Has green news reporting gone green? An analysis of geographically diverse newspapers' online and print coverage of climate change
First Monday

Has green news reporting gone green? An analysis of geographically diverse newspapers' online and print coverage of climate change by Marguerite J. Watt

With newspaper pages and staffs shrinking, fewer stories are seeing print; but with heightened competition for online audience, some stories for which there’s little room in the pages of newspaper may find a place on Web pages instead. This study examines whether a sampling of newspapers are shifting more of their environmental coverage online, particularly in regions that have given such beats priority coverage. Content analysis also suggests what newspapers are doing, despite budget constraints, to serve their readers; and how effectively they are exploring the opportunities of an online edition.


Regional trends in environmental news coverage
Data and findings
Analysis and conclusion




That the past few years have been tough on newspapers is no surprise, but in adversity is opportunity, even if it takes some creative thinking to realize that opportunity. An increase in advertising outlets — in the vast numbers of available Web sites — coupled with a recession results in a decrease in newspaper advertisements. The decreased revenue supports fewer pages and thus allows a smaller space for news; with drops in circulation, staffing cuts follow. The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism [1] estimates in its most recent annual report on newspapers that advertising revenues have fallen 43 percent for the industry as a whole from 2007 through 2009, drawing its figures from reports by the Newspaper Association of America. During that time, approximately 13,500 full–newsroom positions were lost in the U.S., according to figures from the American Society of News Editors (Pew, 2010) [2].

With newspaper pages and staffs shrinking, fewer stories are finding a place in the printed pages of newspapers; but at the same time, newspapers are trying to bolster their online presence and are competing for audience for their online editions. This presents an opportunity by providing another place for newspapers to run stories: in an online edition. This study considers whether newspapers are taking advantage of this option by examining how several newspapers are treating a particular beat: the environment. It examines coverage in several geographic regions and at newspapers that have demonstrated varying levels of priority for the environment beat. Are newspapers that have consistently run stories about the environment in their print edition in the past still finding room for those stories in their shrinking volume of pages? Or are those papers still giving the beat priority, but moving some of those stories into the online edition? What’s more, are newspapers exploiting the virtual pages of their online editions to increase coverage?

Several previous studies of newspapers’ coverage of environmental issues, and climate change in particular, have contributed understanding of the level of importance newspapers have given these topics and the quality of coverage. Prior research has demonstrated such trends as variations of framing of such stories, differences in coverage based on geography, and the changing nature of sources cited as discussion of particular environmental issues mature.

An early study of environmental news coverage identified the values reflected by the stories pursued and published; it also implicitly acknowledges a newspaper’s role in reporting news that may not yet be of wide public interest, but which should be presented as a public service because of its importance to society (Wilkins, 1993). This study focused on what was then called “the greenhouse effect” and examined framing of newspaper stories published between 1987 and 1990, before newspapers had Web editions.

A later evaluation of 10 years of coverage of climate change in five U.S. newspapers identified a shift in the types of sources quoted in stories as the framing of the issue changed and coverage moved through several phases of social attention. Content analysis showed that scientists were typical sources in early stories about problems and causes, and were quoted less often than politicians and special interests as the issue became increasingly politicized (Trumbo, 1996).

Research a few years later identified variations in coverage of a particular environmental issue that could be attributed to other characteristics of the newspapers’ locations. The study examined coverage of 10 major daily newspapers to identify geographic variation of newspaper coverage of the conflict over the northern spotted owls and old–growth forest protection in the Pacific Northwest (Bendix and Liebler, 1999) This study builds on a quantitative analysis of coverage of climate change that is similar to the research conducted on news reports of the spotted owl issue.

However, all of this research focused on the print editions of newspapers. Although the newspaper industry magazine Editor & Publisher reported 1,638 newspapers had online editions by mid–1997, and likely some of the newspapers studied in the referenced research were among them, posting exclusively online content that extended coverage in the print edition was still rare. Even more recent research assessing news coverage of environmental issues still focuses on the print edition.

