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Has Eco-Hysteria Killed Environmental Journalism?

Mary Catherine O'Connor, Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media

No single reason adequately explains why news of climate change and other vital issues related to the environment are consistently absent from the front pages of most newspapers.

But veteran investigative reporter Mark Dowie thinks he knows one underlying factor: “It’s our fault,” the host and executive producer of Talking Points Radio recently told a packed hall at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. During the decades from environmental journalism’s inception and up until the turn of the millennium, he said, “We offered content that frightened readers.”

“If I were going to do it all over again,” he said of his years as publisher and editor of Mother Jones, “I would make sure that 20 percent of the stories we ran would be positive. Because there are positive stories to report.”

Yet, ironically, one means by which Dowie expects environmental stories will recapture mainstream media attention is through catastrophe. “[Super-storm] Sandy almost did it,” he said. “And I hate to think it’s going to be catastrophe that drives environmental journalism back to the front page.”

Still, dour environment stories tend to linger in the reader’s attention, regardless of the hopefulness conveyed in the positive reports.

recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published by the University of Oxford, found that eight in 10 stories related to climate change focused on disaster and implicit risk. Just as many stories also mentioned the uncertainty over exactly how climate change will manifest, but uncertainty was “less salient, and much less frequently a dominant tone.” The news stories studied were based on past reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reporting on the melting of Arctic sea ice.

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