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Global Environment > America's Blindfold Media

The heat is on, but
the US press is off

By Ross Gelbspan
Commenting from Boston

Aside from the pledges by Holland, Germany and Britain to cut emissions by 50 to 80 percent in the next half century, the efforts by other countries to begin to address the climate crisis stand in vivid contrast to the indifference of the United States. That contrast is apparent in the difference between the coverage of the climate crisis in the American press and the news media in other countries.

While there has been no systematic and thorough analysis of comparative media coverage of the climate crisis in different countries, one recent study by Anja Kollmuss (2000 master’s thesis, Tufts University) compared the attention given to the climate by the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to three major newspapers in Britain and Germany. According to a weighted sampling between September 1999 and March 2000, the coverage in Britain was almost twice that of the press in the United States.

The British paper, the Guardian, for example, accorded more than three times more coverage to the climate issue than the Washington Post, more than twice the coverage of the New York Times, and nearly five times more coverage than the Los Angeles times. The German papers surveyed during the same period provided more coverage than the US press—but less than expected, given the prominence of climate and energy issues in Germany’s political life.

By now, most reporters and editors have heard enough from environmentalists to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Given that reality, it is profoundly irresponsible for editors or reporters to pass along the story with only some counterposing quotes and without doing enough digging to satisfy themselves about the bottom-line gravity of the situation.

Their assessment needn’t be the same as that of environmentalists. But simply to treat the story like any other—without taking the time to reach an informed judgment about its potential gravity—is a fundamental violation of the trust of readers and viewers who assume a modicum of informed interpretation from their news providers.

In their paper “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press,” Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff make a strong case that the formulaic use of journalist balance has put the United States years behind the rest of the world in beginning to act on the climate crisis.

“The continuous juggling act journalists engage in often mitigates against meaningful, accurate and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming,” they wrote in the journal Global Environmental Change in July. “Since the general public garners most of its knowledge about science from the mass media…the disjuncture between scientific discourse and popular discourse [is responsible for the fact that] significant and concerted international action has not yet been taken to curb practices that contribute to global warming.”

Ross Gelbspan is the author of Boiling Point
(See Boiling Point article).