FIFTH in the series "Strong warnings about climate change."
Part of climate change disinterest comes from lack of coverage in the print media. Many major wire services and outlets gave climate change roughly the same amount of ink in 2012 as in years before, according to the Daily Climate archives. It was not until the huge news hook of Superstorm Sandy that the story began to percolate.
The Associated Press, Reuters, Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post, all committed to environment journalism, have had a fairly flat inter-year profile of climate change reportage over the past five years. Several studies, notably one from the University of Colorado, show the number of climate bylines as similar, but beginning to rise toward the end of 2012. Daily Climate's look at the record perceived a slight decrease, however. Yet another report (by Bill Kovarik of Radford University) showed the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, and Washington Post increasing their climate coverage by 10% from 2011-2012, but still short of the totals for 2010.
The Daily Climate site’s editor Douglas Fischer relates the climate ennui to the "post-Copenhagen, post-Climategate drop-off”--the cache of leaked emails that embarrassed climatologists right before a UN climate summit bombed in 2009. The rise of loud so-called "climate skeptics," especially in the House of Representatives, also skewed print journalism and popular attention.
Researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute looked at nearly 1,000 articles from four leading British tabloid papers--the Daily Mail, Sun, Express, and Mirror--over six years. They analyzed the tone, context, terminology, labeling of persons quoted, and relationships among messages. The team found that about 25% of this widely distributed popular news falsely represented the scientific consensus that that manmade greenhouse gas emissions "very likely" had a role to play in global warming.
Bias in the media can eventually lead to catastrophes like uprisings and world war. Most of us get our information about science from journalists. Dr. Max Boykoff made a very useful point about climate reporting:
"Misreporting on human contributions to climate change can contribute to skewed views among these papers’ many readers. We’re all involved in the fight against climate change and it’s in all of our interest to widen, rather than restrict, the spectrum of possibility for appropriate policy action."
Pressures in the newsroom
Budget cuts and the electronic assimilation of print impede journalists by fostering a temptation to go for the easy story or just skim the surface of a complex issue. Boykoff makes another eloquent point: less funds to report the same amount of news has "resulted in more journalists working as generalists... rather than specialists on a particular news beat. Some people have found this trend has had an influence on the quality of reporting."
Constrained by lack of deep coverage and budget considerations, with a perspective disabled by slanted criticism, many journalists have concentrated on technical minutiae and failed to interpret their place in the larger picture. As Ben Hecht once famously said, "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."
Letting someone else do your thinking
Another part of the media's disconnect comes from press bombardment by public relations and seeking and accepting information from apparently neutral "think tanks."
PR has evolved to a state in which the press can get the earliest information and sometimes an entire story just by parroting what's in a press release. Organizations often craft clever "releases" months in advance of the "hard news." And while brain farms can produce respectable and profound ideas, some draw on disguised or hidden funding sources that influence the tone and content of the resulting stories and tilt the view of readers.
In the four years between 2007 and 2011, Exxon-Mobil and three foundations supported by oil and gas companies poured over $16 million into ten apparently respectable but politically minded think tanks, including the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
One research study analyzed coverage of climate change in 58 major daily newspapers, the Associated Press, and Politico. It found that writers mentioned the think tanks' financial ties with the fossil fuels industry only 6% of the time.
Even at the most inclusive and respected papers (New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle), reporters only had a 10-15% record of tracing and publishing where the money comes from. Many of the second-tier and more local papers never mentioned corporate/political links at all in their climate change coverage. And when a reader sees an article that quotes "confidential" sources, there's usually no way to find out who and what the sources are. Not that both sides do not deserve to be heard--but citizens, who are also voters, have a right to know who's in the conversation, to what degree, and how reliable their information is.
Another factor warping journalists' judgment about climate change comes from a shift over the last generation in the perceived responsibility of the press. The concept of "fair balance" grew in the 1990s when the FDA began requiring pharmaceutical advertisers to disclose more and more of their less favorable product information, including mentioning the risk of death. Drug ads with muted disclaimers began appearing on mainstream TV. A concept began to arise in the media that like advertisers, journalists were accountable for telling both sides of the story and reporting with "fair balance."
The idea of "balanced" coverage requires media to state all sides of an issue equally regardless of how many people or researchers believe in each side. In other words, if 5,000 people believe that spinach is healthy and delicious, and one person says "no, it isn't," the reporter feels bound by the notion of fair balance to report both sides of the issue. A misdirected minority can thus hold sway over the majority. Fair balance has also been an excellent press hedge against lawsuits by aggrieved parties or their hapless mouthpieces.
By adhering to the unfair "fair balance" standard without a deeper inspection and the courage to speak out against the tide, a journalist promotes the mistaken idea that both sides of the issue hold equal weight. This practice wipes out the significance of the actual numbers and the tenets of investigative journalism. The result is a story that can deceive even very sophisticated readers. A story like "climate scientists are divided," when 97% actually agree.
Boykoff mentions the inherent difference in semantics between the scientific community and the media. ”Inherent challenges exist in translating scientific findings into information for the public in news reports," he says. Scientists by nature have a tendency to speak in technical vocabularies, more cautious language, and more esoteric argument than reporters. They state conclusions in terms of probabilities, rather than in certainties.
Subtleties get lost and information oversimplified in the transition to the plain language of ordinary audiences. Scientists must then either defensively over-explain or disavow their own conclusions. Cartoons draw caricatures of the major players in climate debate. Dangerous myths like climate denialism arise and flourish. It's intuitively clear under these circumstances that certainty, interest, and the push for needed reforms will suffer.
The best answer for all parties involved, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, is a lot more science better presented, stronger political and social interest, more severe weather (unfortunately), and a turnaround in the priorities and methods of the press.
NEXT: Climate change in electronic mass media
RELATED CLIMATE REPORTS by this author:
- "Climategate" and assorted dirty tricks, 2009-2013
- Strong warnings about climate change
- Climate change: No longer "for geeks only"
- Energy in America: Whither 2013?
- International climate summit today: Warming higher than expected
- Obama speaks on natural disaster, climate change, and energy policy
- The major election issue is NOT the economy, immigration, or jobs
- Two decades, no progress with Reagan's climate change plans
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert recently covered environmental and energy issues raised during and since the 2012 presidential election. She also reported events at the recently concluded 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar. Other work has included investigations into solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, geothermal, and conventional energy forms and a focus on extreme weather disasters over the past few years.
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