Online editions of four U.S. newspapers — New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today — were included in a quantitative review of stories about climate change published during a one–year period during 2003 and 2004. However, the bulk of the research focused on the print edition content of 251 U.S. newspapers; the author evaluated the four online editions because those newspapers were excluded from the online database employed, NewsLibrary.com. However, the research does not appear to distinguish between stories that appeared only in the online editions of those newspapers and those which also appeared in print. It does, however, distinguish between stories written by staff writers or by freelancers who given assignments by a specific newspaper, and wire service stories from the Associated Press or another content partner, which are much less likely to offer the “local angle” of greatest interest to the newspaper’s audience. That distinction is also a factor in this paper, although the focus remains on the opportunity for additional coverage afforded in online editions (Antilla, 2005).

One promise of online editions of print newspapers is to offer more “real estate,” that is, enable a newspaper to run more articles than it has room for in the legacy print edition, in which the “news hole” is determined by the quantity of advertising sold. While newspapers also sell ads online, the cost of posting additional stories is not tied to available physical space in the way it is in print. Being able to run more stories allows a newspaper to post stories that do not meet traditional gatekeeping criteria of timeliness, interest to the majority of the audience, sufficient social interest, or other factors. An online edition may run articles that would not typically find approval from the gatekeeper in the print edition, perhaps because the topic is of interest to a relatively smaller number of readers. This is explored in ”From ‘We’ to ‘Me,’” a 2010 study that compares the print and online editions of the New York Sun in search of a more “personalized” form of journalism for the online reader. The authors suggest that, by accommodating wider interests of readers, news organizations may redefine what news is “popular” (Conboy and Steel, 2010).

It is that opportunity to expand what gets past the gatekeeper that is one promise of online media. Indeed, offering additional coverage beyond what fits on the printed page is not only something newspapers can do but perhaps should do, in order to retain their readers who look to their local newspaper for articles most relevant to their community, and for the “local angle” on national or international news.



Regional trends in environmental news coverage

This research builds on an unpublished study presented by the author and a colleague at a 2008 conference (Watt and Dietrich, 2008), comparing coverage of climate change issues by general–circulation newspapers in several different regions of the country. That quantitative study measured and evaluated coverage for three years by the two daily newspapers in Detroit, Michigan (Detroit News [3] and Detroit Free Press [4]); two dailies in Seattle, Washington (Seattle Times [5] and Seattle Post–Intelligencer [6]); and, one each in Jacksonville, Florida (Florida Times–Union [7]) and Houston, Texas (Houston Chronicle [8]). It compared quantity of news reporting across those several markets, to determining the volume of original local coverage as opposed to wire service or other syndicated articles. This distinction was practiced as an attempt to evaluate the commitment of the local publication and its community to reporting climate change issues; a newspaper’s mission of serving its community will typically reflect that community’s values and therefore emphasize topics of greatest interest to the largely local readership. As part of its civic mission, however, a newspaper also has responsibility to inform its community of issues of significance, even if the readers do not yet recognize that importance. Of note, then, are the primary industries of each region studied, as well as some general data about the population, including education and median income. This is offered in Table 1.


Table 1: Comparing communities.
Source: 2000 U.S. Census and Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Metro population
Median age343233.835.7
Median house$135,900$118,535$180,900$339,686
Cost of living index90.493.483.7107.8
Graduated high school77%74.6%82.3%90.3%
Bachelor’s degree17.1%26.9%21.1%40%
Primary industryAutos, financeOil, chemicals, NASATransportation, military, pulpAerospace, tech
Daily circulation, 2008Free Press: 352,714
News: 227,392
554,783167,851Times: 352,714
P–I: 227,392
Daily circulation, 2010Free Press: 252,017
News: 134,983
366,578117,416Times: 263,468
P–I (online only):
6,720,405 monthly visitors
20,094,011 monthly page views


Inventory and evaluation of the newspaper stories in this study were limited to those written by local (staff or contracted) reporters only; wire service stories were not included although they were noted. This was practiced as an attempt to evaluate the commitment of the local publication and its community to reporting climate change issues. However, it presents a bit of a quandary because some newspapers rely heavily on wire copy for major stories, especially in difficult economic times. However, under the standard contract with the Associated Press and other wire services, wire copy is typically not archived and thus not available on a newspaper’s Web site for more than one to two weeks (depending on contract), so including those articles in the counts was not reliable. Initial searches were through the Global NewsBank database. Search terms were “climate change” for headline and lede (first paragraph). The database research retrieved articles published in calendar years 2006, 2007, and 2008. Articles were retrieved and categorized as news copy, editorial (opinion), and online–only reports (largely blogs). Because all the retrieved articles were assessed, some bogus items were weeded out, such as references to a political climate in which there was voter interest in change (which was a common one as the election approached.) The term “climate change” was chosen as the search term because it is specific enough to clearly refer to the environmental issue; among environmental concerns, climate change is the trending topic of the past four years. Using this term was expected to be less likely to get bogus results and would be more likely to find coverage of this major issue within the environment beat.

Predictably, each publication reports on the news with an eye toward its own particular readership and its interests: for example, both of the Detroit newspapers were quick to dissect proposed state or federal regulations that they perceived as a hardship on the state’s foundering auto industry. Houston journalists (and citizen journalists, since this publication had an impressive number of reader–written blogs) tended to assess climate change issues in regard to weather reports and NASA news. The Pacific Northwest is a bit of a hotbed of environmental interests, and so its coverage may reflect the priorities of its readership. Striking, however, was the dearth of original stories overall. All the news organizations relied heavily on wire service stories, and the number of stories that originated with the newspaper was in a single digit for three of the publications studied. The initial findings for this research are in Table 2:


Table 2: Compilation of news story coverage, 2006–2008.
Houston Chronicle487839
Detroit Free Press10143
Seattle Times319733
Detroit News12295
Jacksonville Times–Union750
Seattle P–I819243


In two years since that research was compiled and analyzed, all of the newspapers studied have encountered increasing economic challenges and have sustained layoffs. Newspapers in two of these regions were among the few remaining major metropolitan areas with two daily newspapers, and in both cases the newspapers were publishing under a Joint Operating Agreement, under which one (dominant) newspaper operates the business side (including advertising and circulation), sharing revenues with its partner, while each newspaper maintains an independent editorial operation. The combined editorial staffs of the Detroit News and the Free Press reduced staff by an estimated 566 positions through buyouts and layoffs from 2007 to 2010. In Seattle, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post–Intelligencer dissolved their Joint Operating Agreement in 2009 after 27 years, when the P–I converted to an online–only operation. The Seattlepi.com launched with a news staff of fewer than 30; more than 160 editorial staffers were laid off. The Houston Chronicle, like the P–I, is owned and operated by Hearst Newspapers; its staff was reduced by 370 between 2007 and 2010. The Jacksonville Times–Union reported only five layoffs in that three–year period. All figures are compiled by the Web site Paper Cuts [9] from numerous industry reports.

The primary research question is whether, at a time of shrinking news holes, newspapers that two years ago showed particular inclinations in their original reporting of climate change issues are changing those practices. They may be cutting back on such coverage or changing their approach by publishing more stories from wire services or content partners; or by providing such coverage in their online editions more often than in their legacy print editions. The logic is that, aside from the infinite “real estate” available online as opposed to the space in a newsprint edition, some of the readers most interested in environmental issues might be inclined to read digital editions of the newspapers, hence the title question of whether green coverage is really going green itself.




The means of retrieving and assessing the newspaper stories in this study echoed that of the earlier quantitative research, in order to provide a cleaner comparison. Focus was on stories written by local (staff or contracted) reporters only; wire service stories were not included in the totals. Initial searches were again through the Global NewsBank database, which searches print editions of newspapers. Search terms were “climate change” for headline and lede.

Noted were:

  • List of articles
  • Types of articles
    • Editorial (staff editorial, local columnist or guest column)
    • Local news
    • National issues (localized when applicable).

This study retrieved articles published from 1 January through 30 June 2010. Articles were retrieved, read, and categorized as news copy or editorial (opinion). This produced a roster of articles that appeared in the print edition of the newspapers studied. The direct scrutiny of articles ensured elimination of reports that were inappropriate for this study. For example, excluded were short calendar items of an upcoming meeting or event; or, news articles that had only passing references to climate change, such as a candidate’s laundry list of priorities, the separation of Al and Tipper Gore, or celebrity fund–raisers for the BP oil spill in the Gulf. It should be noted that the compilation of articles also excluded news reports about the controversy stemming from hacked e–mail correspondence among scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, whose comments on politics raised questions about their scientific assessments. That story broke in late 2009, a time period that is not included in these results; and, the articles are not strictly speaking about climate control research, but about questions regarding the researchers.

