The Media and Climate Change: Room for Improvement

By Jonathan Marshall

Implementing effective policies to combat global climate disruption is a huge challenge. But it’s immensely more difficult when organized interests cultivate doubt about the overwhelming consensus of scientists that human action — primarily the burning of fossil fuels — lies behind global warming.

Many scientists and communications experts criticize the mass media for failing to inform readers and viewers about the strength of that scientific consensus, which rivals that of doctors toward the health impacts of smoking tobacco (another object of organized denier campaigns). One recent analysis of peer-reviewed scientific articles on global warming published from 1991 to 2011 found that 97 percent agreed that humans are causing it.

The North Polar ice cap is melting but mainstream media is paying scant attention to global warming.

The rise of ideological commentators who condemn climate scientists as manipulators of data to promote liberal political ends has had a powerful impact on some segments of the public, according to an academic study published this year in the journal Public Understanding of Science.

But even centrist media bend over backward to give climate-change deniers a hearing. The ombudsman for PBS took NewsHour to task for one segment last year that he said created “an artificial or false equivalence” between global warming skeptics and believers. Similarly, Great Britain’s minister of state for climate policy, a member of the Conservative Party, criticized the BBC for giving too much air time to unqualified critics of climate science.

In a remarkable break with such misleading even-handedness, the Los Angeles Times recently adopted a policy of not publishing letters that make false claims to the effect that “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change.” (It still welcomes wide-ranging comments on climate policy.)

At the same time, more mainstream media have often backed away from covering the subject at all, perhaps out of fear of controversy.

A report by Media Matters for America this summer indicated that Reuters cut its coverage of climate change nearly in half under new editorial leadership. (Reuters denied any change in editorial policy.) A story on the report in Columbia Journalism Review, adding context, noted that “most newsrooms around the country have reduced coverage of climate change-related issues since 2010.” The New York Times eliminated its two environmental editor positions earlier this year.

Television is also a big culprit. Another study by Media Matters found that Sunday news and comment shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change in all of 2012 — a year of record-breaking heat, drought, wildfires, and hurricanes in the United States. And over the course of four years, the shows quoted not a single scientist on the subject. (This May, however, Face the Nation aired a major panel discussion of climate change and extreme weather.)

The media’s flight from climate change reached its nadir during coverage of the 2012 presidential race.

As former Vice President Al Gore observed earlier this year, “We had . . . $110 billion worth of climate-related disaster damage last year, completely blowing away the previous record, half the North Polar ice cap melted last summer, and Superstorm Sandy devastated Manhattan and New Jersey, and all the while, we had a presidential campaign with more debates than ever in history. And not one single reporter asked a single question in any of the debates of any of the candidates about the climate crisis. That is pathetic.”

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