Why is climate change more popular online?
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.
| April 15, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes
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