Journalism’s Education Problem: Extracting Information from News

Lessons from a close reading of the New York Times’ climate coverage

The role of the press is to help a democracy’s citizens understand even the most complex national issues — providing sufficient breadth and depth of coverage and making the information contained in that coverage readily accessible.

There has been surprisingly little systematic analysis of how well the news media perform this educational role. Indeed, David Caswell, founder of Structured Stories, a site devoted to the growing field of structured journalism, flags the “general reluctance to apply an analytical perspective to news as a major barrier to using technology in the service of journalism.”

“Climate change is the one thing that is about everything.”

To fill that gap, I thought a good place to start would be to study coverage of climate change — the poster child of complex issues. When I later spoke with Adam Bryant, who directs coverage of it for the New York Times, he agreed. “Climate change is the one thing that is about everything. You have to come at it from many different angles.”

I gave a close reading to all New York Times climate coverage from October 1 through December 15, 2015, a period culminating in the Paris Climate Summit. The Times runs the most climate coverage of any of the top U.S. national newspapers, which added up to 190 items in the ten weeks I studied — including news articles, op-eds, editorials, blogs (Andrew Revkin’s “Dot Earth” and others), and several multimedia interactives. Coverage leading up to the Summit on November 30 averaged 1.8 pieces a day. During the Summit that jumped to 5.1 a day, including a special blog dedicated to Summit coverage. (I used as my sample all articles tagged “Global Warming and Climate Change” in “Times Topics.”)

Climate deniers got called out several times.

As I reviewed the coverage, I tracked the topics covered by each piece of content (most pieces covered at least three). When I was done, I had compiled a list of 30 topics that together constituted a basic understanding of global warming, as well as a tally of how often each was addressed by the Times. (Spoiler: If they had read it all, readers would have been well served, with a few notable exceptions that I discuss below.)

Topics that appeared in at least 20% of the content (6):

  • Global Diplomacy (40%)
  • U.S. Politics and Policy (23%)
  • Science (Climate and other) (22%)
  • Renewables (21%)
  • Emission Reduction Targets (21%)
  • Role of the Private Sector (20%)

Topics that appeared in at least 10% of the content: (8)

  • Evidence of Warming Already Visible in the Environment (18%)
  • Climate Deniers/Skeptics (15%)
  • Competing Interests of Rich and Poor Countries (13%)
  • Progress toward Emission Reduction Targets (13%)
  • Coal and Coal Industry (12%)
  • Oil and Oil Industry (11%)
  • Predicted Impact of Sea-Level Rise (11%)
  • Predicted Impact of Droughts and Other Extreme Weather Events (11%)

Beyond the most obvious coverage areas — global diplomacy (75 pieces in 76 days), science, emission reduction targets — there were compelling stories on how the effects of climate change were already evident in the environment (important for reader engagement with the topic), predictions of the impact on sea levels, and the tension between the interests of developed and developing nations. Climate deniers got called out several times, which must mean we are past the time when the scientific consensus and its denial were treated by journalists as equally valid.

Topics that appeared in at least 5% of the content: (9)

  • Technological Innovation (9%)
  • Impact on Organisms, Species, etc. (7%)
  • Nuclear Power (7%)
  • Carbon Tax/ Carbon Trading (8%)
  • Smog and Non-Greenhouse Gases (7%)
  • Impact on Agriculture (7%)
  • Impact on Water Supplies (6%)
  • Natural Gas (5%)
  • Public Opinion (5%)

Technological Innovation warranted significantly more discussion. It received just a quarter of the coverage that global diplomacy did. Setting targets for reduction of emissions is only the first step: most of the work ahead will be in the development of new technologies and other solutions. There is another reason, too. A good way to engage readers’ (and students’) interest in an issue is to focus not on the problems but on a discussion of concrete efforts to solve them.

One specific innovation that was underplayed was the development of new nuclear power capacity. Beyond an op-ed that made a strong case in its favor, and one article reviewing the different paths to “deep decarbonization” that gave it two paragraphs, there was no extended discussion of nuclear’s overall pros and cons. When we are far from having solved the problem of zero-carbon power generation, this controversial topic seems to warrant a much fuller airing.

There were passing references to carbon tax and cap-and-trade policies, but primarily in a political context, with no thorough examination of their effectiveness. Since these seem to be an important part of the mitigation toolkit, more discussion would have been helpful here, too.

Topics that appeared in less than 5% of the content: (7)

  • Carbon-Negative Technology (4.2%)
  • Adaptation (4%)
  • Impact of Warming and Mitigation on the U.S. Economy (4%)
  • Deforestation (2.6%)
  • “Unburnable carbon” (2.1%)
  • Methane/ Nitrous Oxide (1.6%)
  • Arguments against Decarbonization (.5%)

This entire group deserved more coverage, three topics especially:

Adaptation is the process by which society adapts to changes in the environment in the event that warming is not sufficiently arrested. There were references to adaptation by the most vulnerable countries, especially

Missing entirely was discussion of adaptation as a “Plan B.”

those exposed to sea-level rise but almost no details of what form the adaptations would take. There was an article on drought-induced migrations (a form of adaptation). There were also passing references to the need to develop drought-resistant varieties of agricultural crops.

Missing entirely was discussion of adaptation as a “Plan B” in both developed and developing countries, in case the decarbonization of the global economy does not meet its targets. Sea walls around New York City, investments in irrigation and water storage, the controversial geoengineering (large-scale interference in the climate system to reduce warming) — all have been discussed elsewhere but did not appear in the Times during the review period. Since “Plan A” (mitigation) is by no means assured, a robust discussion of other options is called for, especially when the future may likely see a blend of Plans A and B.