To assess the online coverage, similar searches were conducted by several means, to try to ensure all relevant material was retrieved. Google Alerts were set to retrieve articles on the topic of “climate change” from the online editions of the newspapers in this study from 1 January through 30 June 2010. Additionally, keyword searches for “climate change” were conducted on the Web site of each newspaper studied. (Several of them license Google search technology for their own sites, while others use competing or unspecified search technology). Once retrieved by automated means, all articles were reviewed in order to verify that they conformed to the search criteria as noted above, and then to appropriately categorize them as news or as opinion, which included blogs.

In the case of blogs, searches were also conducted by identifying appropriate “tags,” a method by which the writer categorizes the topic of the entry. Tags reviewed included “climate change” and “environment.” Further, each post was then reviewed to ensure it was tagged appropriately.

Letters to the editor were not counted for either online or print editions, since they were not staff produced or assigned. It should be noted that articles that appeared in the print edition of a newspaper also were posted in the online edition, usually on the same day but sometimes with a different headline; these stories were identified so they were not counted twice.



Data and findings

The newspapers studied in this successive evaluation are those with some of the strongest and the weakest coverage from the earlier study. The 2010 quantitative analysis makes note of both news reports and opinion (editorials or columns) on the topic of climate change. This additional figure is offered for each newspaper scrutinized because it was so striking that the quantity of coverage had declined. The breakdown is offered in Table 3, with the 2008 totals repeated for easier comparison.


Compilation of coverage, 2010


The quantity of original news stories (not from wire services or content partners) about climate change in the print editions of these newspapers appears to remain roughly consistent, considering the comparison is of a full year of coverage in 2008 and only the first half of 2010.

All of the newspapers have run proportionately fewer news stories about climate change in their 2010 coverage (so far) than in 2008; and those totals were generally a decline from coverage in previous years (see Table 2). In fact, the quantity of news stories was smaller for each newspaper even when combining the coverage both in print and online. Columns and editorials were compiled in the previous study but not reported; those figures are provided here for comparison. The Detroit News ran a strikingly high number of columns and editorials about climate change in 2010; many of them were focused on Congressional legislation that was generally perceived as being onerous for Detroit industries, and some were guest columns as opposed to the editorial voice of the newspaper.

It should be noted that Seattlepi.com, which ran a sizeable number of original news stories in its print edition in 2008, relied heavily on wire service reports from the Associated Press and also from some of its content partners, including its sibling the Houston Chronicle. However, these news stories were not original reports and so they were not counted in these tallies.

However, both of the Hearst properties, the Houston Chronicle and Seattle P–I (as Seattlepi.com), have extensive blog networks; they include columns written by staff members and also regular blogs by so–called citizen journalists who are community members. Houston’s focus on science and environmental topics is evidenced by the publication of a prolific blog, “Science Guy,” written by its science beat reporter, Eric Berger. He writes frequently enough on climate change issues that the category is one of the “tags” for his blog and the volume of posts is roughly constant in the years compared above. Several other blogs on the Houston Chronicle Web site, chron.com, also regularly deal with environmental issues and climate change in particular. Contributing to chron.com opinion articles on this topic are the “Flatt Out Environmental” blog, written by reader Victor Flatt, which also frequently deals with climate change issues; “NewsWatch: Energy,” which touches on environmental topics; several political blogs, including “Texas on the Potomac” (the Congressional beat blog) and “Texas Politics;” and even “Keep the Faith,” a religion blog that occasionally deals with environmental issues and has run several posts on the topic of Biblical advice regarding climate change.

