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Why Does the Media Get it Wrong?

Kiran Chetry

Creative Commons License Photo credit: mroach

When it comes to climate change, journalists are notorious for getting even the simplest of facts wrong. Take, for example, an article from March 2007, by Julie Wheldon, which proclaims “Greenhouse Effect is a Myth, Say Scientists†in the headline. Yet, the body of the article does not argue that there is no greenhouse effect. In fact, no scientist would argue that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist. Without it, life as we know it would not exist.

So why does the media get it wrong? Well, there are a few reasons, put forth by different researchers. Here, I summarize the four main concepts from three articles: Wilson, “Communicating Climate Change Through the Mediaâ€; Boykoff & Boykoff, “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Pressâ€; and Antilla, “Climate of Scepticism: US Newspaper Coverage of the Science of Climate Change†to explain what goes on behind the headlines.

1. Misinterpreting Studies

Journalists, generally, do not have science degrees. However, when it’s a journalist’s job to translate findings from scientific articles into reasonably understandable and easy-to-read newspaper articles or TV news stories, this becomes quite the challenge.

The first problem is that the journalists themselves might not understand the complex concepts. The second problem is that they might try to simplify the concepts for others. When both problems occur, a factually incorrect story results, like Julie Wheldon’s.

2. Creating a Story

Journalists require news stories that fit the time (TV, radio), space (newspapers, magazines, blogs) and budget constraints. In TV, visuals are also crucial. However, scientific studies and theories are often too time-consuming, expensive, or risk seeming dull on TV without visuals. Thus, climate change coverage often falls by the wayside.

Reporters often try to make climate change relevant by relating it to local weather stories. From a journalist’s point of view, this provides a unique, local twist to the ongoing story of climate change. Otherwise, from a newsroom perspective, global warming provides very little potential for an article. Not surprisingly, however, its extremely hard to prove whether one particular storm or flood could be caused by global warming.

3. Drawing an Audience

Whereas scientists’ studies are full of careful phrasing, such as “possibly†and “couldâ€, it is the job of journalists to grab people’s attention through bold headlines, and eye-catching statements. That’s how a scientist’s declaration that “climate change is too complicated to be caused by just one factor, whether CO2 or clouds†(said by Philip Stott and cited by Julie Wheldon’s article) may turn into “Greenhouse Effect is a Myth, Say Scientists†in the headline to catch readers’ attention.

Journalists also have a tendency to create drama by framing climate change in duelling-scientist model. Articles pit scientist against scientist, while ignoring the larger picture and issues.

4. Balance as Bias

No scientists deny that climate change in happening. While this may sound like a bold statement, it’s actually not. The earth’s temperature is rising—no one doubts this. The debate occurs around the details of it, and what the future will be like.

In the field of contemporary journalism, however, objectivity is valued. Thus, reporters will often go out of their way to find an opposing view, to appear balanced. These opposing views are extreme and falsified (like denying the greenhouse effect). The experts cited by journalists often have little relation to the fields of climate science. Paul Reiter, cited by Wheldon, is not a climate science expert, but a malaria researcher. He is quoted as saying “I am not a climatologist, nor an expert on sea level or polar ice. But I do know from talking to many scientists in many disciplines that this consensus is a mirage.†(http://www.eco-imperialism.com/content/article.php3?id=210).    

Highlighting incorrect science just for the sake of having two views can create a bias of its own, when it appears that there is a legitimate debate. This is the phenomenon that the term “balance as bias†describes. 

5. Corporate Ties

Returning to Wheldon’s article, many of  these “experts†she cites are not only unqualified in climatology (like the malaria researcher), but they have ties with the fossil fuel industry and big business.

Ian Clark, for example, is a member of the right wing think-tank organization “The Fraser Instituteâ€. The Fraser institute is infamous for hiring scientists to deny global warming, and is funded by ExxonMobil. Two other organization Clark is involved in (“Competitive Enterprise Institute†and “Heartland Instituteâ€) are also funded by ExxonMobil.

Paul Reiter, again, writes for “Tech Central Stationâ€, a publication that is also funded by ExxonMobil. Two other organizations Reiter is involved with (“Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy†and “International Policy Networkâ€) are —you guessed it—funded by ExxonMobil.

Clearly, these climate change deniers, cited by the media, are swimming in fossil fuel money. It’s easy to find out which denies are connected to the industry. Greenpeace has developed a wonderful tool that traces Exxon Mobil money to publications, politicians, organizations and scientists: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/exxon-secrets

In theory, the scientists are doing their job, and the journalists are doing theirs. It’s no one’s fault that scientists use careful phrasing, while reports need to create eye-catching headlines. The problem occurs when the two disciplines become tangled together, like they do in the case of climate change.

Wilson’s article documents a study of the public’s climate change knowledge, and the results were disappointing. Many people confused the terms “climate change†and “greenhouse effect†for the same thing. They are not synonymous terms. People also believed that global warming was strongly debated among scientists. Interestingly, the people who scored the lowest are those who reported TV as their main news source.

So, why it matter if the media gets it wrong? Journalism (newspapers, magazines, TV news, etc) is the prime medium through which the public learns about climate change. Unless a person is already somehow educated about the topic, it’s unlikely that they would start reading (or have access to) peer-reviewed scientific journals. Therefore, if the media gets it wrong, chances are, the public will too. And this is a major problem.

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Thank you for your insightful article, Leah. I've also noticed how the news media treats this issue like an entertaining boxing match rather than focusing on informing the public.

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