PEJ Newspapers Content Analysis: Science Coverage Seen Declining

Some of the beats most likely to provide the best platforms for newspaper coverage of climate change are doing worse than other news categories in the increasingly competitive newsroom – garnering less space as newspapers continue grappling with endemic economic woes.

The news about newspaper trends isn’t all bad, however, as environment is among the areas where some editors are increasing, rather than decreasing, resources. But there’s an important catch here in terms of climate change stories – the need for a local angle.

That may be just the approach the Sacramento Bee is taking with a new occasional series on climate change impacts in the Sierra Nevada. “No longer is climate change a distant drama of shrinking polar ice caps,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Knudson wrote in the August 3 first installment. “As year-round ice fades from the saw-toothed summits of the Sierra Nevada, it’s clear an unwelcome reality is at our doorstep. Global warming is local warming.”

Like so many other news articles on climate change, the Bee‘s coverage prompted a quick flood of reader reactions, many of them highly skeptical of the scientific underpinnings of human-caused climate change. Those comments are online at the Bee website, noted earlier.

According to a new Project for Excellence in Journalism content analysis, foreign news, national news, and business news are down 64, 57, and 34 percent compared with coverage they got just three years ago.

Only 10 percent of newsroom executives surveyed said they now consider foreign coverage “very essential.”

“This decline in foreign news occurs as U.S. armed forces confront stubborn insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration talks of a global war on terrorism and international trade increasingly impacts the everyday lives of Americans,” PEJ said in the study.

The study did not note – but it’s clear – that the decline in coverage comes also at a time when international, national, and business activity related to climate change generally has been increasing, in part in anticipation of an expected increasing U.S. government role in 2009.

Respected Newhouse D.C. Bureau Closes

The report was released at a time when one of the journalism community’s most respected newspaper syndicates covering the Nation’s Capital – the Newhouse News Service – announced it is closing its doors after some 50 years covering the Capital. Newhouse fed D.C. coverage to papers such as The Oregonian in Portland, Or.; The Star-Ledger in Newark; The Plain Dealer in Cleveland; and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Newhouse indicated that some of the bureau’s two-dozen reporters might join individual papers’ staffs, but not necessarily in Washington. But Newhouse’s Washington bureau chief offered a grim assessment for those wanting strong national coverage from Washington on issues such as climate change: “The decision to close followed the direction of our clients, the editors of our papers,” Linda Fibich said in a statement. “They felt they could not afford to pay for a central Washington bureau at a time when they were steering all available resources to local coverage back at home,” a trend some critics refer to as “hyper-localization.”

Incremental News … ‘A Dying Breed’?

In terms of staffing and budgeting resources dedicated to coverage, the PEJ changing-content analysis reported that science coverage has declined by 24 percent over the past three years. That compares with resources declines of 46, 41, and 30 percent for international affairs, national government/politics, and business coverage. The study pointed to local government and politics, education, the environment, police reporting, sports reporting, obituary writing, and investigative reporting as areas in which editors said they are adding resources, if not necessarily column inches. The PEJ study sited “a strong local news component” as a key factor in those areas.

In a comment that could spell trouble for coverage of climate science issues, given the incremental nature of scientific advances, the PEJ researchers wrote that “A story marking an incremental development … is part of a dying breed.”

Dying? Perhaps migrating to the worldwide web is a better way of picturing it. “Content lost in the print version of the story doesn’t always disappear completely,” the study reported. “Instead, much of it migrates to the web as beat reporters write these minor twists and turns of a running story either into their own blog or as short, stand-alone website stories.”

In making cuts, the study said, editors “don’t necessarily eliminate subject matter altogether. Instead, they tend to dilute it.” That too is likely small comfort for those favoring more in-depth news coverage of climate change science and policy.

The study noted at one point that “reporters who once concentrated on one beat or specialty now frequently have two or three.”

It’s this kind of recurring news about the newspaper industry that led The New York Times, reporting on the PEJ study, to headline “As Papers Struggle, News is Cut and The Focus Turns Local.”

Creative writing/journalism blog writer John Kobin, in the New York Observer, was more direct: He wrote a piece headlined “Worst Year in Modern Newspaper History?“. “As bad as newspapers have been doing – it’s been conventional wisdom for a few years now – the industry is actually doing worse than most ever anticipated,” with practically daily announcements of newsroom staffing cuts.

Worst year ever? Some editors are standing by the overall quality of their published product while reserving judgment on future prospects. Given the uncertain newspaper and overall economic outlook in coming months, they might be best advised to answer the “worst year” question, “So far.”

AUTHOR

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum. Reach him by e-mail at bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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