The Seattlepi.com online environmental reporting was dominated in 2008 by the blog “Dateline Earth” written by Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler, the newspaper’s environmental beat reporters who both left in 2009 when the newspaper switched to a Web–only publication. Posts in “Dateline Earth” appropriately tagged “climate change” numbered in the dozens during 2008. Today, the Seattlepi.com still has a sizeable network of blogs, and including a number written by contributors. The site lists six as specifically focusing on environmental issues (“Green Acre Radio,” “Building Seattle Green,” “Green Human,” “Energy: Strategies & Best Practices,” and “Simply Seattle”), but even combined the blogs are not as prolific as “Dateline Earth.” It should be noted that Seattlepi.com also runs “Science Guy” from the Houston Chronicle Web site, chron.com.



Analysis and conclusion

It appears that newspapers are tentatively taking advantage of their supplemental online real estate, although arguably not to the fullest potential. However, clearly the newspapers are providing a smaller volume of coverage of climate change in 2010 in either of their editions. Is it possible that not much has been happening regarding climate change issues in 2010 — that there simply wasn’t much news? It seems unlikely, with ongoing concern about more powerful hurricanes and recurring aberrant weather seasons across the nation. It should be noted, however, that newspapers are simply publishing fewer pages in 2010 than in previous years, and so the number of stories in a print edition can be expected to be fewer.

This research focused on reporting by staff writers or freelancers assigned by the newspaper; that is, original reports as opposed to stories gleaned from wire services or from content partners. Smaller staffs as a result of layoffs are going to produce a smaller number of stories, whether for print or for online. When resources are fewer, beats are not covered as thoroughly as in more prosperous years. However, this circumstance also offers an insight into a newspaper’s priorities; when a newsroom is keeping tight rein on its resources, the stories that are produced may reflect the publication’s priorities and its assessment of what topics are of greatest importance to its readers. This could provide a clue to the commitment of the community and its daily newspaper to a given beat. Or newspapers may simply be relying on wire services for stories that, in more solid financial times, would have been reported by a staff writer.

However, some insight into these newspapers’ personalities can be drawn from these reports. The Detroit News gave climate change issues consistently little coverage throughout the years tallied; many of its original reports and nearly all of the opinion pieces had a political bent, referring to proposed legislation and its potential effect on the automotive industry. The Jacksonville Times–Union reporting was also minimal; however, it is the smallest of the newspapers studied and so the volume is likely to be smaller. Although both of those newspapers have sustained staff reductions, the volume of their coverage of this beat is roughly constant.

Some of the strongest coverage came from the two Hearst Newspapers properties, the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle P–I/Seattlepi.com. Both have clearly suffered from the newsroom layoffs they have sustained in the past several years, but even before the worst of those, both newspapers had built a community of blogs in their online editions. Those sections house the bulk of commentary on climate change. The content–sharing practice is underscored by the Seattlepi.com’s reliance on material drawn from its Houston sibling; besides carrying the “Science Guy” blog on its site, Seattlepi.com ran a number of news stories picked up from the Chronicle. These were not included in the tally because they were not original reporting from Seattlepi.com; however, they do evince the Seattlepi.com’s ongoing commitment to this beat. The same can be said for the Chronicle, which still publishes a print edition.

As a content analysis of the articles in the online editions, it should be noted that several of the newspapers are, in fact, exploiting the medium, because they’re offering material that would be unlikely or unable to be included in a print edition. The blogs are a primary example; other than occasional guest editorials or letters to the editor, the reader has little voice in a traditional newspaper, but the virtual pages of an online edition are much more accommodating. Even the staff–written blogs, however, are far more likely to include interactive elements not possible in print, such as digital maps and graphics. Some provide material as video, audio (such as downloadable podcasts), and slide shows; both Seattlepi.com and chron.com ran slide shows of Earth Day coverage, something that is not feasible in a print edition. The news stories, however, rarely even provide embedded links. Enhancing those stories with online elements would be evidence that the newspapers are taking advantage of the additional capabilities of an online edition and not merely using the extra space.

A primary limitation of this study is the strategy of restricting the tallies to articles that originated with the newspaper being studied. While this was intended to assess a newspaper’s commitment to this beat, the fact is that during difficult economic times newspapers draw more heavily on wire services and other shared resources in order to continue to provide coverage of key issues to their audience — and they should, because the “not invented here” philosophy of not covering a story unless a newsroom staffer is available to produce an original report does not serve the reader. As a result, the numbers may be accurate but a bit misleading. The dearth of stories in Table 3 does not necessarily mean the newspaper is ignoring the topic, only that it is relying on reports from outside its own staff — but still running stories on the topic, because the editors believe their readers are interested. This is particularly striking in the example of the Seattlepi.com, which had been a Web–only operation for barely a year by the timeframes studied here; with a newsroom of about 30, the Seattlepi.com relies heavily on wire service copy. Also, clearly Seattlepi.com suffers for the loss of its environmental beat reporters, who were prolific bloggers; picking up the “Science Guy” from its sibling was no doubt an effort to fill that gap.

