Mainstream Media’s Environmental Coverage: The Sound of Silence

Kardashians receive nearly 50 times more coverage than ocean acidification

The non-profit organization Project for Improved Environmental Coverage (PIEC) recently released a report that compared and ranked news organizations according to how they had prioritized environmental headlines. The news is grim: there’s a virtual black hole when it comes to green news, as major media organizations favor crime and entertainment stories above environmental ones.

Titled “Environmental Coverage in the Mainstream News,” the report used data provided by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism to review a range of national and local news organizations across platforms from January 2011 to May 2012.

Among 30 national news organizations in the United States, environmental coverage represented just 1.2 percent of headlines. Meanwhile, entertainment and crime coverage continued to dominate the media space. For some news organizations, entertainment and crime garnered 20 to 60 times more coverage, respectively, than did the environment. As the PIEC report pointed out, prominent newspapers and major television programs mentioned the Kardashians 2,133 times between January 1, 2011 and June 26, 2012, according to a study by Media Matters. During that same period, ocean acidification was mentioned only 45 times.

photo of withered corn in a fieldflickr user USDAgov photoNothing to see here, folks. Even as a drought scorched much of the country,
the environment received a miniscule fraction of national media coverage.

The findings are especially discouraging given that many Americans say they are hungry for more environmental news. A 2012 poll commissioned by PIEC and conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation, found that 79 percent of Americans from almost every demographic say they want improved environmental coverage.

“There is a lot of room for improvement and local newspapers and independent news organizations can be looked to as models when it comes to prioritizing environmental coverage,” says report author Tyson Miller. “There are more resources than ever for reporting on or curating environmental stories. In light of the environmental challenges we face, we and many others look forward to seeing more news organizations stepping into leadership roles and helping their industry to innovate in this area.”

The old newsroom maxim, If it bleeds it leads, still appears to grip many news organizations, despite the fact that most of the crime stories that suck up media attention have very little national relevance. The networks’ morning shows carry an estimated 69 crime stories for each environmental story they do. The crime-to-environment coverage ratios are also dismal for other outlets: cable news, 9-to-1; online news, 6-to-1; evening network news, 5-to-1.

Fox News had the highest percentage of headline environmental stories (1.57 percent) among cable and network news outlets, beating out the publically supported PBS (1.43 percent), with CNN having the lowest (0.36 percent). The Huffington Post was the environmental coverage leader for national news organizations, with 3 percent of headlines dedicated to environmental news (nearly three times the national average).

Not surprisingly, much of the environment coverage on Fox is either mocking and blatantly dismissive or just plain erroneous. Fox and its parent company, News Corporation, have a well-established anti-environmental agenda. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that Fox News and News Corporation often mislead the public about scientific facts related to key environmental issues. An analysis of Fox News’ coverage of climate change between January and July of 2012 found that 93 percent of the station’s coverage was misleading. A similar analysis for the Wall Street Journal found that it was misleading in its coverage of climate science 81 percent of the time. For both Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, misleading comments dismissed the scientific consensus that climate change was occurring or that it was human-caused.

And while CNN is viewed as a source for balanced coverage, a snapshot of its headlines as tracked and categorized by the PIEC study between April 18 and May 18, 2012 tells a different story. Sports/entertainment and news dominated 217 stories, 86 stories were crime related, and 71 stories were what the report authors describe as “trivial.” Meanwhile, just 17 were stories related to the environment.

During that one-month period, CNN.com failed to cover a UN report warning that changing ocean conditions jeopardize the fish stocks we rely on for food; a group of US mayors pledging to make greenhouse gas reductions in their cities; and a report warning of pesticide residues on industrially grown produce.

But here are some headlines that CNN.com producers felt Americans absolutely had to know about:

  • Cat weighs almost 40 pounds
  • Photos: A home made of beer cans
  • The RidicuList: Drunk friends steal penguin
  • Mom denies taking 6-year-old for tan
  • Being a porn star saved my life
  • Charlie Sheen sues strip club
  • Hot dog stripper goes back to work
  • Grad Gift Trend: Breast Implants?

While national organizations were ignoring environmental news, many local newspapers were covering the beat much better. Local outlets covered the environment nearly 2.5 times as much as national outlet. With environmental stories representing 7.3 percent of its headlines, the leading local news organization, Daily Herald in Washington State, covered environmental stories nearly six times the national average. Influencing factors for the leader title include that the Daily Herald had the lowest entertainment-to-environment ratio and the second lowest crime-to-environment ratio, leaving more room and resources for better environmental coverage.

Independent news organizations are also prioritizing environmental coverage much more than mainstream news organizations. Independent outlets such as CommonDreams.org and National Radio Project averaging 15 times more environmental stories than mainstream media.

According to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), for most adults older than 35, the media is by far the leading source of environmental information. A NEEF/Roeper Report found that about 80 percent of Americans receive incorrect or outdated environmental information. There is little difference in environmental knowledge between the average American and those who sit on governing bodies, town councils, and in corporate board rooms — those whose decisions often have wider ramifications on the environment. Their conclusion is that “low levels of knowledge about the environment is a signal that members of the public will be unprepared for increasing environmental responsibilities in the coming years.” A recent study by the

the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication confirms this. The study found that 57 percent of Americans know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat; 50 percent understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities; 45 percent understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the earth’s surface; and only 25 percent have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.

The study also found that Americans recognize their own limited understanding of the environment. Only one in ten say that they are “very well informed” about climate change. Seventy-five percent say they would like to know more.

National mainstream media take note: people are hungry for more environmental news. Maybe you should give them what they want.

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