The mobile news delivery devices increasingly likely to shape public understanding of our changing climate offer both rewards and risks, and that applies not only to those consuming news but also to those producing it in the first place.

Meet the two prototypical news consumers of the emerging digital future.

The first grazes headlines, the only information unit ideal for a tiny, handheld screen. He snacks on the most sensational or humorous as he would junk food. Most of what he gets comes from aggregator sites run by people who seek to confirm the audience’s pre-existing views; other news is passed on by like-minded friends through social media. He exists in a more personalized “filter bubble,” in other words. And his preferred medium is a video clip of no more than two minutes.

He won’t pay for apps or subscriptions (his last one ran out years ago). And for him the notion of a distinction between opinion and reportorial journalism is anachronistic, blurry, or irrelevant.

The other future media consumer, however, looks much like a good old-fashioned print news junkie, only on performance-enhancing drugs. By virtue of regular updates on a smart phone, she has a higher degree of engagement with news than ever before and shares stories with wide and relatively diverse social media circles. With her Internet-connected 24/7 large-screen tablet device, she actually consumes more in-depth pieces than she did 10 years ago.

She loves the rich experience of tablets and customized apps and websites for bringing science and the natural world to life through interactive, multimedia features. And she thinks it’s only right to pay for such access.

Consider now the implications of all this for climate change news — already among the great endangered species of the media environment. At this moment, in November 2012, a world of seven-billion populated primarily by either news consumer type is possible: Emerging research data suggest we stand at an inflection point.

For science-related journalism, much hangs in the balance. Not necessarily for science buffs and information elites — those with paid subscriptions to Nature and exquisite environmental apps already on their phones — but for the majority of the populace, fewer than half of which understands that recent warming is caused mostly by human activity.

Will a mobile-dominated news world help raise that level of understanding, or lower it? It is only one factor, of course, but will these trends help or hurt?

Given the nearly decade-long debate over the quality, quantity, and frequency of media reporting on climate change, it must be acknowledged that key aspects of the media equation are changing. Audience habits are rapidly evolving; the possibilities for communication are shifting; consumers are super-empowered; and, at the end of the day, the media have far less influence over the information environment.

Realities, Trends and Troubling Truths

In October, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and The Economist Group released a report, “The Future of Mobile News,” based on a survey of 9,513 U.S. adults, 4,638 of which were users of a mobile device (a smart phone or Internet-enabled tablet). The report touted an “explosion” in mobile news: Half of the U.S. adult population now has such a device, and two-thirds of them use those devices to access news.

For those worried that climate change news — peripheral in most news diets — may get further crowded out in a media environment with shorter attention spans, there were some positive findings, especially with respect to tablets, now owned by an estimated 22 percent of the public. “There is growing evidence that mobile devices are adding to how much news people get,” the Pew report notes. “As many as 43 percent say the news they get on their tablets is adding to their overall news consumption. And almost a third, 31 percent, said they get news from new sources on their tablet.”

A July 2012 report from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, at the Missouri School of Journalism, had found an association between tablet ownership and increased news engagement: “About 41 percent of the large media tablet owners who also owned a smart phone said they used their devices on average more than one hour per day for news. About 31 percent of those who only owned a smart phone spent that amount of time consuming news.”

The group most likely to prefer tablets for news: Males 35 to 54 years old. However, smart phones remain the most-used device for consuming news, the Reynolds Institute report states, “especially among those ages 18 to 34.”

The Pew data also disclose a troubling truth about smart phone news consumers: Only 11 percent say they read longer stories “regularly” on their mobile device. Sixty-one percent say they do so “sometimes.” And the number of tablet users who report regularly reading in-depth stories has also fallen markedly over the past year.

The ‘Front-Page Thought’

Veteran environmental news reporters and science media observers, who have already seen budgets cut way back and deadlines quicken, may rightfully regard an all-mobile world with some skepticism, as it seems to exacerbate the very media business pressures that produce errors and token news coverage.

“My main issue with mobile news access is it’s so built around the telegraphic ‘front page thought’ that it leaves little room for context,” New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin told The Yale Forum in an e-mail, “which is more vital on a wicked issue like the interface of climate science and policy than in just about any other arena.”

Revkin’s recent blog post titled “From Abstract to News Release to Story, a Tilt to the ‘Front-Page Thought’” underscores the perils of science reporting in general, regardless of delivery medium. “Developments in environmental science are almost by nature incremental, contentious and laden with statistical analyses including broad ‘error bars,'” Revkin writes in the blog, quoting from some of his previous work on these issues. “In the newsrooms I know, the word ‘incremental’ is sure death for a story, yet it is the defining characteristic of most research.”

Still, distinguishing between mobile device types can lead to different kinds of conversations and conclusions about the rise of mobile news.

Curtis Brainard, of Columbia Journalism Review, notes that tablets can have uses for those producing news and also for those consuming it.

“On the journalist’s side, tablets are powerful information tools that climate reporters can easily carry into the field to assist in the reporting process,” Brainard told The Yale Forum. “On the news consumer’s side, tablets increase access to digital media, and digital media make it easier to find or encounter information about climate change.”

Brainard also notes the potential for creating new revenue streams, which could benefit science reporting: “Apps can be the value-added products that the media didn’t make out of websites, and to the extent that they can then encourage new investments in professional news production, every beat stands to benefit from more support and resources.”

Broadening Climate ‘Media’ and Looming Game-Changers

Proponents of the mobile media revolution are quick to point out a key reality relevant to climate change information and the public: Given low levels of information and understanding, it is difficult to be nostalgic about previous information eras. Maybe things can only get better.

But there are other emerging dynamics that may shift this conversation.

The consensus among many technology experts about the media future is as follows: Social media will play a big role in people’s information consumption; video will continue to play an increasing role; and geolocation — the ability of mobile devices to serve up information based on a user’s particular location — will grow in influence, as will mobile sensing and monitoring of local activity.

With this comes the rise of data, making it possible to analyze, meter, and present to consumers all sorts of information; real-time feedback to consumers about carbon footprints, for example, is made possible only through mobile technology. Tailored climate change mobile apps can provide information to citizens in ways the traditional media never could, and do so in ways arguably more useful and practical. Institutions such as the World Bank are betting this is a promising new direction, and around the world policy makers are focused on the potential for mobile technologies to help with difficult environmental and development problems, including climate change. Much of this activity will assist adaptation strategies: The Weather Info for All initiative, for example, provides meteorological information to Africans grappling with the effects of a changing climate.

In addition, advocacy campaigns focused on addressing climate change and enabled through social media now have the potential for a much wider reach — and viral effects — even as the broadcast power of reportorial journalism is diminished. Academic research suggests that the use of communications technologies and platforms such as Twitter can help better inform the public about climate change. Whether or not these campaigns can be truly successful, and avoid mere ideological reinforcement among believers, remains to be seen, and such campaigns can come with significant trade-offs, as suggested by a study in Science Communication.

Finally, questions remain on how video and a trend toward more visual information — a phenomenon enabled and fueled by mobile access to video — will help or hurt the cause of public understanding on climate change. For sure, the overall quality and quantity of video reporting on the subject still pales in comparison to that of print reporting.

As it stands, a world of entirely video-focused news consumers would likely be a world of diminished information and understanding, short of new climate change media outlets and efforts. But given that visuals can be powerful antidotes to misinformation, a more visual news culture — though seemingly more superficial — may also carry promise for bringing home the realities about climate change.

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