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date: 23 July 2017

Economic, Technological, and Organizational Factors Influencing News Coverage of Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Over the past two decades, the global news industry has embarked upon a major project of economic, organizational, and technological restructuring. In organizational terms, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global news landscape where most of the larger firms are owned by shareholders and run by executives whose singular focus is on rationalizing news production and improving profitability. Although in some cases, these shareholders and executives have used their authority to influence climate coverage directly, more often their goals are non-ideological: reducing labor costs and increasing revenues. At the same time, in a parallel development, the digital media revolution not only has spawned a host of new online competitors but also has cut deeply into the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media firms.

Within legacy news organizations, these industrial and technological trends have converged to dramatically intensify the work pressures facing environmental journalists. For example, in an effort to reduce costs, many firms have reduced newsroom staff to a small core of multi-tasking reporters, supported by a wider web of part-time freelancers. In this process, the science and environment beat is often the first to go, with environmental specialists among the first to be reassigned or downsized (and pushed into freelance work). For all reporters, there is increased pressure to produce more stories in less time on multiple media platforms, a trend that, in turn, enhances the power of special interests to influence climate coverage through public relations and other external information subsidies.

Due to these converging industrial and technological trends, environmental reporters now work in a new media ecosystem that is complex, subject to contradictory pressures, and in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news. When the environmental beat is cut, climate change often becomes the purview of general assignment reporters who lack experience and expertise. For their part, freelance specialists continue to cover climate news, but their ability to sustain this coverage over the long term is constrained by their part-time status. Finally, although niche climate blogs have provided welcome spaces for environmental journalists to produce in-depth coverage, these outlets usually reach only tiny audiences composed of the already-engaged.

In short, without significant action, the regrettable status quo of climate news—that is, an episodic sprinkling of climate coverage scattered across the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely. Policy-makers should therefore restore long-term institutional and economic support for environmental journalists specializing in climate science and policy.

Keywords: climate change, global warming, journalism, news coverage, media sociology

The consensus findings of climate science are clear. The planet is steadily warming. Human-produced carbon emissions are the major cause, and there is precious little time left to prevent the worst consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable people (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014). Yet it is not at all clear that global public opinion has sufficiently grasped the magnitude of the problem. Although a majority of survey respondents from six global regions agreed that climate change was a very serious problem, only 40% felt very concerned that a warming planet would harm them personally. More disturbingly, the level of concern was much lower in the United States and China—the world’s most prodigious carbon emitters (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). Overall, it is an open question if effective collective action can be mobilized with these levels of public knowledge and engagement (Gibson, Craig, Harper, & Alpert, 2015).

The connection between public knowledge and effective political action in turn raises the important question of the news media. Climate change is not an issue that most people can grasp directly, through personal experience. Instead, most of what we know about global warming is necessarily filtered through the stories we consume in print, broadcast, and online media (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). For this reason, as theories of agenda setting and framing suggest, the news media exert formidable amounts of symbolic power. The more that journalists cover global warming, the more the public will view the issue as a priority (Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012; Weaver, McCombs, & Shaw, 2004; Zhao, 2009), and how journalists frame their climate change coverage can, in turn, shape public understandings of the issue (Entman, 2004; Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012; Zhao, Leiserowitz, Maibach, & Roser-Renouf, 2011).

In short, journalists matter. Even in a new media ecosystem characterized by a diversity of participatory media and digital networking, science and environmental journalists still play a crucial mediating role between scientific knowledge, environmental policy, and public opinion (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011; Gibson et al., 2015). For these reasons, the promise of large-scale collective action on climate change depends, at least in part, on the production of rigorous, accurate, and engaging climate journalism. But what determines how journalists cover climate change? What factors influence both the frequency of coverage and the quality of that coverage? And what about the role of technological change? How has the digital media revolution reshaped the relationships between journalists, advocates, and news consumers?

This article begins with the premise that answering these questions requires close examination of the changing work lives of journalists, with a particular focus on science and environmental reporters. This examination can take many forms. For example, some researchers have explored how the individual characteristics and personal beliefs of journalists may (or may not) influence coverage of political, social, and environmental issues (Hinnant & Len-Ríos, 2009; Lichter, Rothman, & Lichter, 1986; Sachsman, Simon, & Valenti, 2010). This article, however, will move beyond a narrow focus on individuals and instead will examine the contextual factors—including the commercial strategies of media firms, the organizational changes sweeping newsrooms around the world, and the transformative effects of new information technologies—that together shape the working lives of journalists and the production of climate news.

Drawing on critical political economy (McChesney, 2013; Mosco, 2009), media sociology (Schudson, 2011; Shoemaker & Reese, 2014), and a cultural industries1 approach to media production studies (Havens & Lotz, 2016; Hesmondhalgh, 2013), this article will offer a review of the sociology of news production literature in order to explore how the economic, organizational, and technological transformations of recent years have shaped the production of climate change news across multiple platforms (print, broadcast, online) and in multiple national contexts. In particular, this article will focus on the commercial news industry (as opposed to public media) and will examine the following questions:

  • What does research suggest about the relationship between the commercial strategies of news firms, the political and ideological interests of their shareholders and owners, and the production of climate change news?

  • How has the organization of news work changed over the past two decades, particularly for specialist journalists covering science and the environment? And how have these changes in the workplace influenced the coverage of climate change?

  • How have new digital technologies—including blogs, digital networking, and social media platforms—reshaped the relationships between climate news producers, advocates, and consumers? What, in short, are the perils and promises of what Fahy and Nisbet (2011) have termed the new “science media ecosystem”?

