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Digital-born media players find new ways to cover the ‘old’ story of climate change

The media hardly mentioned climate change during the presidential campaign in the USA and the Brexit referendum in the UK.  It’s a difficult topic to sell to audiences, many of whom find it remote, frightening or depressing.

At the same time, media profits are being squeezed across the world, and cuts to specialist reporting beats in the mainstream media have become widespread in some countries.  Science and environment reporters are no exception.

But for new digital-born players, such as the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice, investment and innovation in reporting climate change has become an editorial priority.  All three have been successful in attracting users interested in the environment to their content.

How are they reaching and engaging new audiences on the issue? And how important is their addition to climate change reporting?

A new book published by the Reuters Institute, Something Old, Something New: Digital Media and the Coverage of Climate Change, by James Painter and eight other researchers, explores the strategy being taken by these new providers and the content they provide.  It examines how their tone, style and formats are setting them apart from mainstream media and engaging younger audiences in new ways.  

‘This is the first time that researchers have systematically analysed the content of some of the new providers and compared it to traditional media’, says lead author James Painter.  ‘These new players are finding innovative and interesting ways of engaging their audiences, particularly through social media’.

Taking the Paris UN Summit on climate change in December 2015 as a case study, the book analyses more than 500 articles from five different traditional and new media organisations in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the UK and the USA.

Key findings include:

  • Reporting from large events such as UN Climate Summits has traditionally meant a large press corps covering similar angles at organised press events, but the new players showed a range of new approaches including informal tonality, ‘immersive’ personal narration journalism, and often an emphasis on different themes.  
  • All three new players are very different to each other.  For example, over half of the 230 articles published on the Huffington Post’s US site about the Summit took the form of blog posts expressing personal views, often from organisations or individuals with an activist perspective. Vice News included an innovative series of video reports away from the climate negotiations, and BuzzFeed used a more informal, irreverent and entertaining language.
  • The new players were generally more visually oriented than legacy media. BuzzFeed in particular relied on photos more than any other media, and used a wider range of formats like listicles, audio, and quizzes.
  • There are many similarities to mainstream media too – the Huffington Post in particular often had the same focus and volume of coverage as The Guardian and The New York Times. All three digital players included in-depth analysis and accounts that had a common approach with legacy media.
  • Huffington Post paid particular attention to the opportunities provided by taking action against climate change, such as discussions of the economic advantages of investing early in renewable energies and in developing a ‘green economy’.
  • There were very few instances of climate skepticism in the reporting of legacy media or online players in any of the analyzed countries. BuzzFeed and Vice in several instances made outright fun of it.  

‘Our results show that BuzzFeed, Vice and the Huffington Post are beneficial for public debate about complex issues such as climate change,’ says Painter.  ‘They search for new ways of covering the ‘old’ theme of climate change and of sustaining its interest for a wider public, and particularly younger audiences.’

Download the Executive Summary and an essay on climate change coverage on online media sites in Poland here at no cost.

Purchase the book via the Oxford University Online Shop*

*Due to the Christmas break, any books purchased via the Online Shop during this time will not be dispatched until 3rd January 2017.  You will be unable to purchase copies of this book from our Amazon account between 5.00 pm 15th December 2016 and 10.00 am 3rd January 2017.  We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

This book is published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with the support of Google and the Digital News Initiative, the European Climate Foundation and the Energy Foundation.