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Why We Need More (and Better) Environmental Coverage in the News

Around Earth Day, environmental stories in the mainstream news media usually peak. However, consistent environmental news coverage throughout the rest of the year is hard to find; with environmental stories representing just 1% of news headlines for nationally focused news outlets.

Case in point: James Bond related coverage garnered 5 times more coverage than fracking on major nightly news programs over the past year. Americans overwhelmingly want something to change in this area. In fact, data shows that nearly 80% want environmental coverage in the news to be improved regardless of age, race, or geographic location.

Invariably we live in a society where the story or headline most likely to attract a viewer is often what makes it above the fold. The problem, however, is that entertainment and crime stories, on average, garner 3 and 5 times more coverage than environmental ones.  Unfortunately, for some credible news organizations, the ratio is 50 to 1. After analyzing 17 months of data for 46 news organizations and compiling into a ranking report, some of the other findings are striking:       

  • Fox News had the highest percentage of headline environmental stories (1.57%) among cable and network news outlets; with CNN having the lowest (0.36%) (although FOX’s climate coverage has been documented for being misleading over 90% of the time).
  • Despite being publicly-supported news organizations, even NPR and PBS consistently prioritize entertainment headlines over environmental ones.
  • Independent news organizations and many local newspapers prioritize environmental coverage much more than national news organizations and are the success models to look to

The good news is that the environment is an “integrating” topic and can be connected to jobs and the economy, health, climate change, food, security, community development, justice, education, business, science and technology, weather, and so much more. Fortunately, there are more resources now than ever before to report on environmental stories. Whether in the form of news wires, content sharing partnerships, credible academic institutions, or journalism training organizations, news executives have a range of resources at their fingertips. The key question is whether there is the will to push the needle forward on this issue.

CNN’s Founder Ted Turner has said that “We must go through a natural revolution if we are to survive on earth. We need to change people’s perceptions.”  As an industry pioneer Mr. Turner is onto something because the news plays a vital role in influencing public understanding and opinions when it comes to environmental issues.

Why Environmental Coverage Matters

We are at a point like none other in history. With seven billion of us and counting, our footprint is impacting our children’s future like never before. And we are already seeing and feeling its effects in the form of resource wars, climate change, trillions in economic impact, food scarcity, endangered indigenous cultures, body toxicity, and much more. But, we are an ingenious species and have the ability to nurture a more restorative society if we put our mind to it. Now is the time to better understand our unprecedented predicament so that we can chart a different course. Improved environmental literacy can ultimately translate to better policy making at local and national levels, collective actions that reduce impacts, and the cultivation of an expanded national stewardship ethic.

Given their reach, large mainstream news organizations have a moral imperative to do a better job covering public interest news like the environment and hopefully one day soon, entertainment headlines will be three times less than environmental ones.

Tyson Miller

Tyson Miller is founder and director of The Project for Improved Environmental Coverage (PIEC) – a nonprofit initiative dedicated to improving environmental news coverage in the mainstream media. 

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