Another underreported topic was the impact of warming and mitigation on the U.S. economy. There was coverage of impacts of warming on the Chinese and Indian economies, coverage of the impacts of sea-level rise, droughts, and other environmental damage, some coverage of impact on agriculture, but only passing mention of what will happen to the U.S. economy as a whole in a range of scenarios — not just the effects of warming itself, but the effects of mitigation efforts, too. There was some discussion of how developing new alternative energy technologies could drive new economic growth, but not much beyond that.

As part of this discussion it would also have been helpful to read about ways the United States might get on the path to decarbonization, especially with political deadlock in Washington.

A final omission was coverage of the arguments against the decarbonization of the U.S. and global economies. As noted above, there were clear arguments against denialism. What was lacking was an airing of the substantive arguments against the Paris Summit’s conclusions from its critics on the right. It would have at least been a step toward promoting more open, respectful discussions across the political spectrum, which is critical to any positive outcome.

The Times Responds.
When I had finished my review, I spoke with Adam Bryant at the Times to share some of my findings. He wasn’t surprised by the specific topics I found under-reported, although he made sure I had seen what he termed the “everything is illuminated” pieces. These included one especially popular evergreen backgrounder, “Short Answers to Hard Questions about Climate Change,” and “A Path for Climate Change, Beyond Paris,” which explained what steps would be needed for deep cuts to emissions (noted above). Bryant also pointed out other articles that had run earlier in the year that addressed some of the topics I found under-reported.

Then he said that the Summit in Paris would change the conversation. “Paris creates an inflection point for coverage of climate change.” Before the agreement reached there, the biggest question was whether there would be consensus behind international action. After the agreement, the focus will likely shift to what actions — by governments and the private sector — need to be taken to achieve the goals that were committed to.

“Climate change coverage is a relatively young discipline.”

Bryant, who has been in his role for 15 months, also allowed that coverage was a work in progress and the Times was still experimenting to discover new ways to engage readers on the topic. “Climate change coverage is a relatively young discipline,” he said, “and it gives you an opportunity to bring many people to it through your journalism.” He added that the Times would be reviewing readers’ response to the coverage, identifying what readers responded to the most, and making some adjustments going forward.

Journalism as Educator.
There was an amazing wealth of information in the 190 items I reviewed, but it took a major commitment of time to consume it all, and only a small portion of Times readers would have, a point that Bryant confirmed. That strikes me as an obvious missed opportunity for the Times, which says its business priority is to deliver more value to its core readers while also drawing in new readers.

“The use of journalism as a means of popular education is an extremely important opportunity in the reinvention of the media ecosystem.”

I believe there are ways to help readers glean the “information-worthy” (as opposed to newsworthy) elements from the coverage of complex issues like global warming. Bryant, who was on the team that produced the Times’ much-discussed Innovation Report 2014, agreed this was worth exploring. “It’s one of the challenges/opportunities for digital journalism in the years ahead — how to present stories in ways that best meet different readers’ needs.”

David Caswell agreed, too. “The use of journalism as a means of popular education is, I believe, an extremely important opportunity in the reinvention of the media ecosystem. The impact of Wikipedia has demonstrated the ‘market’ for that use, but has also, I believe, demonstrated the limits of the text article format in serving it.”

Why should we look to journalism for education?
The best journalism offers:

  • Accurate information, clearly written
  • Good summations and interpretations of expert knowledge
  • Coverage of a broad array of topics and fields of knowledge, continuously updated
  • A combination of practical and theoretical discussions
  • A compelling mix of voices and formats, including multimedia and interactives, offering a varied, engaging experience with many points of access

No other resource can compete with journalism for balance of perspective, quality control, efficiency of access, and sheer timeliness.

Why doesn’t the normal way we read news stories suffice?
The format of news articles, especially the inverted pyramid style, preferences “what’s new.” Providing information and education is a secondary function. The subject of a headline will often obscure the educational value of the article, focusing as it does on the event being reported. We have to read every article in its entirety to glean all its information. There are no shortcuts. Scanning headlines for the most relevant articles is not enough.

Unlocking Journalism’s Educational Potential.
Is there a way, while preserving the traditional format and purpose of the news article, to make the information it contains more accessible — at the paragraph or sentence level — to the reader who wants to learn?

One answer is for news platforms like the Times to extract the “informational content” from their current and archived news coverage and present it in an easier-to-access format, either

  • as a “dynamic sidebar” alongside relevant content that offers context, explanations, and targeted referrals to other content;
  • as an adjunct to search that would surface content that directly serves the purpose the user is after; or
  • as a stand-alone informational resource.

To do that, news platforms would first tag the different elements of an article that serve some informational purpose. The tagging schema might be similar to what I used in the study of the Times coverage — for each selected topic identify its group of constituent subtopics. Another schema might identify the different purposes served by the tagged elements, for example:

  • Explains a concept
  • Identifies a problem and possible solutions
  • Locates discussions of important ideas
  • Locates quotable quotes by newsmakers, experts
  • Locates a range of commentary/viewpoints on one topic from multiple experts

Ideally, the schema would combine both of these and offer a common taxonomy across many issues.

Quality journalism has great potential for educating its audience about the most complex issues, especially those that demand an understanding of ideas and concepts from a variety of fields. The format of news articles often blocks easy access to their informational content, making them an inefficient information source. But developing ways to surface news stories’ informational elements would go a long way to unlocking journalism’s educational potential.

Of related interest: