Make no mistake about it. We’re now approaching thirty years of serious scientific data gathering on climate change. And the consensus among scientists in the field across the globe is clear and unequivocal. Yet many Americans remain confused about the facts. That should come as no surprise, as the decidedly confused (and confusing) reporting by American media on the facts, the causes, and the future of climate change has been mostly sabotaged by corporations with a vested interest in denying the scientific consensus and creating doubt on the subject. For too many years, the fossil-fuel industry and members of Congress, whose campaign coffers are filled with the industry’s largesse and whose after-politics lives have seen many of them move seamlessly into cushy jobs in the industry, have successfully gamed journalism’s traditional commitment to reporting that is “objective” and “balanced.”
The good news is that a few media outlets are not only calling out the confuseniks and fringe deniers but are also taking steps to shut the game down.
Here’s what’s happening. In the past two years various media outlets have been engaged in some quiet but serious soul searching. 2013 and 2014 have emerged as watershed years for a growing number of news agencies that are taking a hard look at how they cover issues related to climate change. Staffs have been re-evaluating their responsibilities as serious journalists to readers and viewers. Editors, from the top down, are rethinking and revising their best-practices guidelines.
At the core of this soul searching is a discussion of the most fundamental journalistic tenets of objectivity and balanced coverage. In journalistic parlance, “objectivity” implies that when journalists gather the facts and report the story. they set aside their own pre-set beliefs. “Balanced” implies that all sides are presented in a way such that the reader, the viewer, or the listener is exposed to more than just one side of the story.
The prickly question for journalists and media outlets in terms of climate-change reporting has been whether or not “balanced” reporting requires devoting equal time and space to those denying the science—what we usually refer to as facts—when 97 percent of climate scientists have demonstrated through fact-based studies that global warming is a scientific reality. Fully aware of the subtleties and traps inherent in the concept of “balanced” reporting and sensitive to charges of censorship, most of the media outlets that have gone out on a limb to revise their best-practices policies in terms of climate coverage reiterate that their primary responsibility in all reporting is not to support one side of the debate or the other but to guarantee the accuracy of facts and information in print, online, and on television.
Policies at media outlets on accepting or rejecting content concerning false or misleading information on climate change varies. For example, in 2013 Nathan Allen, reddit’s then-moderator of the online forum, announced that all submissions concerning climate change to the social networking and news website be sourced solely from reputable, peer-reviewed journals.
In the same year, The Los Angeles Times announced that, since it views its primary responsibility to keep errors of fact from appearing on the pages of its letters to the editor, letters based on false claims by climate-change deniers and skeptics would no longer be welcome.
The Sydney Morning Herald took a slightly more nuanced approach. When the paper published its policy on letters to the editor on global warming, the editors stated clearly that they did not intend to officially ban climate skeptics from sharing their opinions, but stated that the publication would no longer allow misrepresentation of facts.
In 2013 as well, Popular Science surprised the online community when the publication withdrew from the controversy altogether by disabling all commenting on their online website – not just commenting on climate change. Suzanne LaBarre, the website’s content editor, observed that comments on a range of topics (not just climate change) were “undermining scientifically sound” information. She went on to explain to readers that lacking the time or money to moderate the comments, the publication made the difficult decision to eliminate the commenting section altogether.
This year, a venerable institution called The BBC Trust waded into the controversy. We should all stand up and applaud the BBC’s integrity in finally taking the lead on the meaning and implications of false editorial balance. After an exhaustive study of BBC News broadcasts on climate change, trustees of The BBC Trust acknowledged that many of their journalists had fallen into the trap of equating the conclusions of peer-reviewed scientific studies with the opinions of non-qualified skeptics and deniers. The Trust’s report recommended a sea change in coverage by giving “greater emphasis to the weight of scientific consensus rather than continuing to try to provide pseudo-balance.” To that end, it’s been reported that two hundred BBC journalists have participated in re-education seminars and workshops to improve fact-based coverage. The recommendations of the BBC report are unequivocal:
The Trust wishes to emphasize the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences. . . . Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.
Here in the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists shares that view. Being scientists, the organization decided to gather the facts about climate-change coverage in the media. In 2013, the organization undertook a study called “The Science of Spin.” The report looks at climate coverage at the three most widely watched cable news networks: CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. The report’s findings clearly show how American media, journalists, and media watchdogs have their work cut out for them.
Their objective findings reveal that Fox News has the least accurate reporting on climate science, with fully 72% of its climate-related segments containing misleading statements. Of those, more than half occurred on one program, “The Five.”
CNN fared a bit better. 30% of CNN’s segments featured misleading statements. Most occurred during debates between guests who accepted established climate science and guests who disputed the findings.
MSNBC proved to have the most accurate coverage. Even so, 8% of news segments on MSNBC contained misleading statements. Interestingly, the inaccuracies were all similar. They overstated rather than understated the effects of climate change, particularly the link between climate change and extreme weather—such as tornadoes.
With numbers like the above reflecting serious gaps of accuracy in television news coverage of climate change and the fact that 55% of Americans report television as their main source of news, is it any wonder that confusion reigns?