“It might be tempting to conclude that since we’re catching hell from both sides, on balance we’re probably getting it about right,” Yulsman wrote. “But I think the topic is too overwhelmingly complex, and there are too many people covering the issue in myriad ways (daily reporters, magazine writers, bloggers, documentarians, even formerly ink-stained-wretch academics like me), to make such a sweeping generalization.”
Indeed it is, which is why it’s been nice to see a few recent studies taking a closer look at climate coverage in order to determine exactly what is and isn’t a problem.
The most recent is a paper in Environmental Research Letters by researchers at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, including Boykoff. The team looked at how projections of rising sea levels—in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Assessment Reports and a sample of the scientific literature—were represented in 214 articles published in seven prominent United States and United Kingdom newspapers between 1989 and 2009. The answer: “with few exceptions accurately.”
The value of such studies, which focus on a specific dimension of climate coverage, is that they get past the meaningless, broad-brush criticism permeating the blogosphere and help to identify where the problems truly lie. Last May, for instance, a paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change by William Freudenburg—a professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who passed away in December—charged that despite evidence to the contrary:
The U.S. mass media, reflecting in part the insistent arguments from a committed set of conservative think tanks, have tended for many years to report that “real” problems of global climate disruption might be less significant than indicated by consensus assessments such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But where in the mass media was this sanguine coverage coming from? Not from the stories about new scientific findings, the analysis found. Those stories tend to be treated as matters of pure science, quoting only scientists, and written by well-trained science journalists. By a margin of more than twenty-to-one, the 137 articles about new findings indicated the observed effects and implications of climate change were worse than was thought, rather than better. That fits with other recent analyses of the scientific literature, such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2009 Climate Change Compendium, which found that new research tended to show climate disruption was, or would be, more severe than expected in previous scientific consensus statements.
Freudenburg was a widely respected scholar in the field of climate communications, and his death is a blow for the field on par with the similarly untimely death of Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider last year (the Society of Environmental Journalists, of which he was a beloved member, has set up a nice memorial page). When I interviewed Freudenburg last fall, before he succumbed to a two-year-long battle with cancer, he explained that he thinks it is the climate-related policy stories, and the stories that follow major reports such as those from the IPCC, which tend to muddy the waters of public understanding by quoting ideologically oriented think tanks. This is problematic because such events tend to provide the dramatic narratives that drive coverage, as American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet pointed out in a blog post about the decline in climate coverage.
At any rate, Freudenburg’s conclusions about the predominance of science stories that report worse-than-thought climate findings should please critics like Romm and Johnson. The two recently criticized the press (justly, in this case) for botching a story about research at the University of California, Berkeley, which was released online in November and will be published this month in the journal Psychological Science.
The study’s basic conclusion was that dire messages about climate change reduce many people’s belief in global warming, and that was the takeaway message generally reported by the press. But there was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, the researchers were describing as “dire.”
The paper itself is partly to blame. Study participants were randomly assigned to read one of two newspaper-style articles about global warming. The articles were identical for the first four paragraphs, “providing information about he climate change reported by the IPCC,” but differed in their final two paragraphs. The researchers explained the difference in the final paragraphs like this:
The “dire message” article detailed devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming, while the “positive message” article focused on potential solutions to global warming, highlighting how technological ingenuity could potentially reverse the effects of global warming and find solutions to carbon emissions.