By Tom Yulsman (originally published at CEJournal, Dec. 22, 2011).
Attention by the U.S. news media to environmental topics dropped from almost nil to all but nil in 2011, according to a new survey out Thursday from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Among general topics, international news of one sort or another topped Pew’s list, beating out the economy generally, which was in fifth position in terms of the percent of the “news hole” it garnered in 2011. As for the environment generally, its portion of the news hole dropped to just 1 percent this past year, down from 2 percent in 2010.
The Pew survey also looked at individual news stories that dominated mainstream news in 2011. And another survey, from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, examined the particular stories Americans followed most closely. (More about the latter survey in a minute.)
In terms of specific stories, as opposed to general topic categories, see the chart above for the rankings of the top ten. I find it quite interesting that unrest in the Middle East came in second, beating out the election.
Among specific stories related in some way to the environment, the Joplin tornadoes garnered the most attention.
The catastrophe was 14th on Pew’s list of top stories of the year, with just shy of 1 percent of the year’s news hole. (For a longer list of top stories, and comparisons, check out the report’s nifty interactive feature.) As an event that came and went in a limited time period, it’s not surprising that it didn’t come remotely close to attracting as high and sustained level of attention as the top three stories. But during the week it occurred, it dominated coverage. In 17th position was Huricane Irene, followed by energy, and then the April tornadoes and floods that devastated large swaths of the Midwest and South. Each accounted for less than 1 percent of the news hole this year. No other environmentally related stories appear on Pew’s list.
It’s interesting to see how public attention compares to what the news media considered most newsworthy. Every week, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press assesses which specific stories (as opposed to general topics) are garnering the most attention by the public. And Pew’s annual tally shows that the interests of the news media and the public were in some respects closely aligned, due in no small measure to the agenda-setting role of journalism.
Specific natural disasters garnered a lot of public attention, as they did in the news media. The Midwest tornadoes, Southern storms, and Hurricane Irene were eight, ninth and tenth respectively on the list of the public’s top stories in 2011. Following not far behind in 15th place was the July heat wave (which contributed to the devastating fires in Texas).
These stories do have potential links to climate change. But climate change itself does not appear in Pew’s tally of specific stories the public was interested in this past year. It might be in there somewhere, way, way down low on the list. But if you can find any numbers in the report documenting it, please let me know! I sure can’t.