Mainstream Media and Science: Climate Change, 1995-2004

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Thus, by way of the institutionalized journalistic norm of balanced reporting, United States television news coverage has perpetrated an informational bias by significantly diverging from the consensus view in climate science that humans contribute to climate change. Troubles in translating this consensus in climate science have led to the appearance of amplified uncertainty and debate, also then permeating public and policy discourse.

The above quote was taken from the abstract of an interesting paper recently published in Climatic Change (Boykoff, 2008; subscription required), which arguably deals with ASIC 200 related material: the influence of popular media on the perception of science among the general public.

Briefly put, there exists a problem in science journalism – not for journalism, but rather for the science being reported on – and that is balanced reporting. A fundamental ingredient in ethical reporting is objectivity, and integral to this is balancing opposing points of view for any controversial event, idea, etc.. For example, if someone worth reporting on (sarcasm) happens to say something to the effect of, “Abortion/Gay marriage/Equal rights/Stem cell research/Genetic engineering/etc. is right/wrong because of reasons x, y, and z” then a good reporter will counter x, y, and z with the appropriate opposing arguments.

However, what appears to have plagued the global warming (pseudo-) debate in the mainstream media is the supposed conflicting viewpoint of “100’s of scientists” and that of a consensus that “begs to be placated”. Indeed, as Boykoff puts…

[…]a 2004 study found that of 928 journal articles on global climate change that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, none refuted the consensus position that humans contribute to climate change. Thus, IPCC findings and reports effectively articulate a dominant and legitimate global environmental management discourse.

What did Boykoff find?

These analyses showed that 70% of U.S. television news segments across the four networks [CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN] have provided ‘balanced’ coverage regarding anthropogenic contributions to climate change vis-a-vis natural radiative forcing over the study period of 1995 through 2004. On each network, analyses demonstrated that coverage was significantly different from the consensus view in the climate science community regarding human contributions to climate change.

However, “natural irradiative forcing” has arguably been thoroughly ‘debunked’ as the cause for modern warming (for more on the science, see these articles at RealClimate – this, this, this, this, and this – written by practicing climate scientists).

“So what!” you might be thinking, “I know what’s going on, its a conspiracy/the truth/nothing to worry about/worth changing the way I live/yea, whatev’s!” Well, mainstream media plays a very important role in shaping public discourse on scientific matters. Indeed, most adults (especially those less than net-savy users) acquire their knowledge of science and technology from television (although the internet comes in a close second, and exceeds 50% when specific topics are being actively investigated; source-NSF).

Reference: Boykoff, M.T. Lost in translation? United States television news coverage of anthropogenic climate change, 1995-2004. Climatic Change 86: 1-11.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: