Growing Role for New Media Foreseen As Climate Science/Public Opinion Diverge

Several public opinion polls of Americans’ attitudes suggest that much of the science of climate change is getting lost in the fury surrounding its politics.

A recent Pew survey, for instance, reports that the percentage of Americans who believe “solid evidence” of global warming exists dropped to 71% in 2008, down 8% from 2006 (mostly because more Republicans dispute the evidence). Even fewer – about 18% of Americans – say the issue warrants a “great deal of concern,” the lowest level among industrialized countries, and comparable only to China among countries surveyed.

A recent Gallup poll points to “the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming.” That poll found that two in five of those surveyed think journalists overstate the seriousness of the issue. Another Gallup poll shows the American public, for the first time, favoring economic development even at the expense of environmental protection.

These shifts in attitudes coincide with a growing conviction among many climate scientists that serious warming is proceeding faster, and with more serious consequences, than originally predicted, and that humans are the primary cause.

Yet many editors seem to have moved on from covering climate change as a science story; they’re focusing now more on business and political and policy dimensions in Washington. In addition, many newspapers and television networks are dropping staff dedicated to science and environmental coverage and cutting-back their Washington, D.C., news bureaus.

Risk of Sequestering Climate News from ‘Unengaged’?

The remaining organizations dedicated to climate coverage, mostly multimedia and video operations on the Internet, have less reporting firepower than erstwhile news institutions once known for their deeper reporting benches. But their unique combination of digital video and print may convey the scientific substance and emotional angles of a slow-moving disaster like climate change better than either medium alone.

Yet this advantage comes at a price, says Curtis Brainard, the well-regarded editor of “The Observatory,” critiquing science and environment reporting for the Columbia Journalism Review. Even as the Internet brings unprecedented depth, it risks segregating science news out of reach of a general audience, Brainard notes.

“If you’re already engaged you’ll be able to find more info than you can possibly process,” he says, “but it’s not where the average reader skimming headlines will run across it. It’s a question of making it available to the largest possible audience. Journalists should always be striving to reach the people who aren’t already engaged.”

If the exodus of science journalism to the Internet seems inevitable, it’s only part of a broader shift reshaping the entire media landscape. In 2008, the Internet overtook all other media except television as the primary source for national and international news – topping newspapers for the first time – and began challenging television on its own turf, according to the 2008 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey.

With TV the main source of national and international news for a whopping 70% of Americans, the networks too find themselves looking at troubling trends in the size of their audiences. The percentage of those who listed the Internet as their primary source of information shot from 24% in 2007 to 40% in 2008 – the largest annual jump for any medium in the poll. And it wasn’t just any demographic: the young, affluent, and better educated are decamping for online news fastest.

Changing the Nature of Climate Change Story Telling

With web multimedia poised to reshape news coverage on science and climate, groups like Wired, Seed Media Group’s ScienceBlogs.com, Scientific American, Climate Central, and Small Mammal Productions are welcoming the migration. Reporters like Christie Nicholson, who has produced online media with Scientific American, says the time for new media has come.

“[Mainstream media] has been doing things the same way for so long you can’t be imaginative,” says Nicholson, a New York-based science journalist. As television and the Internet merge, she sees coverage taking on forms fully adapted to the possibilities of digital production. “It’s going to be fast, social and everything will be mobile,” she says. “We have an opportunity to change the way we tell stories.”

Editors who understand the Internet know it’s all about hyperlinking. They make sure stories are not flat text presentations or one-dimensional videos, but a succession of detailed, interlinked stories using contextual links and graphics to elaborate on concepts in the original piece. They allow their audiences to “drill down” for more detail and perspective.

In addition, their authors and readers interact; digital news is based on the Web’s potential to share ideas, with anyone, almost instantly. It’s also more fun.

One of the pioneers in reinventing the online video medium is John Pavlus, a producer who worked at National Geographic television and set up his own Internet production company, Small Mammal Productions, with partner Chris Mims. Their goal: to produce compelling Internet video, now too often defined by slapdash efforts, and unimaginative execution.

“There’s a lot of garbage out there, really disposable and crappy stuff,” he says. “You want to be able go on the Internet to do things – not be passive. TV is passive. Successful [Internet] video always seems to have an active or interactive element.”

More than a derivative of television, Web video is something all its own, Pavlus says. This vision has taken shape in the irreverent and visually addicting Grand Unified Weekly (which also involves Nicholson). It has appeared on Slate.com, catching the eye of a New York Times reviewer who lauded its “balletic integration” of graphics and stories.

Pavlus’ visual format uses a Mac desktop as the filmmaking environment, layering both interactive graphics and science news culled from the week’s headlines. With voiceover narration and choreographed pop-up windows, Pavlus delivers single servings of science and technology with a sense of cohesion and animated acrobatics, an ironic, digitally enhanced version of Public Broadcasting’s “NOVA,” a show premised on “the world of science is exciting!”

Needed Still: Viable New Media Business Model

But getting the aesthetic right is proving easier than perfecting the business model. Web production costs less than conventional video – as low as $1,000 to $15,000 for a minute-long segment, versus tens of thousands of dollars for TV – but almost all Web-videos are ad-supported. “That’s a really low ceiling,” says Pavlus.

Low perhaps, but reaching it has become a lot more challenging in the current economic climate. With the recent collapse in advertising dollars, new episodes of Grand Unified Weekly are off the air for now, perhaps along with a whole generation of Web production efforts otherwise ready to burst onto the scene.

For the moment, with television and online video largely separate, the most ambitious scientist/journalist media collaboration may be that of Climate Central, which sees itself as “a think tank with a production studio.” The group is trying to tell the climate change story in a fundamentally different way, says Climate Central’s Heidi Cullen, a climate scientist and on-air analyst who earlier had worked full-time with The Weather Channel.

“We see ourselves as a communication laboratory,” says Cullen, who holds a Ph.D. in climatology and ocean-atmosphere dynamics from Columbia University. Seeking new ways to get the climate change story to the public, she says she wants to target an audience expert in neither climate change nor its causes. “We can’t tell the same story over and over again, so we’re trying to find new ways.”

Climate Central’s strategy is two-fold. At its heart is a team of reporters and scientific researchers producing content for local TV markets and public broadcasters like PBS. It also pushes this content onto the Web, including its own branded YouTube channel, adding layers of edited and primary sources permitting readers to drill into the science as far as they wish using interactive maps, climate models, and annotated scripts that bring looming issues into local focus.

The group’s features on biofuels in Iowa and on Montana droughts both aired on PBS’s “The News Hour” with Jim Lehrer. This spring, plans call for it to launch more explanations of global warming science and mitigation efforts – and perhaps chart a new way to tell the story.

“We suffer from perfect timing,” Cullen says, referring to discouraging business and audience trends facing much of the traditional news media business. “With more and more science to talk about, there is less and less infrastructure to tell the story.”

Michael Coren is a graduate student researching the economics of forest carbon markets at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and former managing editor of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post.

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