6 Ways New Media Are Getting It Right On Climate Change -- And 1 That's Very Wrong


While some mainstream media outlets are starting to get the message about the threat of climate change, they are still far behind emerging media when it comes to climate coverage.

Throughout 2014, new TV and web-based news sources have been continuing the trend of providing excellent climate coverage. Media Matters has identified six positive trends in how new media are covering climate change -- and one trend that may be cause for alarm. 

1. Climate-Focused Media Bring Hard-Hitting Investigations

“Single-subject news sites” have been on the rise for the past couple of years. The New York Times reported in 2011 that internet news was starting to veer towards “niche” sites, and more recently, in its “Prediction for Journalism 2014” series, Nieman Lab predicted that single-subject news sites would continue to gain prominence this year.

The Center for American Progress' ClimateProgress is unparalleled in its timely coverage of the latest climate developments. The blog often takes its reporting further than mainstream sources, providing perspective on landmark climate reports and mainstream climate coverage, and amplifying studies that shed light on media bias in global warming reporting.

Another prominent climate news site, InsideClimate News (ICN), won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year, with the Pulitzer committee commending their “rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines.” ICN also teams up with other outlets to amplify and disseminate their work; it partnered with VICE TV for a documentary and e-book on how global warming affects the likelihood of polar bear attacks, produced an exposé with The Weather Channel on the ramifications of the oil-by-rail boom, and partnered with both The Weather Channel and Center for Public Integrity for an in-depth investigation of how Texas' fracking boom has been harming the environment.



VICE Media started a news magazine with HBO in 2013 for more immersive, documentary-style reporting. Its TV series, also titled VICE, sent its founder Shane Smith to Greenland to document the front lines of global warming. The episode, which aired March 21, paired Smith with climate scientist Jason Box “to investigate how newly discovered waterfalls pouring down on the ice sheet could be a catalyst for doom.”

The May 9 episode of VICE sent Thomas Morton to Texas to “witness the climate catastrophe, and discover firsthand the local responses.” The episode explored the discord between the intensity of Texas' three-year drought, which scientists have connected to global warming, and the locals' rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change.

In an interview with Grist, Smith expanded on the importance of reporting on climate change. In response to mainstream media continuing to “sh[y] away from covering [climate change], at least in proportion to the seriousness of the problem,” Smith responded:

As media, it's our job to say, this is the truth, the real deal, we can't stick our heads in the sand. It's not even that the gun is to our heads; the hammer has been cocked back. We have to do it now or we're screwed.

3. Last Week Tonight Makes The 97% Consensus Go Viral

Another HBO show delivering hard-hitting news on climate change is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a weekly news roundup show with a comedic twist. The show differs from its Comedy Central counterparts -- The Daily Show and Colbert Report -- in that it covers just a few topics each week, lending itself to more in-depth reporting, for which it has been  heralded. The Washington Post reported that Last Week Tonight could be “better considered in the context of other media startups like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Ezra Klein's Vox.com.”

The show has a particular talent for making videos go viral; it releases clips from each episode on YouTube, most of which have millions of views. Oliver helped the concept of the 97 percent climate science consensus -- 97 percent of scientific papers taking a stance on the subject agree that human activities are driving global warming -- go viral with one such video. In a brilliant depiction of the scientific consensus on climate change, Oliver hosted a “statistically representative” debate, pitting 97 scientists against three climate change “skeptics.”  

The segment illustrated the impracticality of hosting a truly “balanced” debate, which is a common fallacy in mainstream media. The Washington Post's Chris Mooney, then at Mother Jones, said of the debate on his Inquiring Minds podcast:

I feel like they said in 4 minutes something I've been saying for 10 years with like tens or hundreds of thousands of words; what they said was that there's no debate over global warming, so to have these 'balanced' 1-on-1 TV debates is just preposterous.

The video has been viewed almost five million times.

4. Atlantic Media Publications Cover Climate From All Angles.

Atlantic Media, the DC-based print and online media company, owns many web publications that focus on different topics, and has published compelling reporting on climate change in each one.

