The popular media has failed to communicate the science behind climate change. The public does not understand the science of anthropogenic global warming and the urgent need for climate action. We cannot expect people to support mitigation and adaptation efforts if they do not have access to accurate information.
Shoddy climate reporting has been an issue for a number of years. As reported by Grist, a study by the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research indicated that climate reporting declined in 2013 compared to 2012. They documented mentions of “global warming” and “climate change” in five major U.S. newspapers. The New York Times coverage fell by 40 percent, the Washington Post's coverage dropped by 33 percent. Declining coverage was also documented in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. According to Robert Brulle of Drexel University, the nightly news programs at ABC, NBC, and CBS aired only 30 climate stories in 2013, compared to 29 in 2012.
Fox and CNN
When climate change is in the news, the information communicated is often inaccurate. According to a Pundit Fact analysis, more than half of all statements made on Fox News are untrue. Not only were more than half the statements on Fox false, less than 10 percent could be considered completely true. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that almost three quarters of Fox News climate coverage was misleading. Dishonest reporting at Fox News has also been covered by Mother Jones.
Given their conservative slant, it would be reasonable to expect climate misrepresentation from Fox News. However, other more centrist news outlets also get it wrong. While other major TV news outlets were better than Fox, even mainstream channels like CNN were found to fall short in their climate coverage. The 2014 UCS study found that almost a third of CNN's climate reporting was misleading.
A recent Grist article reported that CNN airs almost five times more oil industry advertising than climate coverage. Media Matters for America found that over a two week period, CNN aired 23 minutes and 30 seconds of American Petroleum Institute ads, compared to around five minutes of coverage of climate change and temperature records. These results cannot be attributed to an absence of breaking climate news as the data was compiled during a week in January and a week in March, in which major stories broke. In January, it was revealed that 2015 was the warmest year in recorded history and in March, it was announced that February broke a temperature record and with the largest temperature deviation.
The same was true for other major television networks in 2015. The Guardian reviewed a Media Matters analysis which found that coverage of climate stories fell in 2015 despite a spate of news worthy climate stories. This included record breaking heat, the Pope's environmental encyclical, revelations about Exxon's obfuscation, the start of the Clean Power Plan, the rejection of the Keystone XL, and the climate deal reached at COP 21.
Media Matters reports that when the press covers global warming, they commonly included interviews with climate deniers. When the media gives air time to climate skeptics (aka deniers), this is known as "false balance." There has been a chorus of voices calling for an end to this practice.
A group of almost 50 leading scientists, science journalists, and communicators sent a letter to the media, in which they said that it is a misnomer to call climate deniers "skeptics". As quoted in a 2014 Think Progress article, the word skeptic does not describe those who deny the veracity of climate science.
“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” the letter reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”
The scientists go on to explain that journalists who perpetuate this confusion are granted "undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry."
In 2014, there was a movement to deny deniers equal time to promote their lies on popular media channels. As reported on Eco watch, "a number of major outlets [are] refusing to allow deceit and subterfuge [to] masquerade as a counterpoint."
One such outlet is BBC News. In response to criticisms that they provided too much airtime to unqualified climate commentators, BBC decided to drop deniers from their scientific coverage of climate change, as have Reddit, the Los Angeles Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Popular Science.
Explanation and impact
One of the reasons the media fails to accurately report on climate science or efforts to reign in emissions has to do with the extraordinary reach and influence of the fossil fuel industry. To illustrate this point, consider the case of Washington Post writer Ed Rogers. He is a writer who, among other things, called COP21 a "sham". At the end of last year, it was revealed that as chairman of the lobbying firm BGR Group, he received more than $700,000 from the energy industry in 2015.
The frustration with the media is best exemplified by Russel Honore, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, who said: "There's never a time the world needs you more to shed light on environmental problems. Do your damn job!"
Sadly, these calls are falling on deaf ears, as the preoccupation with ratings and advertising dollars trumps fact based reporting. Each year, there are hopes that we will see responsible science based climate journalism. However, each year we are disappointed by ongoing media misrepresentations about climate change.
A January 2013 Business Green article with the title, "Is the media’s stance on climate risk finally shifting?" asked the question:
"Are we at some kind of tipping point where the mainstream media sees the error in years of under-powered or just plain inaccurate climate change reporting?"
While they cite some examples of climate coverage, more than three years later, we are forced to concede that the answer is "no", the hoped for shift from the media has not materialized.
The plethora of misinformation in the media leads people to question the veracity of science driven reporting. According to research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, people were unreceptive and at times even hostile to science based news stories.
What can be done - citizen journalism
For years, the popular media has either under-reported environmental stories or covered them inaccurately. This has to change if we are to make the requisite paradigm shift.
In the absence of factual climate journalism from the mainstream media, we need to find alternative approaches to inform the public. This is why citizen journalism is so important. Unlike traditional media, citizen journalists are not beholden to anyone or anything. They are free to speak truth to power and they are free to publish information that is being neglected in traditional media.
If you value a fact based reporting, support citizen journalism. Tom Schueneman's citizen journalism project focused on sustainable development is the kind of initiative that can help disseminate factual information you will not find in mainstream media. However this work takes time and requires your support. Click here to find out how you can help.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Graph courtesy of A. Siegel, flickr