In a fragmented media system, not only do people choose among news outlets and stories based on their ideology and partisanship, but also based on their preference, or lack thereof, for public affairs-related content. It is very easy for the majority of the public to completely select themselves out of the news audience, paying almost exclusive attention to celebrity culture, entertainment, sports, or other diversionary topics. The challenge then is to think about angles on an issue like climate change that generate coverage in a non-traditional beat like the sports pages, thereby facilitating incidental exposure to the topic. Inventing these news hooks means re-framing a complex science topic in a way that makes it meaningful to the targeted media outlet and audience. A leading example is this week’s cover article at Sports Illustrated. The article focuses on how global warming is changing the nature of the sports we play, and how Americans will have to adapt to these impacts.
Will September baseball games increasingly be rained out? In most parts of the country, will the summers be too hot to play soccer? Will we still be able to hold the Iditarod, the world’s signature dog sled race? Will every professional sports team need a climate-controlled practice facility? Will we even want to head out into the sweltering heat to watch a baseball or soccer game, much less play sports during the summer and fall? (I personally found the heat this past summer in DC a formidable barrier to my preferred daily 6 mile run.)
Another dimension to this shift in coverage of science across news beats is also noteworthy. As sports writers start to cover complex science, there is always a much greater chance of distortion, especially in comparison to a science writer who has a well developed set of expert sources, and experience with the issue. Not only is some of the nuance and complexity of the science likely to be lost across other news beats, but different sources turn up in these stories. Notice, for example, that the lead quote in the Sports Illustrated article is not from a scientist but from nature author and activist Bill McKibbin.