on climate change – "God would not permit such wholesale destruction" – can be countered with context-appropriate framing. "Have you ever read the Old Testament?" Harvey exclaimed in response to questions about dealing with religious viewpoints.
As important to the evolving climate beat as surmounting skepticism, however, is countering the doom and gloom created by misleading warnings that "we have just 12 years to act on climate change."
In his classes on sustainability reporting, Sesno said, roughly one-quarter of the women say they have decided not to have children.
Harvey acknowledged that stories of "peril" typically attract the most viewers, but emphasized the importance of "promise" for WNET's coverage of climate change.
One challenge for communicators was succinctly posed by a politically conservative member of the audience: "How do we shift from 'climate Armageddon' to solutions?"
Berardelli stressed that action on climate change could not only avoid disaster, it could improve matters.
Sesno followed up on this point by highlighting the significant progress humanity had made in solving other environmental problems.
Reducing carbon emissions may well be more difficult. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of regulating pollutants – and polluters. The list of 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted since 1988 includes companies that were also responsible, in decades past, for polluting Earth's air and water. Solving climate change, like cleaning the air and water, could become a positive story about human ingenuity and cooperation.
"We will need everyone's help," Berardelli concluded, "and we could make everyone's life better."
Telling that story will be one of numerous challenges in covering climate change in 2020.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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