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date: 25 February 2021

Economic, Technological, and Organizational Factors Influencing News Coverage of Climate Changelocked

  • Timothy A. GibsonTimothy A. GibsonDepartment of Communication, George Mason University

Summary

Over the past two decades, the global news industry has embarked upon a major project of economic, organizational, and technological restructuring. In organizational terms, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global news landscape where most of the larger firms are owned by shareholders and run by executives whose singular focus is on rationalizing news production and improving profitability. Although in some cases, these shareholders and executives have used their authority to influence climate coverage directly, more often their goals are non-ideological: reducing labor costs and increasing revenues. At the same time, in a parallel development, the digital media revolution not only has spawned a host of new online competitors but also has cut deeply into the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media firms.

Within legacy news organizations, these industrial and technological trends have converged to dramatically intensify the work pressures facing environmental journalists. For example, in an effort to reduce costs, many firms have reduced newsroom staff to a small core of multi-tasking reporters, supported by a wider web of part-time freelancers. In this process, the science and environment beat is often the first to go, with environmental specialists among the first to be reassigned or downsized (and pushed into freelance work). For all reporters, there is increased pressure to produce more stories in less time on multiple media platforms, a trend that, in turn, enhances the power of special interests to influence climate coverage through public relations and other external information subsidies.

Due to these converging industrial and technological trends, environmental reporters now work in a new media ecosystem that is complex, subject to contradictory pressures, and in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news. When the environmental beat is cut, climate change often becomes the purview of general assignment reporters who lack experience and expertise. For their part, freelance specialists continue to cover climate news, but their ability to sustain this coverage over the long term is constrained by their part-time status. Finally, although niche climate blogs have provided welcome spaces for environmental journalists to produce in-depth coverage, these outlets usually reach only tiny audiences composed of the already-engaged.

In short, without significant action, the regrettable status quo of climate news—that is, an episodic sprinkling of climate coverage scattered across the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely. Policy-makers should therefore restore long-term institutional and economic support for environmental journalists specializing in climate science and policy.

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