The importance of the media should not be minimized. The study found that “the greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern,” and that “the importance the media assigns to coverage of climate change translates into the importance the public attaches to this issue.” (In other words, front-page treatment means readers will take an article more seriously.) But, the researchers, wrote:

The implication would seem to be that a mass communication effort to alter the salience of the climate change issue is unlikely to have much impact. A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communications techniques to better convey and understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite. Additionally, the analysis has show that, in line with the media effects literature, the effects of communication on public opinion regarding climate change are short lived. A high level of pubic concern over climate change was seen only during a period of both high levels of media coverage and active statements about the issue’s seriousness from political elites. It rapidly declined when these factors declined.

Stanford University’s Jon Krosnick, an expert in public-opinion polling who wasn’t involved in the analysis, told ClimateProgress that there are inherent uncertainties in the study, but he praised its overall methodology.

The authors acknowledged that they could track only the long-term, rather than short-lived factors that affect public opinion. They also cited the need to study a wider variety of variables, such the public demonstrations and advertising by advocacy groups and climate coverage of cable TV networks, talk radio, and comedy programs like The Daily Show. The molding of pubic opinion will always be an immensely complex process that defies simple explanations.

Nonetheless, the study is a valuable contribution to an often vitriolic debate about who is responsible for the general apathy surrounding climate change. Activists, scientists, politicians, and other stakeholders are often quick to point fingers at journalists and the wider media, who are not blameless, to be sure. But those accusations tend to be shortsighted and distract attention from potentially more important factors.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.