CNN: Climate Change Doesn't Bring In Ratings
Credit: Media Matters
May 24, 2014

Here's an interesting question. Should viewer interest be what drives editorial decisions or should editorial decisions drive viewer interest? Today's case study comes via CNN and Eric Boehlert at Media Matters.

CNN president Jeff Zucker raised some eyebrows this week when, asked about the news channel's increasingly slim coverage of climate change, he commented the network hasn't "figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way." He added: "When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience's part."

Zucker acknowledged that climate change "deserves more attention," but suggested that the issue isn't receiving that attention on his network because CNN needs the topic to generate ratings, or "interest," in order to receive more airtime.

I'm not sure I've ever heard an executive at a news organization speak so openly about what appears to be a company-wide decision to pay less attention to a completely legitimate news story because it doesn't generate ratings; because it's not good for business. For Zucker to suggest CNN doesn't cover a pressing public issue because it doesn't grab eyeballs goes against the basic tenet of journalism, which is, of course, to inform. CNN should be less concerned about engaging viewers and more concerned abut informing them.

Indeed. I realize they justified their obsessive reporting over the missing Malaysian airliner with ratings, but at some point you report things because they need to be reported, not because of some mythical magic audience engagement level.

The challenge for networks reporting on climate change is how to do it in a way that conveys the urgency without leaving people feeling as though they're doomed and there's no way around it. How about reporting on innovations to reduce carbon footprints alongside reporting about the crisis itself? There's no reason why a major network should ignore something so critical that each and every person on the planet can take steps to mitigate, should they choose to do so.

I suspect that it's not just audience disinterest. CNN is first and foremost, a for-profit corporation dependent upon advertising dollars for its bottom line. If those advertisers deny or object to reporting about climate change, that's just as likely to drive editorial decisions as viewer interest.

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