What we will discover is that, overall, multiple industrial trends—including the concentration of media firms in the hands of shareholder-owned conglomerates, the technology-fueled rise of new competitors for readers and advertisers, and the fragmentation of online journalism into niche-focused, ideological echo chambers—have converged over the past decade to undermine the material conditions that support the sustained production of high-quality climate news. With these challenges in mind, a concluding section will then draw on this review of recent research to discuss the steps advocates and policy-makers might take in order to nurture the production of accurate and engaging climate journalism.

Critical Political Economy and the Influence of Ownership

In their influential media sociology text, Shoemaker and Reese (2014) offer a view of the individual journalist (and her work) as subject to multiple influences, from the micro-scale of individual attributes, to meso-influences of professional norms, work routines, and organizational cultures, to the macro-influences of economic imperatives, ownership structures, and cultural/ideological values. The tradition of media research most directly concerned with these macro-influences is critical political economy (McChesney, 2013). As Mosco (2009) writes, critical political economy (CPE) offers a theoretical approach to media studies that explores the production, distribution, control of media resources (i.e., technologies, industries, institutions) and how the production and control of these resources has developed over time. In particular, CPE scholars examine the often asymmetrical power relationships between investors, managers, workers, and consumers, and how these economic relationships shape the production of media content (including news) (Gibson et al., 2015).

In news production research, CPE scholars have often focused on the influence that media owners and executives exert over the production of news and how particular issues are covered (or ignored). The structure of ownership—whether public or private, tightly concentrated or highly dispersed—thus acts as a “filter” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) or a “pressure” (Williams, 1977) on news, subtly (or perhaps not-so-subtly) shaping the content of news to suit the commercial and ideological interests of the firm and its owners. Although some political economists study public broadcasters like the BBC (Curran & Seaton, 2009), most CPE researchers have focused on the commercial news industry, examining in particular the accelerating pace of ownership concentration, as news firms have become integrated into global media conglomerates like News Corporation and Time Warner (Croteau & Hoynes, 2005; McChesney, 2013). Responding to this trend, many political economists have attempted to chart the political and ideological consequences of this concentration of media power (Baker, 2007). In short, do the political values and perspectives of media owners and executives find their way into news coverage, including coverage of climate change?

That media owners should possess the power to shape coverage is perhaps not surprising. After all, endowed with full property rights, owners exert the power to hire and fire, and they can use this power to hire managers who promise not only to increase profits but also to establish a newsroom with a particular ideological culture (Herman & Chomsky, 2002). By most accounts, in large media organizations, owners and top executives typically exert their power subtly and infrequently. This often takes the form of strategically intervening at key moments to establish limits and promote vital interests (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). In short, by killing a story or demanding a re-write, managers signal to reporters the general ideological and political boundaries at work in the newsroom (Croteau & Hoynes, 2005). Over time, reporters who wish to stay and thrive in the organization internalize these pressures and limits, exercising a form of self-censorship that eventually is experienced as professional common sense (Breed, 1955; Elbot, 1992; Gans, 1979; Hall, Clarke, Critcher, Jefferson, & Roberts, 1978).

Overall, research suggests that some media owners have indeed wielded this institutional power to produce climate coverage from particular ideological positions. Many of these cases come from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where conservative news outlets have served as a platform for denialist politicians and professional climate skeptics to cultivate public doubt on climate science. For example, in her analysis of 19 years of climate coverage (from 1985 to 2003) in three U.K. newspapers, Carvalho (2005, 2007) found that the Times (a conservative-leaning paper) produced the most skeptical coverage of climate science compared to The Independent (a centrist paper) and the Guardian (a left-leaning paper). This pattern has held up over time. For instance, Painter (2011) found that conservative newspapers in the United Kingdom and the United States were more likely to include climate skeptics in their coverage and opinion pieces than liberal-leaning papers, and that conservative papers had increased their coverage of climate skeptics from 2007 to 2010.

Other researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have focused more specifically on the coverage produced by News Corporation, a global news and entertainment conglomerate founded by Rupert Murdoch, a man whose political conservatism is well-documented (Davies, 2008; McKnight, 2012). For example, in his study of opinion journalism produced by news firms across News Corporation’s holdings in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, McKnight (2010) found that climate change denial had a prominent voice across the firm’s outlets in all three nations, with the most intensely skeptical coverage produced in Australia and the United States. Other Australian media critics have also focused on News Corporation’s domination of the Australian national newspaper market and how Murdoch’s papers provide a powerful platform for climate skeptics (Bacon & Nash, 2012; Chubb, Nash, & Birnbauer, 2009; McKnight, 2012).

In the U.S. context, the research emphasis is on FoxNews, News Corporation’s leading cable television news network, and here researchers have found that, compared to rival networks CNN and MSNBC, FoxNews has produced far more misleading statements on climate change (e.g., rejecting climate change, doubting human causation, disparaging climate scientists, etc.) than their competitors (Huertas & Kriegsman, 2014). Other researchers have found that FoxNews included prominent climate deniers as guests far more frequently than CNN, and FoxNews anchors were also much more likely to express doubt about the level of scientific consensus and the threats posed by a warming planet (Hart, 2008; see also Huertas & Adler, 2012).

Although this literature on News Corporation’s contribution to climate skepticism strongly suggests a link between ownership ideology and climate news, the overall picture is likely a bit more complex for a variety of reasons. First, research from the global South on this link has been mixed. For instance, although Dotson, Jacobson, Kaid, and Carlton (2012) found that liberal papers in Chile produced more frequent and substantive coverage of climate change than conservative papers, Painter (2011) found no significant differences in climate coverage between liberal and conservative papers in Brazil and India.

Furthermore, even in cases where conservative outlets promote climate denialism, it remains somewhat unclear if this pattern is due to the simple influence of owners or to a more complex interaction between ownership ideology and other historical and economic factors. For instance, McKnight (2010) found that News Corporation’s promotion of climate denialism was weakest in the United Kingdom, a finding he attributed to the weaker standing of denialism in British conservative politics as compared to conservative movements in the United States and Australia. For her part, McKewon (2012) found that Australian newspapers in rural areas dependent on resource industries gave prominent and favorable coverage to climate skepticism no matter who owned the papers (though to be sure, the News Corporation paper gave skeptics the most favorable coverage in the sample). In a similar vein, Bacon and Nash (2012) found that the climate coverage of three Australian newspapers varied, in terms of the ideological stances of publishers as well as the extent of their connections to Australia’s coal industry. This research, in short, suggests that climate coverage may in fact be shaped by a dialectical relationship between the political ideologies of owners and the regional or national cultures in which these owners and their news firms are embedded.

Finally, it may be the case that the particular “slant” of a news firm’s climate coverage is as much driven by commercial motives as it is by the political views of owners and executives. In the United States, for example, FoxNews was developed explicitly to appeal to conservative audiences who, at least according to News Corporation executives, felt alienated from existing American cable news (Hart, 2008). The subsequent popularity of FoxNews among conservative viewers was soon followed by MSNBC’s decision, as a FoxNews rival, to target its own host-driven programming on a more liberal-progressive audience. In short, in a competitive field, where audiences have a dizzying array of news choices, it may simply be more profitable for news firms to tailor content to a particular ideological niche, with the hope of monopolizing it and delivering these more homogeneous audiences to advertisers. Thus the field of news production becomes ideologically segmented into “echo chambers,” as audiences seek out content that confirms their existing political beliefs, and as news firms pursue homogenous ideological segments as a means of gaining visibility and competitive advantage in a cluttered marketplace (Alterman, 2011; Jamieson & Cappella, 2008; Scheufele & Nisbet, 2012; Sunstein, 2009).

Overall, it is absolutely the case that private media owners (and the executives they hire) have the power to shape news coverage of climate change—as the evidence suggests is often the case with News Corporation. At the same time, however, there is also reason to believe that, in most cases, this direct power is used relatively infrequently. As Schudson (2011) writes, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global media landscape where most of the largest commercial media firms are owned not by individuals or families but by shareholders whose focus is typically on generating profit rather than promoting a particular ideology (see also Davies, 2008). To be sure, these shareholders certainly expect the executives they hire to look out for the specific commercial interests of the firm (which is why media firms are notoriously inept at covering their internal operations as well as the operations of corporate partners and advertisers). But, by and large, as Hesmondhalgh (2013) writes, so long as the firm remains profitable, media executives typically give creative workers (including journalists) “a large degree of autonomy” in their day-to-day work lives (p. 83). This is arguably why, when surveyed, environmental journalists themselves rate “ownership pressures” relatively low among a list of factors that shape their coverage (Sachsman et al., 2010).

Economic Crisis, Newsroom Restructuring, and Covering Climate Change

Although owners may not often intervene directly into the daily work of climate journalists, this is not to say that economic factors play only a minor role. However, to better understand how commercial pressures influence journalists and climate change coverage, we need to supplement critical political economy with what Hesmondhalgh (2013) calls a “cultural industries” approach to media institutions. As he explains, although cultural industries research, like critical political economy (CPE), acknowledges that macro-structures of ownership and control indeed exert influence on the production of news and entertainment, a cultural industries approach builds on CPE by closely examining the daily practices and organizational cultures of cultural workers operating within these macro-structures (Hesmondhalgh, 2013). In short, cultural industries scholars argue that if you want to better understand the relationship between the firm’s commercial strategies and the cultural content produced by the firm, you must, at some point, engage with cultural workers and examine how, in the everyday conduct of their jobs, they mediate—and perhaps even occasionally resist—the influence of these economic pressures (Gibson et al., 2015; see also, Havens & Lotz, 2016).

For many cultural industries scholars, the place to begin this investigation is the ever-present tension between the commercial strategies of media managers and executives, who constantly search for ways to generate revenue from news production, and the news workers themselves, who in most cases attempt to fulfill their professional norms and values, even against the limits and pressures they face (Deuze, 2008). Bourdieu (1998) frames this tension as a struggle between two “poles” in the field of journalism—an autonomous pole that defines the quality of news from the perspective of values internal to the profession (including accuracy, independence, context, and immediacy) and a heteronomous pole, embodied by management, which assesses quality by external, purely economic standards (more ratings, more revenue, more clicks, more “likes,” and so on) (see also Benson & Neveu, 2005; Compton & Benedetti, 2010).

In recent years, this perennial struggle between journalistic values and commercial imperatives has been intensified and complicated by successive waves of economic and technological restructuring in the news industry. To be sure, the economic challenges facing the news industry have been unevenly felt, with news firms in some global regions (especially North America) and in some industrial categories (especially print) struggling much more than others (Bauer et al., 2013; WAN-IFRA, 2014).2 It is also true that these industrial changes have multiple causes. To cite an obvious cause, the rise of the Internet has clearly played a leading and disruptive role, generating new competitors for audiences (e.g., online news) and advertisers (e.g., Internet search advertising and online classifieds). Print advertising revenues in particular have fallen precipitously as advertisers now have a myriad of powerful new options for tracking and micro-targeting consumers online (Turow, 2011; WAN-IFRA, 2014).3 The result—particularly among newspaper firms—has been the onset of crisis and the casting about for new and more sustainable business models (McChesney & Pickard, 2011).

At the same time, as McChesney and Nichols (2010) argue, simply blaming the Internet for the current crisis is too simplistic. Although digital media may have accelerated the most recent rounds of economic and organizational change, the current ferment is merely the latest chapter in a decades-long project of industrial restructuring. As a result of this industrial restructuring, the shareholder-owned media conglomerate has emerged as the dominant model for organizing cultural production (Davies, 2008). Within these firms, investors have demanded that media executives pursue the fundamental aims of capital accumulation, including reducing labor costs, controlling the organization and pace of work, fighting unionization, and increasing productivity (Deuze, 2008; Deuze, Elefante, & Steward, 2010; McKercher, 2002). In this way, for news firms, new digital technologies have functioned both as an economic threat to manage and as a powerful set of tools for pursuing a timeless goal: disciplining and exploiting labor.

For journalists, these technological and economic changes have led to successive waves of layoffs and chronic job insecurity. In the United States, for example, the journalist workforce—across print, broadcast, and online platforms—has declined by over 30% from its peak in 1992 (McChesney & Pickard, 2011; Willnat & Weaver, 2014). Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have seen newsrooms shrink as well, particularly since 2008 (Bittner, 2014; Christensen, 2012; Compton & Benedetti, 2010; Curran, 2010; Deuze, Elefante, & Steward, 2010; European Federation of Journalists & EURO-MEI, 2012).

For news executives, shedding staff results not simply in reduced costs but in a restructured workplace as well. Typically, the “lean” and “flexible” newsroom that emerges from these cutbacks develops a core-periphery labor structure, where a reduced core of full-time managers and reporters are supported by an extensive web of freelancers who contribute stories on a part-time, contingent basis (Deuze, 2007; Hesmondhalgh, 2013; Ryan, 2009). In the downsized newsroom, news managers use the threat of job losses to pressure this remaining core of full-time reporters to produce more content than ever, using a battery of digital technologies, and publishing stories across a variety of technological platforms (Deuze, 2007; Ekdale, Tully, Harmsen, & Singer, 2015; Fenton, 2009; Reinardy, 2011; Williams & Clifford, 2009). For their part, cut loose to fend for themselves, the outer networks of part-timers and freelancers typically face conditions of lower wages, uncertain benefits, fewer protections against libel claims, and overall economic precarity (Compton & Benedetti, 2010; Deuze et al., 2010; McKercher, 2002).4

Science and environment specialists have been particularly vulnerable to this project of newsroom restructuring (Friedman, 2015). As managers look to cut staff, their first targets are often specialist reporters working beats viewed as less central to the core news agenda—including science and environment reporters. As a result, reports from the United Kingdom (Williams & Clifford, 2009), Australia (Byford, 2012), and the United States (Bagley, 2013, 2014; Revkin, 2008) document significant layoffs among science and environmental specialists. When their beats are cut, these specialists are either reassigned to other beats within the firm or laid off and forced into part-time or freelance work (Society of Environmental Journalists, 2016). In this way, within the downsized newsroom, climate change science and policy has increasingly become the purview of general assignment reporters who lack expertise and cannot be expected to grasp the issue’s complexities.

Overall, for both displaced freelancers and overworked full-timers, and for both specialists and generalists, there is constant pressure to produce more stories, more quickly, across more platforms, and at reduced cost. The predictable result of these pressures is what Davies (2008) derisively calls “churnalism,” where, in the crush of everyday work, journalists are increasingly unable to perform according to their professional norms and are instead “reduced … to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false” (p. 59). Pressured to “do more with less,” journalists become more desk-bound, more dependent than ever on routine channels of information, and more likely to churn out stories that amount to little more than repackaged press releases from official sources and publicity agents (Fenton, 2009; Lewis, Williams, Franklin, Thomas, & Mosdell, 2006).

Thus, one of the more sobering consequences of newsroom restructuring has been the enhanced power of public relations (PR) to shape the news, including news on climate science and policy. As multiple researchers have found, contemporary reporters have become increasingly dependent on the “information subsides” provided by a legion of PR practitioners representing the interests of government agencies, private corporations, and non-gevernmental organizations (NGOs) (Gandy, 1982; Lewis et al., 2006; Lewis, Williams, & Franklin, 2008; Reich, 2010). These PR staff (who, in the United States, now outnumber working journalists by a ratio of 4 to 1) are more than happy to provide the information that overworked journalists need to meet their deadlines, including a steady diet of news releases, press kits, and carefully staged media events (McChesney & Nichols, 2010; Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). The catch, of course, is that the news agenda becomes increasingly shaped and framed by those external agencies with the resources to hire PR staff and produce information subsidies (Reich, 2010; Lewis et al., 2008).

If anything, research suggests that reliance on PR is even more profound in science and environmental reporting than in the newsroom as a whole. Multiple researchers, for example, have found that reporters lean more heavily on public relations materials when they cover issues that are technical and complex in nature and when they view themselves as lacking sufficient expertise (Kiousis, Park, Kim, & Go, 2013; Machill, Beiler, & Schmutz, 2006; Tanner, Friedman, & Zheng, 2015). In this way, the trend toward increased reliance on general assignment reporters (as opposed to specialists) to cover the environmental beat shifts the balance of power even further toward external organizations with the resources to engage in public relations (Williams & Gajevic, 2013). Although this increased reliance on PR has the potential to enhance the visibility of climate advocacy groups and NGOs, this trend should also make environmentalists a bit nervous. After all, some of the most powerful organizations in the world, including multinational energy corporations, have long devoted their extensive financial resources to media management and the promotion of climate skepticism and political obstructionism (Dunlap & McCright, 2011; Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008). This power becomes even more enhanced in a newsroom where specialists are downsized in favor of multi-tasking and PR-dependent generalists.

