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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/15/2010

Why is climate change more popular online?

By Andrew Freedman

* Temps swing up, then down: Full Forecast | Battered butterflies *


PEJ New Media Index for the week of March 29-April 2, showing global warming was the second most-popular news topic among new media during that week.

Here's a question I've been pondering lately: Why is climate science a wildly popular topic on the Web every day, yet it barely registers on the radar screen of the traditional press, unless of course there is an outbreak of extreme weather or a scientific brouhaha like the so-called 'climategate' affair (which was originally pushed by bloggers)?

A closely related question is why skeptics of the well-supported conclusion that recent climate change is predominately manmade dominate the conversation online, but not in the traditional press?

Keep reading for more commentary and to vote why you think climate change is more popular on new media than old...

By traditional press, I'm referring to newspapers and TV news, as well as leading online news sites (including washingtonpost.com). These sources are included in the "News Coverage Index" from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

New media are tracked by PEJ's New Media Index. This index attempts to capture the leading stories in the blogosphere and social media (e.g., Twitter) based on monitoring by the tracking services Technorati and Icerocket, which zero in on links embedded in blog posts to figure out what those posts are about. PEJ then conducts a content analysis in order to identify the most popular topics each week.

(Note that there may be some overlap here, since newspapers also have blogs, such as CWG. However, only the top five stories on the main newspaper Web site are included in the News Coverage Index, according to PEJ, so what you are reading right now would be counted in the New Media Index).

Since PEJ began tracking new media in 2009, climate change has consistently been among the top five stories discussed online in a given week, even in the absence of a major piece of climate change news.

During the week of March 29-April 2, for example, climate change (referred to in the index as global warming) was the second largest story in the blogosphere behind health care reform, marking the 10th time since the index began that it made the top five. The trigger this time, according to PEJ, was a BBC interview with 90-year-old British scientist James Lovelock, a noted environmentalist, in which he said it is too late to stop runaway climate change. His remarks set off a firestorm on skeptic blogs, but did not register beyond there.

"Skeptics of climate change science dominated the discussion on blogs, much as they have in recent months. In particular, they seized on criticisms Lovelock raised at those whom he said stand to benefit from trying to solve or ease climate change," PEJ wrote in its weekly report.

Notably, global warming was not one of the top five stories in the traditional press during this period, although the severe flooding in the Northeast, as well as President Obama's proposal to drill for oil in certain offshore areas, did raise the profile of the climate change issue to some extent. A review of the PEJ News Coverage Index shows that climate change has not cracked the top five since the climategate scandal migrated from blogs onto front pages in early December, and rarely did so before that.


The comparatively low level of climate change coverage in the traditional press is likely related to the fact that climate change is a slow-moving story, rather than breaking news, which creates a barrier to getting stories onto a newspaper's front page or the top of the TV newscast. Andrew Revkin has written about this at DotEarth, and noted a fascinating graphic showing that climate change did not register at all in mainstream news coverage in 2009. Of course, layoffs of many science reporters has not helped matters either.

The popularity of climate change online, and the outsize influence of skeptics in that medium, is intriguing. My guess is that because many people feel they aren't getting enough science coverage from the traditional press, or are not finding science they either want, trust, agree with or perhaps understand, they turn to the Web, where there is a strong "do-it-yourself" vibe.

Online, they can poke holes in scientific studies, find a community of like-minded people, and even conduct and discuss their own scientific analyses, most of which are never published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Some of this work may produce valuable scientific insight. For example, skeptic blogs have spawned remarkable fact-checking efforts, such as surfacestations.org, which is a project that is dedicated to surveying each temperature recording station that is part of the U.S. Historical Climatological Network (USHCN) and Global Historical Climatalogical Network (GHCN).

The hypothesis behind the organization's founding is that poor siting of such stations introduces biases that skew the temperature record in favor of more warming. A recent study by scientists from the National Climatic Data Center refuted that argument, however.

Much of what takes place on climate blogs these days, though, is tiresome arguing and "cyber bullying," which hardens the bunker mentality among climate scientists, who feel that their profession is under siege from online rabble rousers (and I am being charitable with that description).

At the end of the day, with climate science often relegated to the back pages of newspapers and rarely covered on TV, new media platforms are becoming a more important source for climate science information. The distorted online discourse on the subject does not bode well for society's ability to weigh the evidence and make informed, highly consequential policy decisions.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | April 15, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes  
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Comments

Mr. Andrew Freedman wrote, "Why is climate change more popular online?" and "A closely related question is why skeptics of the well-supported conclusion that recent climate change is predominately manmade dominate the conversation online, but not in the traditional press?"

