To put these numbers into context, we compared them to mentions of “ISIS” in each of these four papers on November 14 and 15—the two days following the attacks in Paris. During those two days, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today ran an average of 10 and 18 articles per day on ISIS, respectively, yet on climate change each had a daily average of only two articles. By contrast, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times had quite similar numbers between ISIS post-Paris attacks and their U.N. negotiations averages.
Over the span of the two weeks from Sunday, November 29 to Sunday, December 13, newspapers had the greatest coverage of the talks at the beginning and at the end. During the first three days of the conference, they collectively published an average of 46 articles per day. During the last three days of the conference (December 10-12), the four papers averaged 34 articles per day. During the three days in the middle of the two weeks (Dec. 5-7), coverage dropped to an average of 17 articles per day. In other words, when the pomp went away, so did the coverage—just as the negotiations got going in earnest. And coverage did not pick up again until there was something easily graspable to report on at the end of week two.
To compensate, many journalists chose to focus on specific countries or people—world leaders such as President Barack Obama, celebrities such as Bill Gates—and the particular things they said or actions they took. Others tried to capture attention by linking their reporting to relevant world news, such as the Syrian refugee crisis or the terrorist attacks in Paris. Still other writers framed the negotiations as having a central conflict—identifying the biggest sticking points or disputes between countries and leaders. These approaches followed common journalistic norms of focusing on individuals and the conflict between them, leading to a somewhat piecemeal representation of the conference.
As a result, most articles did not focus on the major issues being discussed in Paris. They gave broad updates on the progress of the negotiations, the speeches and positions of President Obama and other major world leaders, and the actions or stances of other leading nations. In addition, they discussed the environmental effects of climate change, of which the greatest number focused on air pollution in India and China. Still others relayed general information about the talks, or focused on business, civil society, energy sources orclean energy technology, and U.S. domestic policy.
Many of the main issues underlying the negotiations were not covered in depth. In particular, some of the key issues to be resolved at the conference revolved around the world’s least-developed nations—those that are considered to be the most vulnerable to the early impacts of climate change due to their lower levels of economic development, conflict, and poverty, yet have done little to contribute to the problem. Of articles about other nations and world leaders outside the U.S., 35 focused on individual developed countries and 23 were about major emerging economies (India, China, and Brazil), while only seven articles discussed Africa and other groups of developing countries. No leaders from these areas were mentioned.
- the allocation of responsibility between developed and developing countries (five articles)
- the social and human rights issues related to the effects of climate change (13 articles)
- the contentious issue of helping those facing irreparable loss and damage from climate change (one article)
- the transparent reporting of the billions of dollars of climate finance flowing from the global North to the South (three articles).
This is a shame, because coverage of the conference sets the stage for public understanding of what was accomplished in Paris and what matters in the coming years. While reporters made valiant efforts to chronicle the climate change negotiations, the average reader came away from the talks with a piecemeal understanding dominated by a few big names and little in-depth knowledge of many of the main issues the conference attempted to address. Citizens informed by the U.S. print media will have a partial, and quite inadequate, understanding of the issues at the core of the climate change negotiations. They will know there was an agreement, but won’t really know what it entails, where it falls short, or why they should care. Given the transformation needed in American society away from fossil fuels and energy waste, this was a lost opportunity for education about the tough issues raised by this existential crisis.