In short, it may be that the most profound loss in the restructured newsroom is the steady exodus of specialists devoted full-time to the climate and environment beat.5 Climate beat reporters know more about climate science than their generalist colleagues (Wilson, 2000). They are more likely than generalists (or political and business reporters) to accept the scientific consensus on global warming and human causation (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014). When sourcing their stories, specialists are more likely than generalists to reach out to scientists and environmental NGOs and less likely to cover fringe skeptics and industry-funded denialists (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014; McCluskey, 2008; Lück, Wozniak, & Wessler, 2016). Recent interview research shows that environmental beat reporters are also pursuing new and creative ways to communicate the science of climate change, including linking the global reality of a warming planet with local impacts that better engage readers and viewers (Gibson et al., 2015). As Gibson et al. (2015) argue, the current moment is thus rich with irony: just as specialist environmental reporters are honing their craft and making the issue come alive for their audiences, they themselves are becoming an endangered species in the restructured and downsized newsroom.

Technology, Climate News, and the New Media Ecosystem

As noted, digital media technologies have played a key role in the economic and organizational restructuring of the commercial news industry, a process that has forced science and environmental journalists to confront a future of economic precarity and escalating productivity demands. Yet the effects of technological change are not confined to the economic sphere alone. As multiple scholars have argued, digital media sources—principally the rise of news blogs and micro-blogging services like Twitter—have transformed the relationship between professional news workers and audiences, thereby blurring the lines between news production and consumption, and even reshaping how journalists see themselves as professionals (Brumfiel, 2009; Dunwoody, 2015; Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). In this way, if the previous section examined the relationship between technology and economic restructuring, this section will explore how technological changes have reshaped both the professional roles of journalists and their relationships with issue advocates and news audiences.

The changes have indeed been profound. As Benkler (2006) argues, the introduction of new digital technologies has dramatically lowered the economic barriers to participation in cultural production and distribution, including the production of news. With a laptop, a smartphone, and a broadband connection, individuals can now produce culture and information and share it with a (potentially) global audience. This shift in the technological and economic foundations of cultural production has, according to Jenkins (2006), inspired the rise of a dramatically more participatory cultural environment, as citizens take command of these new tools and demand full participation in the production, circulation, and consumption of information and culture (see also Rosen, 2006; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

The field of professional journalism has been dramatically transformed by these changes. If, in the previous era, journalists enjoyed a relative monopoly on news production, reporters now work in a complex and diverse media ecosystem (Naughton, 2006, quoted in Fahy & Nisbet, 2011), where professional news workers jostle with a dizzying array of actors (e.g., citizen-activists and amateur journalists), all of whom generate an unceasing flow of news and commentary via online blogs, news aggregation sites, and social media networks (Deuze, Bruns, & Neuberger, 2007). For their part, Fahy and Nisbet (2011) have found similar dynamics at play in the field of science news, where legacy science news producers (like the New York Times and Scientific American) now share a science media ecosystem with science blogging and aggregation sites, science news sites run by academic journals (like Nature), environmental advocacy blogs (e.g., Climate Progress and Climate Depot), and blogs written by individual scientists and amateur science enthusiasts. Overall, in this new ecosystem, the contemporary news agenda (including news about climate change) is increasingly “peer produced” by multiple actors linked together in a complex, networked mediaspace (Deuze et al., 2007; Hermida, 2010; Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013; see also, Castells, 2009).

Of particular interest to many researchers is how this new media ecosystem challenges the gatekeeping power of professional journalists and potentially empowers non-elites and grassroots activists to play a more decisive role in public debates (Castells, 2012; Hermida, 2010; Shirky, 2008). In short, if, in the past, resource-rich organizations (e.g., corporations and government agencies) enjoyed a towering advantage in securing extensive and favorable coverage from traditional media, many scholars have argued that social media tools offer a potentially effective means for low-resource organizations (e.g., individual citizens and grassroots groups) to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and mobilize public opinion directly.

There is, in fact, some evidence that social media tools indeed open space for a wider range of political actors to have their voices heard. For instance, Meraz and Papacharissi (2013) found that, during the 2011 Egyptian uprisings, citizen-activists—linked together on Twitter—were able to collectively nominate issues for wider public discussion, to identify and raise up leaders to serve as spokespeople, and to develop and promote particular framings of political events—all via a distributed, non-hierarchical, crowd-sourced process. In doing so, they argue, activists in Cairo were able to by-pass a traditional media system tied closely to the Mubarak regime in order to mobilize public support for the wider Egyptian liberation movement. Other researchers have arrived at similar results, finding that social media networks can serve as effective political communication and organizing tools, particularly for resource-poor advocates who wish to mobilize public support despite the indifference or hostility of traditional media gatekeepers (Bastos, Raimundo, & Travitzki, 2013; Herman & Kim, 2014; Kim, Chung, & Kim, 2011).

At the same time, other scholars suggest that the demise of traditional media institutions has been greatly exaggerated—that, in fact, these institutions retain much of their symbolic power despite the rise of a more participatory media environment (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009). For instance, despite the emergence of online news and social media, television remains a leading source of news around the world, sometimes placing ahead of online sources/social media and sometimes running a close second (Newman, Levy, & Nielsen, 2015). Even when the focus shifts to online or mobile news, traditional media firms still dominate. Although thousands of news sources proliferate in digital spaces, the reality is that most users migrate to the top “brands” in the global news business—that is, those controlled by legacy media firms like the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, Spigel, and so on (Fuchs, 2014). To be sure, a few new names can be spotted among the lists of top digital news sites (including Huffingtonpost, Buzzfeed, Vice, and CNET), but these are still the exception, not the rule (Pew Research Center, 2015). Overall, as Fuchs (2014) argues, the political economy of online news remains highly stratified, with legacy firms leveraging their name recognition and branding power to dominate the competition for users’ attention and time.

In addition, Fuchs (2014) argues that there are powerful asymmetries built into the attention economies of social media platforms as well. For example, as we have seen, Twitter is often portrayed as a radically democratic medium that empowers non-elite users and breaks down social hierarchies (Hermida, 2010; Papacharissi, 2010). However, recent research has found that the network structure of Twitter is highly stratified, with a small group of super-users (about 10%) producing over 90% of tweets (Heil & Piskorski, 2009, quoted in van Dijck, 2013, p. 74). Furthermore, reciprocal relationships on Twitter (i.e., I follow you; you follow me) are uncommon. Instead, Twitter is characterized by a power-law, or “rich-get-richer,” structure: a small number of super-users, with massive numbers of followers, tweeting out a steady stream of messages to legions of less active and less connected fans (Ausserhofer & Maireder, 2013; Fuchs, 2014; Larsson & Moe, 2012; van Dijck, 2013; Wu, Hofman, Mason, & Watts, 2011). And although Meraz and Papacharissi (2013) suggest that accumulating “prominence” (i.e., followers) on Twitter is a competitive process that flattens the distinction between elite and non-elite users, Couldry (2012) disputes such claims, arguing that individuals who enjoy status and prestige elsewhere (especially within traditional media) can easily leverage this prestige online and rapidly accumulate followers. Thus, on Twitter, as elsewhere in life, those in institutional positions of authority—including politicians, celebrities, and elite journalists—enjoy disproportionate power and influence.

What this analysis suggests is that observers who were hoping that the new media ecosystem would result in a flattening of power hierarchies and the dramatic empowerment of non-elite actors may need to temper their excitement. Although digital production and networking technologies have indeed opened more spaces for citizens and grassroots advocates to participate meaningfully in news production and public affairs, legacy media firms and political elites still enjoy outsized influence and prestige. In an ironic twist, evidence for the continuing power of traditional media can perhaps also be found in an unlikely place: the digital advocacy strategies of environmentalists. As Lester and Hutchins (2009) have found, environmental NGOs have indeed been enthusiastic users of blogs and social networking, but they have devoted this use in many cases to a very traditional goal: attracting news coverage from professional journalists in legacy news organizations (Schäfer, 2012). Thus their use of digital media offers a tacit recognition perhaps of the still-formidable agenda setting and framing power of leading media firms. Overall, then, the picture that emerges from this research on digital technologies is not one of dramatic democratization, but rather a more modest opening of spaces for non-elite actors within a larger media ecosystem where significant economic, political, and symbolic power differences persist and in some cases become even more entrenched (Castells, 2009; Fuchs, 2014).

Finally, in this new media ecosystem, it behooves us to remember that the new tools of digital advocacy empower not merely environmental activists but their most resource-rich political opponents as well. For climate change activists, this point was driven home with particular force during the “climategate” incident of 2009. As Holliman (2011) recounts, just prior to the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, an unknown party hacked hundreds of private emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Not long after, a number of well-known climate skeptics from the United States began publishing selective portions of these emails in their blogs, claiming that the emails revealed “a global conspiracy … to dupe the world about man-made climate change” (Pearce, 2010, quoted in Holliman, 2011).

The bloggers’ claims of conspiracy and cover-up were soon taken up by conservative columnists working in traditional media in the United Kingdom and United States, one of whom attached the “climategate” label as a framing device (Elsasser & Dunlap, 2013). From there, “climategate” entered the broader public sphere, circulating rapidly throughout traditional and social media platforms. Although multiple inquiries would later clear scientists of any wrongdoing, the damage had been done. The media coverage leading up to the Copenhagen summit amplified the “climategate” story, thereby muddying public perceptions of scientific consensus at a crucial historical moment (Holliman, 2011). This case offers a reminder that the well-funded opponents of meaningful climate action are as adept as grassroots climate advocates at using these new digital tools, a fact that again complicates the celebration of digital networking as a simple and straightforward agent of citizen empowerment.

A final feature of the new media ecosystem concerns the arrival of “niche” or special-interest blogs devoted full-time to covering particular issues, often from a particular ideological perspective. In the case of climate news, for instance, the past 15 years have seen the development of numerous specialty online outlets like Climate Central and Climate Wire, which deliver environmental news to a specialized market of highly engaged readers. Despite their limited reach and focus, however, some writers have pointed to the rise of niche blogs as evidence of a significant opening of political discourse to a wider variety of social actors (Benkler, 2006; Jenkins, 2006).

Interestingly, however, recent research suggests that the effects of niche blogs may be more contradictory than first thought. For instance, one interview study found that science and environmental journalists can express decidedly mixed feelings about the arrival of niche outlets focused on climate reporting (Gibson et al., 2015). On the one hand, these blogs have provided a much-appreciated home for environmental reporters who have been downsized from more traditional firms. As safe havens for specialist reporting, niche blogs have in turn provided a vehicle for sustained, in-depth, and high-quality coverage of climate change.

At the same time, the reporters interviewed by Gibson et al. (2015) noted that niche climate blogs reach only a small fraction of the public compared to more traditional media, and by and large, their readers are already highly informed about the issue. So what happens to the engagement of the wider public, these reporters asked, when in-depth climate coverage migrates to online sources like Inside Climate News? Will this in-depth coverage reach only a particular eco-information cocoon, populated by those already concerned about the issue? And what about the less engaged? Where will they get their global warming news? In short, for these reporters, although niche science and environment blogs have created welcome spaces for climate reporters to pursue in-depth coverage, their arrival threatens to fragment the audience into a series of isolated echo chambers, with the best and most consistent climate coverage reserved for a small audience of the already-engaged (Gibson et al., 2015; Jamieson & Cappella, 2008; Scheufele & Nisbet, 2012; Sunstein, 2009).

Conclusion

Even in the best of times, covering climate change has never been easy. As an issue, global warming finds almost every possible blind spot built into the conduct of professional journalism (Bennett, 2011). If news is dramatic and immediate, climate change is incremental and chronic. If journalists prefer to personalize stories and “put a human face” on events, and if they prefer to structure stories around simple moral conflicts, climate change, by contrast, is faceless, nameless, and caused not merely by nefarious bad actors but more fundamentally by a planet-wide dependence on fossil fuels. For these reasons, even when they have enjoyed the generous support of their employers, environmental beat reporters have had to work extremely hard in order to grasp and effectively communicate the complexities of global warming science and policy.

Unfortunately, what we have seen is that, for environmental journalists, these are decidedly not the best of times. The global news industry has become increasingly consolidated into the hands of publicly-traded firms, often global in scope, whose shareholders and executives focus resolutely on the bottom line. If, in some cases (such as News Corporation), owners and executives use their control over the newsroom to shape coverage directly (for ideological or political reasons), the aims of investors and managers are usually more prosaic: reducing labor costs and increasing revenue streams. Added to this, the arrival of the Internet has not only spawned a host of new competitors for audience attention; it has also caused a significant decline in advertising revenue (particularly in print media firms, still the largest employers of journalists).

For journalists, the predictable result of these industrial trends has been a dramatic restructuring of the newsroom. Facing a hyper-competitive environment, managers have cut the newsroom down to a small core of full-time reporters supported by a flexible web of part-timers. Specialists, especially those working on beats viewed as “less essential” (read: science and the environment) have often been viewed as the most likely candidates for either an internal transfer to general assignment reporting or downsizing, after which they join the exciting but precarious world of freelance reporting. Finally, in this restructured and rationalized newsroom, the pressures to produce more stories in less time (or risk joining the ranks of the downsized) has increased dramatically—a trend that, as we’ve seen, greatly enhances the power of special interests and their PR staff to shape the news agenda.

This accelerating project of newsroom restructuring thus comes at a crucial moment in the practice of environmental journalism—a moment when the gains of the past two decades of climate coverage have come under increasing threat. And the gains have indeed been noteworthy. Although some news outlets (e.g., FoxNews in the United States) still ritualistically “balance” the views of industry-funded skeptics against the statements of climate scientists, this practice—once the norm in climate journalism (see Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004)—has waned significantly, with researchers finding that a majority of reporters now accept the basic science of human-caused climate change (Boyce & Lewis, 2009; Boykoff, 2011; Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014; Olausson, 2009). More broadly, in recent years, environmental specialists have expressed a lot of optimism about how they and their colleagues have found creative ways to engage popular audiences with climate science and policy, including especially stories that connect climate change to a whole range of localized issues that readers care about, such as clean energy, endangered species, and natural disasters like mudslides, droughts, and storms (Gibson et al., 2015).

Yet, these are precisely the gains at risk in this moment of economic and technological restructuring. Consider the move from specialists to generalists in the contemporary newsroom. As discussed above, general assignment (GA) reporters are harried, overworked, and typically lack expertise on climate science or policy (Davies, 2008; Gibson et al., 2015). They face intense deadlines and are under great pressure to produce stories quickly and cheaply across multiple platforms. As such, GA coverage is by definition going to be more cursory, less in-depth, and more dependent on information subsidies from external agencies, including PR produced by energy firms and libertarian think tanks. For their part, freelance environmental specialists gamely soldier on, but their ability to secure a prominent position for climate coverage is hamstrung by their part-time status. In short, overall, the organizational structure of the contemporary rationalized and downsized newsroom fundamentally undermines the material conditions that support high-quality climate coverage—chiefly, the stable, full-time employment of specialist reporters, pursuing sustained coverage of climate change as part of a dedicated environmental beat.

That said, there are some emerging bright spots in the production of climate news. First, although, to be sure, significant power asymmetries still structure online media spaces, it is undeniable that the new media ecosystem has opened the climate news agenda to more voices. If this openness is used by libertarian bloggers to promote climate denialism (Holliman, 2011), it also presents new opportunities for advocates and scientists to reach policy-makers and interested publics without recourse to commercial media gatekeepers (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). Equally importantly, niche news blogs like Climate Central have provided a much-needed haven for specialist reporting, written either by freelancers, or, in some cases, full-time staff reporters. Although these niche blogs often cater to a narrow and politically homogeneous slice of the wider public, they nonetheless offer motivated audiences a crucial means for digging deeply into climate science and policy (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009). In addition, the rise of data and computational journalism, made possible by the availability of vast databases of digitized public information, opens up intriguing new opportunities for climate change coverage (Coddington, 2015; Diakopoulos, 2016; Lewis & Westlund, 2015). For example, in one award-winning series, Reuters reporters compiled a database of publicly available tidal measurements taken from multiple locations around the U.S. coastline. With millions of records in hand, reporters sifted through the data and found compelling evidence of accelerating coastal flooding across the Eastern seaboard due to global warming and sea level rise, a finding they placed alongside equally compelling evidence of political gridlock and government inaction (McNeill, Nelson, & Wilson, 2014; Tamman, 2015).

This innovative example of data journalism highlights a final bright spot in the production of climate news: the continuing creativity and tenacity of environmental and science reporters themselves. Whether facing a downsizing newsroom or trying to assemble a string of freelance contracts, environmental reporters have found creative ways not only to keep covering climate change, but also, and just as crucially, to leverage a variety of institutional resources to support their coverage. Gibson et al. (2015), for instance, interviewed one freelancer who relied heavily on her professional networks (for job referrals and partnerships) to keep covering the climate stories she cared about most. Another reporter spoke of how she creatively pieced together funding from multiple grants to support her more ambitious climate reporting projects. In short, in a context of diminished institutional support, individual journalists have shown an admirable capacity to find resources, pursue compelling stories, and produce what they and their peers consider to be first-rate coverage of climate change (Gibson et al., 2015).

At the same time, it seems clear that, when it comes to securing a future of high-quality climate coverage, depending solely on the individual initiative and tenacity of precarious and overworked journalists is not a recipe for long-term success. Journalists, in short, cannot fix this crisis alone. Without significant action, the status quo of climate news—that is, an ad hoc, episodic appearance of climate coverage in fragmented corners of the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely, even as the climate crisis accelerates and the chance of reversing disastrous outcomes diminishes to zero (Jurkowitz, Rosenstiel, & Mitchell, 2012; Lewis & Boyce, 2009; Shanahan, 2009;). If we do nothing, we will continue to see climate change coverage migrate into isolated niches online, where it will become, like the rest of the blogosphere, more opinion-based, more advocacy-focused, and targeted to a small audience of the already-engaged. What is needed instead is the restoration of sustained economic support for climate journalism, focused on reaching diverse popular audiences, and distributed via multiple media platforms.

This means that, if we want to see more sustained, high-quality climate change coverage, we need to start supporting journalists. Environmental journalists, as a profession, hold closely to traditional journalistic values of independence, accuracy, and immediacy (Sachsman et al., 2010). Although they are taking on a wider variety of professional roles in the new media ecosystem, most science and environmental journalists still think of their work in very traditional ways (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). They view themselves not as quasi-activists or even as educators, but rather as reporters tasked with the job of covering the players in environmental science and policy, holding these players accountable, and communicating accurately the latest environmental research to the general public (Sachsman et al., 2010). And as noted, the most experienced among them are drawing on these traditional professional norms to produce coverage that avoids the pitfalls of previous eras (i.e., balancing skeptics versus scientists), while still finding ways to connect climate change to the concerns of popular audiences. But to continue to do so, in a more sustainable and effective way, they need long-term institutional support.

At the individual level, this help might come first from private foundations and public granting agencies, which could offer freelance environmental journalists enhanced grants and awards covering travel and training expenses. In doing so, these agencies could prioritize those projects or story ideas that promise to publish in-depth climate coverage in popular, general audience venues (Gibson et al., 2015). In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission might also be tapped as a source for grants and awards supporting climate change coverage, with funding coming from periodic auctions of valuable electromagnetic spectrum real-estate (Downie & Schudson, 2011).

For their part, Gibson et al. (2015) argue that, beyond supporting individual reporters, a more ambitious but likely more effective approach for policy-makers would be to experiment with alternative models for supporting news production outside of the increasingly tenuous model of commercial, advertising-supported news.6 For instance, McChesney and Nichols (2010) propose giving citizens publicly-funded “vouchers” that they can then use to support any non-profit media organization of their choosing. For their part, Downie and Schudson (2011) suggest that universities could potentially offer an alternative economic foundation for professional journalism, modeled after the institutions built in previous eras by university medical schools. In short, just as medical schools once established teaching hospitals to offer public health services, so too might journalism schools create self-sustaining institutions, where teams of professors and students work with a staff of full-time journalists to cover key local and global issues, including climate change. In their vision, financial support would come from a mix of state education funds, advertising revenues, and grants from private foundations.

There are no doubt many other policies we might consider as well, but as Gibson et al. (2015) argue, the end goal of policy-makers should by this point be clear. We need to better support environmental and science journalists, shield them as much as possible from external pressures, and provide them with the resources they need cover the complexities of climate science and policy, drawing on the best values of their profession.

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Notes:

(1.) Havens and Lotz (2016) use the term “production studies” in their work, but their approach, in my view, is closely allied with Hesmondhalgh (2013).

(2.) Although the newspaper industry (which includes print and online editions of newspapers) is struggling in North America, Europe, and Australia, the industry is in better shape in Asia and Latin America, where circulation and print advertising revenues are rising, due to the emergence of the new middle class in India, China, Argentina, and Brazil (Bauer et al., 2013; WAN-IFRA, 2014). Furthermore, research suggests that newspapers are laying off more reporters at a higher rate than television networks or local television stations. However, given that the newspaper industry employs far more journalists than broadcasters and online news organizations, the hemorrhaging of newspaper jobs is bad news for journalists, since these losses in print media most likely cannot be made up by incremental staffing increases in broadcast and online news (Downie & Schudson, 2011).

(3.) Although newspapers have of course moved online as well, the revenues these firms generate from online subscriptions and advertising do not come close to making up for declining ad revenues on the print side (McChesney & Nichols, 2010).

(4.) The exception may be in the television industry in the United States, where some union contracts cover freelance workers and offer, if not job security, then at least wages and benefits approaching those of full-time workers (Ryan, 2009).

(5.) For instance, in the United States, National Public Radio recently reduced its environment and climate change desk from four reporters to one (Bagley, 2014). When the New York Times recently re-established its climate and environment desk in 2015 (Bagley, 2014), this act alone almost doubled the total number of reporters covering the environmental beat in the top five national newspapers, from 12 to 20 reporters (Bagley, 2013). Not surprisingly, view from cable TV news is even more sobering, where not long ago, CNN dismantled its entire science, environment, and technology desk (Revkin, 2008).

(6.) According to Turow (2011), many advertisers and advertising agencies have concluded that they no longer need to subsidize cultural content (news and entertainment) in order to reach consumer targets. Instead, they now have a wide variety of tools for tracking and targeting consumers wherever they go online. Therefore, Turow suggests that the advertising industry may soon abandon the news as a medium for advertising.