The research could also be broadened by adding more search terms to the automated search, in order to get a fuller report of stories dealing with environmental issues. Perhaps “climate change” was too narrow, although it was chosen as both the agreed–upon term (preferable to the less precise “global warming”) and a sufficiently specific aspect of the environmental beat. Still, expanding the search terms might produce enlightening results and shed further light on the priority these newspapers give this beat.

Finally, the scope of this research did not include letters to the editor, because it was intended to try to measure a newspaper’s commitment to a beat. However, the volume of letters on a given topic is often a good indication of the community’s interest. What’s more, a newspaper that is taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by its online edition will post many more letters online than it has room for in the print edition. Expanding the study to include that content as well might produce interesting results. Certainly, newspapers are only beginning to explore the opportunities of an online edition, and further research in this area should be of interest.

Despite the limitations and the opportunities for further study, this research uncovers trends of newspaper coverage by newspapers in several diverse regions. The tracking results show how these several newspapers have maintained coverage during a particularly difficult economic time; essentially, each has stayed reasonably true to its assessment of the importance of the beat and presumably the expectations of its readership. The newspapers that gave the environmental beat a higher priority, based on the volume of local coverage, are exploring the online medium as a way to continue that coverage. In the case of Seattlepi.com, of course, this is of necessity since an online edition is the only edition; but the Seattle P–I had already shown a tendency to take advantage of its online edition while still publishing a traditional print edition, which is likely part of the reason the Hearst Corp. decided to continue to publish the online edition after ceasing the print newspaper. It would, of course, behoove all newspapers that hope to continue operations into this century to explore the opportunities of reporting online and to consider digital storytelling an alternative that offers resources the legacy edition lacks. End of article


About the author

Marguerite J. Watt is an assistant professor of journalism at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington and a journalist who covered Silicon Valley for more than 20 years. In the mid–1990s the technology she was writing about started changing her own profession, and she remains fascinated by the ways journalism is evolving with new digital tools.
E–mail: wattm [at] wwu [dot] edu



1. http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/index.php.

2. http://asne.org/.

3. http://www.detnews.com/.

4. http://www.freep.com/.

5. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/home/index.html.

6. http://www.seattlepi.com/.

7. http://jacksonville.com/.

8. http://www.chron.com/.

9. http://newspaperlayoffs.com/.



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Jacob Bendix and Carol M. Liebler, 1999. “Place, distance, and environmental news: Geographic variation in newspaper coverage of the spotted owl conflict,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, volume 89, number 4, pp. 658–676.

Martin Conboy and John Steel, 2010. “From ‘we’ to ‘me’: The changing construction of popular tabloid journalism,” Journalism Studies, volume 11, number 4, pp. 500–510.

Paper Cuts, at http://newspaperlayoffs.com, accessed 1 September, 2010.

Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010. “The state of the news media: Newspapers” (15 March), at http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/index.php, accessed 1 September 2010.

Craig Trumbo, 1996. “Constructing climate change: Claims and frames in U.S. news coverage of an environmental issue,” Public Understanding of Science, volume 5, number 3, pp. 269–283.

Marguerite Watt and William Dietrich, 2008. “A comparison and assessment of media coverage of climate change,” Proceedings of the 2008 Conference of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs (Vancouver, British Columbia).

Lee Wilkins, 1993. “Between facts and values: print media coverage of the greenhouse effect, 1987–1990,” Public Understanding of Science, volume 2, number 1, pp. 71–84.


Editorial history

Received 19 September 2010; accepted 13 October 2010.

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Has green news reporting gone green? An analysis of geographically diverse newspapers’ online and print coverage of climate change
by Marguerite J. Watt.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 10 - 4 October 2010

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