  • Quartz, launched in 2012, describes itself as a “global business news brand” and a “digital guide to the new global economy.” It has published several articles on how specific industries will be impacted by climate change, from sushi to wine to Redbox. Quartz also pointed out the hypocrisy of Shell Oil sponsoring a conference on climate change, given the oil giant's shoddy track record on climate.
  • The Wire, Atlantic Media's media-aggregation news site, was rebranded last November from its previous name The Atlantic Wire. The site has provided local context to the climate change predictions given in the National Climate Assessment, rounded up examples of conservative media snow-trolling, and given context to landmark climate reports and cold weather snaps.
  • CityLab, which started in 2011 as The Atlantic Cities, was relaunched in May this year. The news site focuses on “the biggest ideas and most pressing issues facing the world's metro areas and neighborhoods.” As more than half of the global population now lives in urban areas, urban sustainability is an important aspect of addressing climate change, a point that was explained in a CityLab article titled, “Why Cities Are Key to Fighting Climate Change.” CityLab.com has also highlighted a scaled map showing “global warming's biggest offenders”:

warped map

5. FiveThirtyEight Demonstrates Accountability, Rids Themselves Of Toxic Doubter

When Nate Silver hired an infamous climate "skeptic" as a science reporter for FiveThirtyEight, Silver's new data-driven journalistic endeavor, the climate science community was wary. Their worries were not unfounded: Pielke's first post, which cast doubt on the link between global warming and extreme weather, was widely panned by climate experts as “ludicrous” and “demonstrably wrong.”

But Silver responded, commissioning climate scientist Kerry Emanuel to publish a rebuttal on FiveThirtyEight, and apologizing on Pielke's behalf. After the initial post and a follow-up defense, Pielke did not publish anything about the environment, and announced in July that he had officially left FiveThirtyEight.

6. Mainstream Outlets Turn To Interactive Web Media

Even mainstream media sources are turning to new technologies to better communicate on climate change, with use of interactive visuals, videos, and graphics.

Reuters published a three-part investigative series on global sea level rise called “Water's Edge: The Crisis Of Rising Sea Levels.” The connection to manmade global warming is inherent in the series, which supported its points with several interactive features. This screenshot of an interactive time-series of record flooding days shows how water levels exceeding flooding thresholds have increased over the past century:  

reuters map

Additionally, The Guardian has a user-interactive feature about the environmental impacts of palm oil. Titled, “From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil - interactive,” the feature details the devastating impact that palm oil production is having on Asian rainforests, and therefore the climate. Rainforest sections are often leveled in order to to raise palm oil plantations, a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rainforests are an important factor in mitigating climate change -- The Guardian called them the “lungs of the planet” because “rainforests recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen.”

The Ugly: Independent Journal Review, The Right Wing's Upworthy.

Not all new media is reporting well on climate change. A handful of toxic conservative-focused news sites are some of the most highly trafficked aggregation and news sites on the web. In particular, the “Independent Journal Review” is gaining notoriety -- Bloomberg News reported that the IJ Review is among a “new generation of right-wing media” that is “ready to pay any price, bear any burden to defeat Jon Stewart and his ilk.” From Bloomberg:

That combination of irreverence, scoops and spite is creating something new on the right. Conservative media, never somnolent, is in a new and different boom period, led by millennial writers who are striking out against fresh targets. The Independent Journal Review, an aggregation-heavy site launched by a veteran of Republican campaigns, has made a steady profit and generated eight-figure numbers of Facebook shares for its content.

Buzzfeed dubbed IJ Review the Right-Wing's “Upworthy.” The website has published several attempts at satire attacking climate change and regulations with Upworthy-esque headlines, including,  “25 Images Show That Climate 'Changes' - Whether or Not Man Does Anything About It ,” WATCH: George Will Owns It In Climate Change Debate," and "23 Global Warming & Climate Change Stories All Americans Should Read Before Earth Day," all of which cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.

According to Quantcast, IJ Review was the 47th most highly circulated website as of December 18, just ahead of FoxNews.com.