Last week, a reader, Jeff Huggins, asked me to address why the media have failed to explain climate change in a way the public “gets.” Yesterday, I published the first installment of my response, discussing one of the two elements involved in “getting” it: the basics of climate science. Today, I address the second: an understanding of the various points upon which scientists agree and disagree.
Delineating and accurately describing the various points of science—from the relationship between anthropogenic greenhouse gases and warming to the various impacts of that warming—and explaining where “consensus” (a controversial term) lies and where it doesn’t is one of the most important and challenging tasks for climate reporters. Getting it wrong can create widespread confusion. Max Boykoff made this point in 2004 when he released a paper with his brother arguing that the inclusion of a skeptic’s perspective on the fundamental question of anthropogenic (human-made) warming leads to “balance as bias (pdf).”
Indeed, Stanford political scientist Jon Krosnick recently completed research, yet to be published, which found that including a skeptical perspective in a news story about anthropogenic warming reduced the proportion of people who said they perceived scientific consensus from 58 percent to 47 percent.
Krosnick’s team assigned 2,600 volunteers to watch one of two television news stories. Some viewers watched the complete version of the story, which included a skeptical perspective, and others watched a version in which the skeptic had been edited out. One of the stories concerned the fundamental question: Is the rate of warming increasing? The other concerned the question: Will the impacts of warming be catastrophic? There is strong consensus that the answer to the first question is yes, but much less accord about the latter. In both stories, however, the skeptic’s voice felled any notion of scientific consensus — an indication that journalists must be very careful to give context whenever they venture into such matters, and not just stick in an outlying voice out of some distorted sense of objectivity.
“One of the findings from our new work is that ‘getting it,’ so to speak, is strongly correlated with trust in the news media,” Krosnick said in an interview. “The more an American trusts the media to be accurate and unbiased, the more likely they are to endorse mainstream scientific views about climate change.”
And the media are, despite Huggins’s criticisms, slowly but surely eliminating false balance when addressing human activity’s role in global warming. According to Boykoff’s more recent work (pdf), “balanced” coverage of the anthropogenic contribution to climate change tapered off from 2003 to 2006 in the five largest American papers in favor of stories that depicted it as undeniably significant. Furthermore, stories that depict man’s contribution to warming as negligible have all but disappeared from news pages. Regional papers seem to be improving as well. According to Krosnick, though, misunderstanding persists due to the early problems.
“Our research suggests that there’s actually kind of a carry-over, that people don’t forget that quickly,” he said. “It’s kind of like the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes’s stories. Americans heard a lot skeptics in a lot of news stories for a lot years, and the impact of those skeptics doesn’t disappear simply because the skeptics aren’t being mentioned any more.”
All improvements aside, however, Huggins thinks there are still some serious problems with climate coverage; in one of his regular comments on Dot Earth, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s blog, Huggins wrote:
If the large majority of scientists are correct on global warming, and if the Times genuinely means what it says in its occasional editorials on the subject, then the coverage of the issue in the news pages is clearly way below the task, and way off-mark. By this, I mean things like placement, clarity, frequency, cohesiveness (bringing the whole matter together in an understandable “aha” way), and related matters.
Put another way, there is a major de-linkage between the Times’ news coverage of the issue (global warming, and ways to address it) and the nature and weight (not to mention urgency) of the issue itself.
On the matter of frequency, Huggins may have trouble making his case. Newspaper coverage of global warming has spiked over the last few years and the Times has probably covered it from a greater variety of angles than anyone else. It is one of the few outlets, for instance, that have realized that the climate story is essentially an energy story and it dedicated an excellent series, The Energy Challenge, to exploring that connection.