You have unwittingly answered your own question. It is more popular online precisely because you and your journalist brethren get to control the discussion in the dinosaur media and you fail to report on soooooooooooooooooooooo much (for obvious reasons) that it creates a vacuum for news and discussion. And nature abhors a vacuum. That vacuum gets filled online.

Take for example your unwillingness to discuss the flat out refusal to provide information required by law (in both the U.K. and the U.S.) under FOIA requests of scientists like Dr. Jones and Dr. Mann. Since you steadfastly refuse to bring the subject up, where can people go to discuss it? They go online.

How many times did I personally plead with you to ask scientists to open up their data? Each request was met with total silence from you. You apparently don't care. But just because you don't care, that doesn't mean that others do not care.

Just because you stick your head in the sand and pretend a problem doesn't exist, don't expect us all to follow suit. And with the advent of the Internet, we have a convenient alternate place to meet and discuss the issues you choose to ignore.

As Jon Stewart put it, and I am paraphrasing (not an actual quote) - Poor Al Gore, foiled by the very Internet he helped create!

If you (and traditional media outlets) won't fairly and honestly discuss an important topic, do you really expect people to just shrug their soldiers and say, "Ok"? Maybe 50 years ago, but not today.

There is more than one reason that readership/viewership in traditional media is declining.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 15, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I can prove me case with just one simple question.

Ask yourself this - If you and your fellow journalists had gotten together and completed a thorough and honest inspection of our temperature stations in the United States, what are the chances that a citizen driven project like surfacestations.org would have formed? Very, very unlikely.

But you didn't do that. So someone else did. Q.E.D.

Nature abhors a vacuum. You left one, and you continue to leave one. But have no fear; it will get filled.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 15, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Dang it! Must slow down!

Obviously, "me case" was supposed to have been "my case". Very embarrassing.

":%s/me/my/gc"

And here is the correct link for surfacestations.org.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 15, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Okay. I don't know what is going on with your software. I posted the correct link for surfacestations.org Your software mangled it.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 15, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/7589897/Hockey-stick-graph-was-exaggerated.html


A case in point is the lack of coverage of the Oxburgh report in the media. The media just does not have the ability to discuss actual data and statistical issues, but rather just regurgitates what is put out in press releases.

Posted by: Tom8 | April 15, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman, if people want to discuss the fact that the U.N. has THOUSANDS of references to literature that is not peer-reviewed, where should they go to discuss that?

The 2007 IPCC report cited 18,531 references. Of those 18,531 references, 5,587 were not peer-reviewed! That is absolutely stunning!!

Can they come here to get the truth about that issue and discuss it? Of course not! Because it will be a cold day in hell when you bring up that issue for discussion.

What would you have people do, Mr. Freedman? Should they pretend like the issue doesn't exist simply because you and people like you would rather rip out your own fingernails with pliers than discuss it? I think not.

Journalists are quite literally their own worst enemy. Their bias is making them and the entire traditional media irrelevant. You, and journalists like you, are the architect of your own future unemployment.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 15, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Gee, I'd sure like to take my scheduled flight to France next Thursday. Any way to tell if these wind patterns are going to continue, assuming the volcano continues its eruption, as it has so far....what actually is steering the ash at the 15K-33K foot level, presumably the jet stream?

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/aviation/vaac/data/VAG_1271354037.png

Posted by: dhb2 | April 15, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Bastardi is one of the reasons.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | April 15, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Andrew Freedman wrote, "Why is climate change more popular online?" and "A closely related question is why skeptics of the well-supported conclusion that recent climate change is predominately manmade dominate the conversation online, but not in the traditional press?"

Pretty easy to answer. The same reason why online I can find 23,500 sites that have to do with alien kidnappings, 45,000 sites that discuss the role of George Bush in his causing the 9-11 attacks, and 100,000 sites whose creators link the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. But you won't read about any of this in the newspaper.

Posted by: MKadyman | April 15, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

MKadyman wrote, "Pretty easy to answer. The same reason why online I can find 23,500 sites that have to do with alien kidnappings, 45,000 sites that discuss the role of George Bush in his causing the 9-11 attacks, and 100,000 sites whose creators link the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. But you won't read about any of this in the newspaper."

That is true. You don't read about those things you listed in the local newspaper. Those items are pretty much relegated to the far corners of the ether.

But you do read about global warming in the newspaper. I challenge you to find a newspaper that has not written about global warming at least once in the last 6 months. Heck, Mr. Freedman writes about global warming almost weekly.

Are you saying that people who blog about global warming are the equivalent of whacko conspiracy blogs that espouse that former President Bush was behind 9-11?

But since Mr. Freedman writes (actually blogs - http://blog.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/climate_change/ - notice where it says "About this blog") about global warming almost weekly, does that mean that he and his blogging is equivalent to whacko conspiracy blogs that espouse that former President Bush was behind 9-11?

