23/12/2016 08:17 GMT | Updated 24/12/2017 05:12 GMT

New Media Players Find Original Ways Of Covering An Old Story

In the UK, amongst those who self-identify as 'highly interested' in the environment, the BBC comes out top as a media source by a considerable margin, but Huffington Post and BuzzFeed do well against more established brands.


A wide variety of research with focus groups has consistently shown that climate change represents a huge challenge for effective communication and public engagement.

Among the many obstacles are that its effects are often remote in time and place, it can promote helplessness or alarm, it suffers from issue fatigue, and it is usually seen through the prism of people's values and not through a cold assessment of climate science or risks.

The media find it difficult too. A recent study based on interviews with television producers and executives concluded that climate change was like the 'kale smoothie' of television schedules: a fashionable and even essential element of the diet, but essentially unappealing.

The media hardly mentioned climate change during the presidential campaign in the USA. In the six weeks prior to the Brexit referendum in the UK, only 0.5 percent of traditional newspaper coverage included a reference to the environment, even though much of the UK's environmental regulations are decided in Europe. TV bulletins had none.

Traditional media such as the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times, do commendable and varied coverage of climate change, but new digital-born players are providing additional and innovative material that raises the profile of climate change in the public sphere.

In a new book published by the Reuters Institute, Something Old, Something New: Digital Media and the Coverage of Climate Change, we looked at how the tone, style and formats of new players are at times setting them apart from mainstream media and engaging younger audiences in new ways.  

For the first time, we included a question about interest in environment news in our annual surveys of online users around the world.

In the UK, amongst those who self-identify as 'highly interested' in the environment, the BBC comes out top as a media source by a considerable margin, but Huffington Post and BuzzFeed do well against more established brands.

In the USA, the same two do very well. Vice is less popular as a source, but it compares well with some well-known brands like the LA Times.

We wanted to identify in what ways these new players were different to more traditional media organisations. Taking the Paris UN Summit on climate change in December 2015 as a case study, we analysed more than 500 articles from two traditional and three new media organisations (BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Vice News) in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the UK and the USA.

Our key findings included:

• 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.


• Vice News relied heavily on video reports, called Climate Emergency. Some of these showed a different style of 'immersive' reporting where the correspondent takes the viewer on a personalised, and often emotional, journey.

• 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.

• BuzzFeed also used a more informal, irreverent and entertaining language. 'Meet The People Trolling The Fuck Out Of The Paris Climate Talks', was the headline in one BuzzFeed article during the negotiations.

• There were 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.

• However, the 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.

These new players are very different to each other in terms of their funding models, distribution strategies and editorial approach. But taken together, they can help to move interest in climate change away from a niche, often well-informed audience, to a wider public, and particularly those who now just use social media to get their information.