Saturation media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings crowded-out environmental and other news stories, again raising questions about how Americans — and their media — assess risk.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about climate change. But when asked to compare this concern with other anxieties, Americans show that they’re much more concerned about the economy, federal spending, the social safety net, guns and violence, and other social issues.

In short, except when being asked by pollsters, most Americans don’t focus on risks posed by our changing climate.

Seizing — and Creating — Opportunities to Communicate

To capture the public’s attention even briefly, climate change communicators must seize and sometimes create opportunities to raise the issue. Extreme weather events, if handled carefully, offer such opportunities, but less dramatic events, like annual observances, also can be useful.

Ever since a 1970 teach-in first planted the seed for it, Earth Day has provided annual occasions to raise environmental issues. Indeed, so many activities are now planned in anticipation of the day that it might be more accurate to speak of an Earth Month. This is especially true in the nation’s Capital where many environmental organizations mark this annual observance by releasing reports, presenting panels, convening conferences, awarding prizes, and hosting receptions. Seven such events were held in D.C.:

  • On Monday, April 15, the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) launched a new report, “The Policy Climate,” at the Brookings Institution.
  • That Wednesday, the Goldman Environmental Prize committee feted its six 2013 winners — Jonathan Deal, Azzam Alwash, Rossano Ercolini, Aleta Baun, Kimberly Wasserman, and Nohra Padilla — at a ceremony held in the Ronald Reagan Building.
  • That Thursday, April 18, three organizations held four different events.
    — At the National Press Club, The Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement celebrated its 40th anniversary by inviting MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to moderate a panel of past Tyler-Prize winners: Richard Alley, John Holdren, Thomas Lovejoy, and Mario Molina.
    — At the same time, and also at the National Press Club, Notre Dame announced that the Global Adaptation Index (GAIN) will relocate to South Bend, Indiana, to share quarters with Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, where it will become ND-GAIN. (The club’s calendar does not show events sponsored by outside groups until the week of the event; to avoid conflicts, it pays to check what else is scheduled there that day.)
    — After co-sponsoring a panel on climate finance at Friends of the Earth that morning, The Institute for Policy Studies hosted its own celebration for the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winners at “Busboys and Poets,” a D.C. restaurant-bookstore.
  • On Friday, April 19, Rights and Resources Initiative hosted another 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize event, with Aleta Baun, at the Georgetown Inn.

The Media as Secondary Audience

Target audiences for these events varied. CPI wanted to reach policymakers. For IPS and R&RI, the events offered opportunities for staff and colleagues in the broader environmental community to engage with environmental issues elsewhere. The celebrations organized by the Goldman and Tyler committees were aimed at broader constituencies.

Of the seven events listed above, the Notre Dame briefing at the National Press Club was the one most explicitly aimed at media. Most organizations, however, try to ensure that media are also aware of their events. The 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners, for instance, were profiled in an attractive press kit, as was the 2013 Tyler Laureate, Diana H. Wall, for whom a website had been created, with a downloadable press release.

To sum up: In the same week, several organizations addressed environmental issues in public settings, in part to reach a broader public through media. Searches on these events at Lexis-Nexis, however, indicate only scant coverage, chiefly listings by calendar services (e.g. AP Planner or DC Daybook), reports by specialized news and public relations services (e.g. PR newswire, Greenwire, States News), or website posts (Huffington).

In 2011 and 2012, The New York Times and The Washington Post had both published stories and/or photo-essays on the Goldman Environmental Prize winners just after the awards were announced. So far this year, the only notice given to any winner by either paper has been a London-datelined Times piece on the Iraqi winner, Azzam Alwash, by Erica Gies, a piece originally published in the International Herald Tribune.

Why the news blackout? The very loud and clearly newsworthy events in Boston are certainly part of the answer.

The Events in Boston

From mid-afternoon Monday, April 15 — an hour before the start of the CPI event at Brookings — until late Friday night, the Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath dominated the news, with the fatal fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, providing a vivid mid-week interlude.

Unquestionably, the traumatic and “breaking” events in Boston were newsworthy. And Americans have come to expect the 24/7 cable coverage many collectively turn to in times of such crises. From more traditional “mainstream” news sources, however, many expect a heightened sense of perspective. And without that boader perspective, the public’s understanding of life’s risks can be distorted.

To assess last week’s “mainstream” coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, The Yale Forum examined an increasingly important American news source: NPR, formerly known as National Public Radio. To measure NPR coverage of events in Boston, the full rundown for seven episodes of All Things Considered (ATC, April 15–21) and Morning Edition (ME, April 16–22) were reviewed; the minutes for segments about Boston were tallied and then compared to the total minutes for each broadcast.

The final results: Roughly 53 percent of the broadcast time for the two shows that week was devoted to segments about the Boston Marathon bombings. (This tally includes the “special” broadcasts, which greatly extended the lengths of at least two episodes during that week.)

By comparison with the cables’ ratios, this allocation of Boston/non-Boston coverage may seem modest. But a comparison of the numbers for Boston with NPR’s coverage of the Texas fertilizer plant explosion shows a vast difference.

For the four days after the night-time explosion, NPR devoted roughly 5 percent of ME and ATC to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Thus the four lives lost, the hundreds wounded, and the damaged streetscape in Boston, along with the dramatic aftermath involving pursuit of the alleged bombers, got 10 times the NPR coverage of the fifteen lives lost, the hundreds injured, and the half town leveled in West, Texas.