Mr. Freedman acknowledges that traditional media writes about global warming; unlike the items you listed. His question was why does traditional media write about it less than new media?

The answer is obvious. Since traditional media can't report on anything that casts doubt upon the existing hypothesis, they are extremely limited in the global warming issues they can write about. And they create a HUGE vacuum. The new media fills the vacuum that the traditional media created. Had they not created the vacuum in the first place, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 16, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse

The blogging in this field is transforming the way peer-review is being conducted. The ability of "anyone" to peer-review a publication can be viewed as troublesome, however this gives an unprecedented mechanism to check the conclusions of manuscripts. The comments section on blogs in theory allows someone to rebut and refute the conclusions of another reviewer. Personally, I think this is the future of science.

Posted by: Tom8 | April 16, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

So, Mr Q., when do you think we can expect some sort of response from Mr. Freedman? It's been a full day since your first post, yet nary a peep of a response from him.

Posted by: octopi213 | April 16, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

octopi213 wrote, "So, Mr Q., when do you think we can expect some sort of response from Mr. Freedman?"

I do not know. I have grown accustomed to being ignored by him. I am fine with that. It no longer bothers me in the slightest.

Although my comments may be directed at Mr. Freedman, they are written for everyone else. I can't change Mr. Freedman's mind. I have accepted that fact.

I am writing for his readers, not him. So if he never replies, that's okay.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 16, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Tom8 wrote, "The blogging in this field is transforming the way peer-review is being conducted.

...

Personally, I think this is the future of science."

First let me say, I hope you are correct. I really do.

Now I want to add to what you wrote -
Especially publicly funded science!! And if scientists don't agree, then they are free to say "No thank you" to public funding. It is a free country. No one makes them accept public funding. They actually have to seek it out and apply for it. If we (as in the public) pay for it, we own it. Put it out there in the light of day and let people see it and discuss it. Stop hiding it or making people formally request it. Let's draw upon the vast ocean of knowledge and experience of all individuals to scrutinize the science and make it better.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 16, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Oh Q., I am reasonably certain that the lack of any response from the author hinges on the similar futility of "arguing with the kitchen table".

How can I say this, you may ask? Simply put, you haven't responded to my (and others') questions to you over time, showing you are not really looking to debate the issue. How can you reasonably expect any responses to your questions when you don't afford others the same respect? There's no point in answering your 'questions'. You don't engage, just try to poke holes in what others write. I am beginning to believe you cannot defend yourself, just throw rhetorical stones at others, or perhaps you are just a sophist.

You mentioned the other day that your time is valuable. Unfortunately, when people see many long posts from one screen name, in quick succession, they are less likely to read them, thus all but ensuring you waste your 'valuable' time. I am not suggesting you discontinue posting, just that you may want to work on the quality v. quantity issue.

Posted by: dprats21 | April 16, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

dprats21 wrote, "Simply put, you haven't responded to my (and others') questions to you over time, showing you are not really looking to debate the issue. How can you reasonably expect any responses to your questions when you don't afford others the same respect?"

Two points -
1. My comments in this thread were in fact in response to Mr. Freedman's question - "Why is climate change more popular online?". So I do indeed respond to legitimate questions.
2. Your premise/assumption is flawed. I never expected Mr. Freedman to answer my questions. My questions were mostly rhetorical. And even when they aren't rhetorical, I don't expect an answer. I stated that fact very clearly.

dprats21 also opined, "... the lack of any response from the author hinges on the similar futility of "arguing with the kitchen table"" and "... or perhaps you are just a sophist.'

The personal attack. How unexpected.

I hate to point this out, but wouldn't you consider a "kitchen table" and a "sophist" mutually exclusive? I can't be both. In the future, you should try to avoid calling people mutually exclusive names when you engage in your personal attacks. Just my humble opinion.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 17, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

QUOTE:
So, Mr Q., when do you think we can expect some sort of response from Mr. Freedman? It's been a full day since your first post, yet nary a peep of a response from him.

The answer is obvious. Mr Q., to his credit, is correct most of the time. So, if you cannot refute someone, it is sometimes better to simply keep quiet.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | April 17, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

That is not to say that I dislike Mr. Freedmen, or look down on him in any way. I have respect for him.....and for the rest of the Capital Weather gang. But it is difficult to credibly refute much of what Mr. Q says...he's got most of the facts on his side.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | April 17, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

It's not well supported at all. The World has been a lot hotter, given that Florida was once under water. So, what made the Earth so much hotter than? Not man, I can be sure of that.

Posted by: irish031 | April 18, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

I should say what is now Florida.

Posted by: irish031 | April 18, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

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