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Climate change news coverage has declined. The audience for it has not.

September 23, 2020 | By Fran Berkman, Newsroom Engagement Manager – Taboola @franberkman and
Jonathan Quach, Software Engineer – Taboola @Taboola

It’s 2020, and things have gotten to the point that we may not have the bandwidth to pay attention to all the existential threats we’re facing at once.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic reached a global scale. News organizations around the world focused their coverage on the deadly outbreak and readership reached record levels. But while all this was going on, the climate change crisis continued its steady march

News coverage is inherently limited given the resources media organizations have to allocate. And audience attention is a finite resource. So, it’s natural to worry that focus on one crisis may reduce much-needed focus on another. 

However, the data show a more complicated story.

On a high level, U.S. media coverage of climate change has declined since March. Fewer new articles have been published and fewer articles are being read overall. Readership has not followed, however. In fact, the number of readers and amount of page views has not dropped off.

These patterns indicate that there is an opportunity. News publishers can expect higher-than-normal traffic for continued investment in climate change coverage.

(Image via Taboola Newsroom)

This chart shows data from the network of Taboola’s news publisher partners. These include thousands of news websites in the U.S. They range from those belonging to large TV networks to local newspaper chains to digitally native publications and many more. Essentially, it’s a uniquely broad representation of what U.S. news consumers are reading about on the internet.

There’s a lot happening so let’s look at the lines one-by-one.

Articles read and written

The yellow line represents the number of articles consumed by U.S. readers that week which mention “climate change.” There’s a clear drop beginning several weeks before U.S. readers fully turned their attention to coronavirus, which is the green highlighted portion of the graph beginning the week of March 9.

The likely reason articles began dropping a few weeks prior is because news organizations had already begun shifting resources to coronavirus coverage. The number of articles consumed about climate change eventually drops to around 2,000 per week. That is a level below anything we saw in the previous year.

One thing to be very clear about is that our data shows the number of articles being consumed, not the amount of new articles. The drop indicates that there are fewer new articles because news consumers tend to focus on recent updates.

We can confirm this with data from a tool built by MIT and Harvard researchers called Media Cloud. It shows the percentage of new articles per week about topics on a large selection of major U.S. news sites. Media Cloud also shows the production of articles about climate change dropped from the 1.5% – 2% range to consistently under 1% as of early March.

Coverage concerns

Before moving on, it’s worth noting that even 2% to 3% of articles likely isn’t a suitable level of coverage for something dire as climate change. Remember, this topic impacts a wide range of news topics such as public race, health, housing, income inequality, transportation, animal preservation, and much more.

(Image via Media Cloud)

In fact, hundreds of news organizations tried to address this very issue late last year when they joined together in a coordinated effort to increase climate coverage. You can see a spike in both the Taboola and Media Cloud charts in late September 2019, when the Covering Climate Now launched.

For comparison’s sake, the chart below shows what it looks like when the news media rallies its full resources to cover a topic. Significantly, more than half of the articles published—nearly 70% some weeks—mentioned coronavirus from late March until June.

Weekly readers

Returning to our original topic, let’s dig into how coronavirus affected the number of people reading about climate change.

Unlike with articles, the number of weekly readers remains relatively consistent with what we saw in the months ahead of the U.S. outbreaks.

The weekly reader count remains in the 14 million to 20 million range. It hasn’t quite reached 20 million in the past few months. But that could be seasonal as we can see the same was the case during the summer 2019 months.

These numbers align with the findings of a report published in May by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University entitled “Climate Change in the American Mind.” In the survey of Americans taken in April, the researchers found record-tying levels of acceptance that global warming is a serious problem. They also report extremely high levels of concern and interest.

As noted in a New York Times report about the research, author John Schwartz notes that this survey defies a psychological phenomenon called the “finite pool of worry.” This suggests that concern about climate change may wane amid coronavirus because people only have so much attention and energy to dedicate to crises.

Schwartz also found the research defied the expectations of other academics. University of Rhode Island environmental communications professor Sunshine Menezes commented:

“I’m excited by these findings. Taken together, the report’s findings indicate that Americans are reaching, or maybe even have reached, a turning point. They see climate change in their backyards, they recognize the unequal impacts, they increasingly recognize the urgency of adaptation measures, and they want news coverage that tackles consequences and solutions.”

Page views per week

The story for weekly page views was similar to the one for readers. The weekly totals remained relatively similar after coronavirus took over the news. We saw a range of 30 million to 50 million page views per week about climate change remain steady. If you’re an audience growth strategist for a news website, your ears should be perking up right now.

(Image via Taboola Newsroom)

With fewer articles in circulation about climate change and a consistent audience with a consistent appetite for coverage, supply and demand suggests there’s an opportunity to take advantage of the dearth of new articles.

This chart shows how the amount of page views per article mentioning climate change has increased significantly in the coronavirus era.

The founders of Covering Climate Now picked up on this trend anecdotally in a report they published in June entitled “The Climate Emergency Won’t Wait for the Press to Play Catch-up.”

“The public sees the urgency and actually wants more climate news. Even during the peak of coronavirus coverage in April, some of the world’s biggest news organizations told us that their audiences had little appetite for stories that weren’t about the virus, with one exception: climate change, which continued to generate significant traffic.”

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