Digital-born publishers such as The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice are an important addition to climate change coverage, playing a significant role in sustaining its relevance and interest to a wider public, a new study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) has found.

The research is presented in a book called Something Old, Something New: Digital Media, published by RISJ this week. James Painter, the book's lead author, explained the study compared coverage of the 2015 UN summit on climate change from both new-media and legacy organisations. He found the distinct reporting styles, formats and tone of the digital-born players were key to reaching wider audiences as more people turn to digital and social media for news.

“There is a lot of available research that suggests most traditional media tend to report on the summit in a very similar way, so we deliberately chose this event as you could argue it’s quite difficult to break out of those ways of reporting.

"But we found that even within a fixed event with fixed time and space, they found different ways of doing it,” he said.

“We chose Huffington Post, Vice and BuzzFeed partly because they appeared in our digital news reports as places people go to as their first, if not second source of news, and because few academics have looked at how their editorial content differs from legacy media, especially at their coverage of climate change.”

What these new players do through the use of great understanding of social media and visual representations has been very successful in reaching a younger audience in very different waysJames Painter, RISJ

Painter and researchers in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US studied and compared 500 pieces published over a three-week period before, during and after the UN summit on climate change. In each country, researchers looked at one example of coverage from left and right-leaning legacy media along with the output of The Huffington Post, Vice and BuzzFeed.

They found that the offering of the digital-born publishers partly overlapped with the legacy media’s coverage, and while it often matched the style and tone, they produced more visually orientated stories appealing to audiences on social media, along with more opinion posts featuring reporters' own voices.

Painter explained that previous reports have found media organisations see climate change as difficult to report on, as it is a niche area that audiences tend to find boring. He noted there was little mention of this topic in the media during the course of the presidential debates in the United States, as well as during the Brexit debate, even though most of the environmental legislation in the UK is shaped by what happens in the European Union.

“Within the context of it being a very difficult issue to cover, I think it is deeply significant that these new players are making climate coverage a priority and trying to find new formats and uses of social media.

“Traditional media such as the Guardian, BBC, or The New York Times do some absolutely great coverage on climate change, but what these new players do through the use of great understanding of social media and visual representations has been very successful in reaching a younger audience in very different ways,” he said.

For example, the study found techniques such as Vice’s immersive video series, Climate Emergency Dispatches, differed from traditional video reporting in that the reporter doesn’t stand in-between the viewer and what is happening at the scene, but actually experiences what she is reporting on.

“It is an original and different style of reporting, which appeals to younger audiences who are very interested in the issue of climate change,” Painter said.

“More than half of The Huffington Post’s content was made up of blog posts, focusing on the positive issues surrounding climate change in its What’s Working initiative, and about a quarter of BuzzFeed’s content had a very different tone to legacy media that made it funny, interesting and irreverent.

“Many of the digital-born players produced standard reporting as well, but if you go through all the new formats and styles into the mix, then it is a very important addition to what traditional media is doing."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).