Media focus on climate disappears even faster than glaciers

Global media coverage of climate change in 2010 fell to levels not seen since 2005, after spiking in late 2009 in the lead-in to the disastrous UN climate talks in Copenhagen and the theft and selective release of fragments of private emails from climate scientists at the CRU in East Anglia (‘Climategate’).

And Ireland? It’s difficult to get accurate information right across the board, as few news organisations’ websites allow systematic querying by date, so I used the Irish Times online archive for two reasons: first, because it is the ‘paper of record’ and second, its website allows accurate querying. I chose two discrete phrases, “global warming” and “climate change” and examined the frequency of their occurrence in the Irish Times over the last 10 years. The findings are summarised in the graph below:

The phrase “fallen off a cliff” is perhaps an overstatement, but it’s still pretty dramatic. Coverage peaked in 2007, with the two phrases appearing 1,952 times in total – that’s around 6.2 mentions per edition that year (bear in mind that a single article could include multiple uses of either phrase, each is logged separately; mentions in Letters to the Editor are included).

2007 was of course the year the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was published; media coverage reflected the fact that, at that time, few outside of the lunatic fringe were openly questioning the veracity of every other line of this mammoth 3,000-page document, not to mention attacking the bona fides of individual scientists.

It took the climate disinformation campaign a year or two to get its boots on, and to make serious inroads into eroding the media’s implicit trust in mainstream, peer-reviewed climate science. 2008 was another strong year for climate change coverage in the IT, with 1,826 mentions, or 5.8 mentions per issue. By 2009, the first hints of an erosion of editorial resolve was beginning to emerge, with 1,556 mentions, or just five per edition.

But the real collapse occurred in 2010, with coverage slumping to 911 mentions, or just 2.9 per edition. The discontinuation of the paper’s regular Thursday environmental opinion slot (penned by this writer) in February 2010 was part of this sharp fall in coverage, but of more significance was the quiet axing of what had been a regular daily column run on the ‘Bulletin’ page that tracked climate, weather and environmental stories mainly from the wire services. This was jettisoned in favour of the anodyne random daily scrapings from the IT’s archive (many fascinating in their own right, but collectively, a waste of precious ‘news’ space).

Analysis of‘s archive of global media coverage shows that journalists published 23,156 climate-related stories in English last year – a 30% drop from 2009. In the same period, albeit using a different (my) scale, the Irish Times’ climate change coverage crashed by over 40% in quantity, back to their lowest levels since 2006. The climate crisis may well be deepening by the month, but the media (using the ‘paper of record’ as a yardstick) has pretty much folded up its tent and moved on.

Odd that, since 2010 was also the year of multiple weather disasters in Ireland and around the world and further record Arctic ice thinning; by no coincidence whatever, Nasa also confirmed 2010 as the single hottest year ever recorded globally since instrumental record-keeping began in the mid-19th century. It followed hot on the heels, so to speak, of the decade 2000–2009, the hottest decade ever recorded globally. So clearly, nothing to see here, folks.

Further afield, for network news and other mainstream outlets, the trend was relentlessly downward. “I can’t believe it’s this little. In the US, it’s just gone off the map,” Prof Robert Brulle of Drexel University said. “It’s pretty clear we’re back to 2004/2005 levels.”

Coverage of December’s United Nations climate talks in Cancun tells its own story: Total meeting coverage by the networks consisted of one 10-second clip, Brulle said. By contrast, 2009’s Copenhagen talks generated 32 stories totaling 98 minutes of airtime. “I’m trying to check it again and again,” Brulle said of the 2010 data. “It’s so little, it’s stunning.”

Overall, the US networks aired 32 stories on climate change last year, compared to 84 in 2009 and 144 in 2007, when Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, and the IPCC published its AR4 report.

“The cycle of media interest in climate change has run its course, and this story is no longer considered newsworthy,” Brulle said. To paraphrase a quote from Leon Trotsky, we may no longer be interested in climate change, but with every year that passes, climate change is ever more interested in us.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to Media focus on climate disappears even faster than glaciers

  1. Brian O'Brien says:

    Interesting sleuthing, John. Certainly tallies with what I’m seeing (or not seeing) as regards media coverage generally – and presumably your analysis doesn’t distinguish between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ articles? Therefore we can probably safely assume the real, underlying level of media support for maintaining climate coverage as an editorial priority is in fact a good deal lower. What do you think? If memory serves, two or three years ago, there were far, far fewer of these ‘skeptic’ jokers actually getting serious coverage, and that situation appears unfortunately to have changed for the worse

  2. Nick Bentley says:

    Yet another mechanism among many, by which the media isn’t doing us any favors w/r/t climate change. There was recently a study in Nature exploring why people resist dire climate change warning, and I suspect that media has something to do with that as well. I’ve written about it here:

  3. Greensleeves says:

    Good job John on RTE radio last night, I thought you’d be outnumbered as the token environmentalist, but you seem to have charmed some of your fellow panellists around to your point of view! Terry Prone in particular, sounds like she’s changed her tune, either that or you really have unusually strong powers of persuasion!! Hell, even the Fine Gael senator seemed to have borrowed your hymn sheet for the evening… of course it was back to Business-as-Usual for RTE this morning, with Eamon Ryan having to single handedly fend off both the IBEC and IFA people, as well as a fairly unsympathetic interviewer. Where was the ‘balance’ in that three-against-one format? Besides, kicking politicians is easy. Ryan should have been balanced with a voice from the scientific side explaining why we’re going to the trouble of all this climate legislation lark in the first place.

  4. John Gibbons says:


    You are correct in spotting that this is strictly a quantitative analysis. Were we to sift out the ‘skeptical’ element, I suspect the results would be even grimmer than the chart above indicates. You can’t understate the damage neoliberal propaganda dressed up as climate economics has done to the quality of public debate in this area in the last couple of years.


    Thanks for your posting. Enjoyed reading some recent entries on your blog last night. I can see you’ve had a pretty recent personal epiphany – welcome aboard!


    Who was it that said you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Anyhow, the more leisurely format of ‘The Late Debate’ allows for a more nuanced discussion rather than the usual rat-a-tat-tat of soundbites that dominates the daytime radio schedules. For anyone interested, you can play it back at the link below (click ‘Latest Show’ button):

  5. Nick Bentley says:


    Thanks much. I’m glad I found your site as well. Good stuff here.

    My personal epiphany, if you can call it that, has happened over the course of the last year. It’s been the wildest personal transformation of my life. Puberty was minor in comparison.

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