Media Play Key, Sometimes Misleading, Role in Public's View of Climate Research

July 15, 2010

Research Roundup

By JAN KNIGHT

Facing challenges from global-warming skeptics, journalists are key players in the effort to inform the public about new and fundamental climate change, researchers concur.

But the media may also play a role in misleading the public, especially when journalists attempt a "false balance" in stories, giving equal treatment to climate science skeptics who question the validity of climate science studies.

Two other researchers suggested that the more "scientifically legitimate 'other side'" of the climate change story is that climate change might be much worse than the majority of scientists now predict.

Several academic papers published this year focused on recent surveys showing that public faith in climate science is declining, which the authors linked to recent news reports about leaked email conversations among climate scientists and an error in a recent climate change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Ironically, the editors of Nature wrote in their March 11 issue, this is occurring just as "the fundamental understanding of the climate system, although far from complete, is stronger than ever," and they urged climate scientists to acknowledge "that their relationship with the media really matters" and to be clearer in explaining "the underlying science and the potential consequences of policy decisions" related to global warming.

In an editorial that took a more critical view of journalists, writers in the April issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) addressed the results of a January 2010 Yale survey showing that, relative to 2008, more U.S. residents believe that scientists disagree about whether global warming is occurring (40 percent in 2010, up from 33 percent in 2008) and fewer Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activities (47 percent in 2010, down from 57 percent in 2008). The results were based on a survey of 1,001 respondents age 18 and older and with a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

The editorial writers, who work for the WHO Public Health and Environment Department, noted that the Yale survey results came at a time when public health experts are paying much more attention to global warming impacts, yet the survey indicated this emphasis might be misplaced.

But, they argued, the "conclusion that climate change is happening, and is due mainly to human activities, is based on well-established physics, supported by a large and coherent body of theoretical and observational evidence." Further, they wrote, studies show that most climatologists publishing findings in peer-reviewed journals — 97 percent in one study — agree with these conclusions, which the writers described as "equivalent to the expert consensus that HIV causes AIDS, or that smoking is an important risk factor for lung cancer."

As for the role of journalists, the WHO writers suggested that "opinions will vary as to how much of this disconnection between the expert assessment and public perceptions is due to failings of the scientists themselves, and how much is due to media coverage ... that provides balance mainly by giving equal weight to extreme opposing positions."

Giving equal weight to extreme positions in news reports has been described by framing researcher Matthew Nisbet as "false balance." As some research has shown, false balance arises when journalists, in an effort to be fair, give undue equal time to global warming skeptics who question the validity of climate science and argue that scientists widely disagree about the existence of global warming and/or its causes. Meanwhile, the views of scientists are absent from such reports.

Researchers from the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara noted that studies of news about global warming often focus on policy coverage. In their study, the California researchers took a different tack and studied only science news reports about global warming, specifically those summarizing the latest scientific research findings on the subject.

The researchers identified 137 such science news reports published during January/February and July/August from 1998 to 2002 (a time period that matched a previous study) and 2007 to 2008 (a year after the release of the IPCC's fourth climate assessment) in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

They found that 117 of the science news articles, or 85.4 percent, reported scientific findings that global warming effects would be worse than indicated by the scientific consensus across the years of coverage examined. Scientific consensus refers to mainstream climate change research used by the IPCC and other groups to assess scientific thinking about global warming.

Important to the researchers' conclusions, scientific consensus on global warming often is the target of criticism by global warming skeptics, who say that the consensus exaggerates climate disruption. But, based on the findings summarized in science news articles, the consensus represented by IPCC and similar reports is "more likely to understate the actual degree of climate disruption taking place," the researchers suggested.

They concluded that, "if reporters wish to discuss 'both sides' of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate 'other side' is that, if anything, global climate disruption may prove to be significantly worse that has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.

For more information, see:

William E. Freudenburg and Violetta Muselli, "Global Warming Estimates, Media Expectations, and the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge" in Global Environmental Change, in press.

Related articles: Diarmid Campbel-Lendrum and Roberto Bertollini, "Science, Media and Public Perception: Implications for Climate and Health Policies" in Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 88, No. 4 (April 2010), p. 242.

"Climate of Fear" in Nature, Volume 464, No. 7286 (March 11, 2010), p. 141.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach and Connie Roser-Renouf, "Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans' Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in January 2010." Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change, available here.

Matthew C. Nisbet, "Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement" in Environment, Volume 51, No. 2 (March 2009), pp. 12 - 23.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter who covered the environment beat, is an adjunct instructor for the Hawaii Pacific University Department of Communication. She completed her doctorate at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, focusing on environmental journalism. She can be reached at jknight213@aol.com

* From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue 

JAN KNIGHT