Dropping the ball in covering climate change

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Jennifer Hemmingsen

Why do we journalists do such a crummy job of covering climate change?

It’s complicated and technical, a sweeping, slow-moving issue. Not the stuff of sound bytes or short paragraphs, it can be hard to explain.

It’s not a head turner, like a fire or a scandal. It’s not local, except that it’s happening everywhere. Even here in Eastern Iowa, where years of record-breaking flooding have been followed by years of exceptional drought, the near-universally agreed upon cause of our weird weather has been paid little mind.

The Gazette’s recent archives show its guest writers who have written most of what we’ve published about the issue. I’m no exception. Although I’ve been personally concerned, I considered it an issue for a local columnist only after a public shaming by a prominent scholar.

In his talk on the University of Iowa campus last week, Columbia School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin listed climate change as one of the top three examples of journalists failing to “connect the dots” in covering news.

Content analysis from Media Matters shows that even as extreme weather events have increased in recent years, broadcast coverage of climate change has plummeted. The big Sunday morning news shows spent more than an hour discussing climate change in 2009, the group’s analysis showed, but only 21 minutes in 2010. In 2011, they spent nine. Evening news coverage of climate change fell by 72 percent in those same years.

Here and now, the pattern holds. Just last week, yet another study was released linking global warming with extreme precipitation events. The Kinnick Stadium visitors locker room generated more ink.

If greenhouse gasses continue to climb the way they have been, we’re looking at a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in the heaviest rainfalls by the end of this century, according to researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and North Carolina State University. But the big debate here is whether college football players find the color pink to be calming or demeaning.

We can’t continue to drop the ball like this — You or me or the people we elect to handle this type of big, collective concern.

It’s not even much a matter of connecting the dots. They’re connected; the picture is clear.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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