There’s fake news … and then there’s fake non-news too. Image: By Daniel Robert on Unsplash
The thermometer is rising, the world faces a crisis: of that, scientists are sure. But you may not know it from the climate denial the media report.
Rich and poor countries see the challenge of the growing crisis quite differently: for the wealthy it revolves around climate denial, while for those in poverty it’s a matter of life and death.
In the developing world, climate news is presented by the media as an international problem. In the rich world newspapers, broadcasters and websites tend to see it as a political issue, according to researchers at the University of Kansas.
And in the richest country of all, climate news is presented as a contentious issue. That is, according to a massive study by Californian scientists, the people who say climate change is not happening, or not a problem, get 49% more coverage than the scientists who have the evidence that it represents a serious and accelerating crisis.
Even in the mainstream outlets, distinguished climate scientists tend to get no more visibility than those – often not scientists – who challenge their conclusions.
Journalism is based on fairness: a willingness to listen carefully to competing arguments. In the newspaper trade, this is called balance. But according to three researchers who worked through 200,000 research papers and 100,000 digital and print media articles, the balance is false.
“It’s not just false balance; the numbers show that the media are ‘balancing’ experts − who represent the overwhelming majority of scientists − with the views of a relative handful of non-experts,” said Anthony LeRoy Westerling of the University of California, Merced.
“Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials. They are not in the same league with top scientists. They aren’t even in the league of the average career scientist.”
He and two colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they identified 386 prominent climate contrarians – mostly English-speaking academics, scientists, politicians and business people – and 386 distinguished climate scientists.
They then identified the 100 most prominent of each group in the 100 most prominent media outlets. Across the spectrum, the contrarians achieved the higher score, with more than 26,000 articles presenting their views, compared with17,530 presenting the science for climate change. When they zeroed in on 30 selected media outlets the score evened, but the difference was less than 1%.
“It’s well known now that a well-financed propaganda campaign on behalf of conservative fossil fuel interests led mainstream media to frame reporting on climate change science as political reporting rather than science reporting,” Professor Westerling said.
“Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials. They aren’t even in the league of the average career scientist”
“Political reporting focuses its narrative around conflict and looks to highlight competing voices, rather than telling the story of the science.”
In the global study, scientists report in the journal Global Environmental Change that they examined the framing of media coverage in 37,000 articles in 45 countries on all inhabited continents between 2011 and 2015, to find that the deciding factor in perception was simple: the gross domestic product per capita, the economists’ favourite measure of wealth.
In the rich countries, the issue was presented as if it revolved around domestic politics and climate science. In the poorer countries, it became an international issue and the concerns were centred on the impact of the climate crisis.
“As communications researchers we want to know, if climate change entered public discussion more than 30 years ago and we’ve been covering it as a global problem since, why can’t we slow the warming climate down,” said Hong Vu, who studies mass communication at the University of Kansas.
“If we want the public to have better awareness of climate change, we need to have media imparting it in an immediate sense. By looking at how they have portrayed it, we can better understand how to improve it, and hopefully make it a priority that is reflected in policy.” − Climate News Network
About the Author
Tim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities.
Book by this Author:
Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolution
by Tim Radford.
Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future
by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann
How climate change will affect our political theory—for better and worse. Despite the science and the summits, leading capitalist states have not achieved anything close to an adequate level of carbon mitigation. There is now simply no way to prevent the planet breaching the threshold of two degrees Celsius set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What are the likely political and economic outcomes of this? Where is the overheating world heading? Available On Amazon
Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis
by Jared Diamond
Adding a psychological dimension to the in-depth history, geography, biology, and anthropology that mark all of Diamond's books, Upheaval reveals factors influencing how both whole nations and individual people can respond to big challenges. The result is a book epic in scope, but also his most personal book yet. Available On Amazon
Global Commons, Domestic Decisions: The Comparative Politics of Climate Change
by Kathryn Harrison et al
Comparative case studies and analyses of the influence of domestic politics on countries' climate change policies and Kyoto ratification decisions. Climate change represents a “tragedy of the commons” on a global scale, requiring the cooperation of nations that do not necessarily put the Earth's well-being above their own national interests. And yet international efforts to address global warming have met with some success; the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries committed to reducing their collective emissions, took effect in 2005 (although without the participation of the United States). Available On Amazon