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U.S. climate coverage fell last year while strange weather set records

Amid a historic drought in Texas, a presidential election and a year of record-breaking extreme weather events, multiple studies show news coverage of climate change took a steep plunge in 2011.

"This is really a very low point," said Robert Brulle, a professor of environmental policy at Drexel University.

Brulle has been following television news coverage of climate change on the three major network stations -- NBC, ABC and CBS -- for decades. Last year, he found that the number of stories on climate change in the three nightly news broadcasts fell by more than half, from 32 stories in 2010 to 14 stories in 2011, and was way down from the peak of 147 stories in 2007.

"It's an order of magnitude of difference," he said.

The amount of air time also dropped by nearly two-thirds, said Brulle, from 90 minutes and 28 seconds in 2010 to 32 minutes and 20 seconds in 2011.

Print media experienced a similar trend, although its overall coverage was greater. At least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published around 19,000 stories on climate change last year, whereas 11,100 writers filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to research by DailyClimate.org.

In a study of the five leading U.S. newspapers, Maxwell Boykoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also found that the number of stories on global warming decreased from 2010 to 2011. His research showed The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times boosted their climate reporting, but that it wasn't enough to outweigh the slump in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

U.S. coverage lags behind world

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Worldwide, Boykoff found print coverage of climate change in North America continued to lag behind Europe and well behind Oceania, where coverage was way up last year as news groups followed the debate over Australia's carbon tax.

In his recently published book "Who Speaks for the Climate?" Boykoff argued that scientific breakthroughs, cultural events, ecological and meteorological events and politics can all affect climate change coverage.

Brulle agrees that politics was likely a main reason climate change stayed off the air and out of the press in 2011.

"Last year, none of the politicians were talking about it," he said. "Obama was not making any statements about climate change, he wasn't campaigning on it, and it wasn't a topic of contention."

There was an uptick in coverage when GOP candidates like Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry announced their views for and against climate change research. But, generally, said Brulle, "it's an issue that's being avoided by both Republicans and Democrats, because I don't think they see it as a winning issue to talk about." The same appears true for the nightly news.

Climate change was also bumped by other pressing news stories. "A lot of other issues are crowding it out," said Brulle. "Economics and unemployment are still big problems."

Yet public interest rises

Oddly, while there was less climate coverage, public opinion saw more agreement on the issue. Last November, 63 percent of Americans surveyed said they think global warming is happening, up from 57 percent in January of 2010 but still below the 71 percent high in 2008, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Yale research also shows that while the economic downturn may still be a popular news story, it doesn't necessarily take away from public opinion on climate change. A greater number of Americans -- now a 57 percent majority -- were more likely to disagree with the following statement: "With the economy in such bad shape, the U.S. can't afford to reduce global warming."

"While no one would argue we're out of the woods, perhaps more Americans are starting to feel a little more stable about the economy and that perhaps we can now think about climate change, which most Americans think about as a distant problem," said Leiserowitz.

This could also be connected to the fact that more Americans are linking extreme weather events to climate change. In Leiserowitz's most recent study, 65 percent said global warming is already affecting weather in the United States and a majority of people thought the extreme events of 2011 were linked to climate change. For instance, 67 percent said global warming was responsible for record high summer temperatures across the country.

"Americans are beginning to connect climate change to extreme weather events that are being experienced here and now in the U.S., and that is potentially a major and important shift in public consciousness," said Leiserowitz.

The record-breaking number of billion-dollar disasters were major news stories of 2011, but, said Drexel's Brulle, they were rarely linked to climate change. Leiserowitz's data show people are making that connection themselves.

"On all sorts of issues, people make up their minds and form their opinions based on a whole set of sources of information of which the media is only one," he said.

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