In an Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore lamented the fact that American media outlets give more column space to skeptical views than the scientific debate warrants. He cites a 2004 study entitled “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press” (PDF). The study, which was published in the journal Global Environmental Change by researchers from UC Santa Cruz and American University, found that more than half of the mainstream press accounts of climate change between 1988 and 2002 gave equal coverage to skeptical views held by a slim minority of scientists.
In a new study (abstract here, PDF), published last week by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), researchers compared media coverage of climate change in six countries — the UK, the US, China, Brazil, India and France — to see how often climate change skepticism is covered favorably in each:
A team of researchers led by RISJ’s James Painter examined more than 3,000 articles from two different newspaper titles in each country during two separate periods. In each country (apart from China), the newspapers were selected to represent divergent political viewpoints. The periods studied were February to April 2007 and mid-November 2009 to mid-February 2010 (a period that included the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and ‘Climategate’).
I bet you can guess which countries’ mainstream news outlets gave the most favorable coverage to climate change deniers. The study found that “newspapers in the UK and the US have given far more column space to the voices of climate sceptics than the press in Brazil, France, India and China.” In fact, “more than 80 per cent of the times that sceptical voices were included, they were in pieces in the UK and US press.”
James Painter, one of the researchers who conducted the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism study, speculates on the cause:
There are politicians in the UK and the US who espouse some variation of climate scepticism. Both countries also have organisations for ‘climate change sceptics’ that provide a sceptical voice for the media, particularly in those media outlets that are more receptive to this message. This is why we see more sceptical coverage in the Anglo-Saxon countries than we do in the other countries in the study where one or more of those factors appear to be absent.
So how does this play out in the realm of public opinion? A 2010 World Bank poll (large PDF) of public attitudes on climate change in sixteen countries provides some clue. The poll didn’t measure public opinion in China or the United Kingdom, but for the four countries examined in the RISJ study (the US, Brazil, France and India), the findings match up as you might predict. When asked whether addressing climate change should be given a high priority, Americans are less likely to agree (page 10). And when asked when climate change will harm people substantially, Americans are less likely to say it will do so now or soon (page 10).
These studies, along with considerable anecdotal evidence, indicate two things: 1) The mainstream American press reports on the issue of climate change inaccurately, in a way that provides false balance, and 2) Americans are less likely than residents of many other countries to understand climate change.
What isn’t clear is whether the chicken or the egg came first. That is, are Americans less likely to understand climate change because the mainstream press reports on the issue inaccurately, or does the mainstream press report on climate change inaccurately because Americans are less likely to understand climate change?
Unfortunately, both factors are probably at play in a self-reinforcing cycle.
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