Some of this ten-fold difference can be explained by timing and, for want of a better word, plotting. The explosion in Texas happened at night and in a little-known town, and the event was over — the fires were out — by morning; there were no subsequent explosions, fires, or injuries after that first night … and no clearly “bad guys” to be pursued. By contrast, significant moments in the Boston Marathon story, starting with the first news of the explosions near the finish line, occurred while ATC or ME were on air. Any serious news program would want to cover those briefings, bulletins, press conferences, and memorials live. On Monday, Thursday, and Friday, NPR extended the hours of at least one of its flagship news programs so it could cover these critical moments in the evolving story.

But opportunity does not explain the whole difference. For that one must compare how minds react to different kinds of events. And examining NPR’s coverage of a third event may place the differences between the first two in perspective.

Accidents, Terrorism, and Storms

When “Superstorm” Sandy struck the Mid-Atlantic in late-October, All Things Considered devoted 35 percent of its air time, between October 29 and November 4, to coverage of the storm’s impacts on the region, especially New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The table below lists the relevant numbers for ATCs coverage of Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion.

Event Lives Lost Injured Affected Est. Damage ATC Dates # Mins. Tot. Min. in Episodes Ratio
Sandy 159 >8M $50B 10/29-11/4 186.50 524.50 36%
Boston 4 264 ~1M $1B* 4/15–21 344.75 652.25 53%
Texas blast 15 200+ ~3000 $1-10M 4/18–21 18.25 351.43 05%

*Much of this figure is for the estimated economic losses resulting from shutting down the center of the city for several days.

The table shows that Sandy, an event that was roughly 10 times the size of the Boston Marathon bombings in terms of its impacts, received slightly more than half the coverage in terms of minutes broadcast. The ten-fold difference in coverage between Sandy and the Texas fertilizer plant, however, seems more in keeping with the lives lost in the two events. Again it’s the coverage of the Boston tragedy that stands out. What could explain this?

In 2007, Cass Sunstein, former Administrator of the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in President Obama’s first term,  and now the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, addressed a similar question in Worst Case Scenarios. Why, he wanted to know, are Americans so much more concerned about terrorism than they are about climate change? A rational assessment of the risks associated with each, he judged, would suggest at least comparable levels of concern, if not a reversal of priorities.

That they are not viewed comparably, Sunstein argued, can be explained by how humans process risks psychologically. Humans are more concerned about dangers they can easily imagine; after the 9-11 attacks, Americans can more readily imagine terrible personal injuries from terrorism than from climate change. Humans also tend to neglect risks associated with activities in which they regularly and routinely engage. And humans react more strongly to perceived or imagined malevolence than they do to natural, mechanical, or systemic risks.

This last factor is key to explaining the coverage of the events in Boston: the bombings had bombers. The explosion in Texas, by contrast, was attributed only to accident or possible managerial or regulatory neglect. Likewise with Superstorm Sandy, nature was the cause. Or, if climate change was a factor, Americans’ energy habits were at fault. And as Sunstein also pointed out, humans readily discount risks associated with habits they enjoy or rely on, especially if reducing those risks entails new costs.

Competing Stories

One might point out that the numbers for ATC’s coverage of Superstorm Sandy versus the Boston Marathon bombings reflect constraints imposed by other events rather than by Americans’ perceptions of the risks involved. In that final week before the 2012 presidential election, after all, NPR was also covering the presidential campaigns.

But there are always other stories to cover, and the environment and climate change were by no means the only newsworthy concerns eclipsed by the bombings and the dramatic pursuit of the suspects. The escalating war of words from North Korea also fell from view. And the somewhat surprising collapse of gun control legislation — on average, firearms are implicated in 11 accidental deaths, 213 homicides, and 373 suicides in America each week — would likely have filled more air time in a “normal” news week.

There is also the interesting fact that news agencies outside of the east coast megalopolis covered some of the environmental stories that were eclipsed in the mainstream media located within the megalopolis — home to the major national newspapers, broadcast and cable news networks, and NPR.

Environmental and climate change stories will no doubt return to the news, even on the east coast, as Boston returns to “normal.” Publicists hired for the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prizes told The Yale Forum, for instance, that major news outlets, including NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, had conducted interviews with prize winners for stories that had not yet run.

Possible Effects of the Saturation Coverage

But the “saturation” coverage of the Boston bombings could have consequences. The American public has again been primed to fear the high-immediate-risk-but-low-probability events of terrorism, and, as a consequence, Americans will likely again discount the long-term-but-increasingly-probable risks associated with climate change.

Which leads to one final point about the events scheduled during “that week” in Washington, D.C.: the social sciences are still largely left out of most discussions of environmental research and policy. That fact was raised at the Brookings briefing for “The Policy Climate.” The CPI authors acknowledged that research on environmental behavior should be considered by policymakers even though it was not considered in their report. Owen Lind, Ph.D., chair of the Tyler Prize Executive Committee, acknowleged that the committee has not considered work in the social sciences, but he said it welcomes such nominations.

This may be an area in which NPR has a singular advantage: it has hired a reporter, Shankar Vendantam, to cover developments in social psychology.

In the days after the Boston bombings, NPR did, in fact, run three stories on climate change. Two were part of an extended report on ocean acidification prepared by an NPR reporter who had traveled to Australia to get that story. The third was on the emerging genre of “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. But what, social psychology reporter Shankar Vendantam might wonder, was the net effect on NPR listeners of these nineteen minutes about climate change given the hours devoted to imagining the methods and motives of the two young alleged Boston bombers?

All things considered, would the listening public be more or less likely to view climate change as a risk that requires action?

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