Climate Skepticism Abounds in US & UK Media

By Graciela Kincaid and Spencer Fields

Ninety-seven percent of self-identified actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is human-caused. Scientifically, anthropogenic climate change is a hard reality. Yet politically the debate remains extremely polarized–and the media has failed in its role as referee. The opinions of climate skeptics and deniers continue to appear in our nation’s top newspapers, television broadcasts, and radio outlets.

Oxford University’s James Painter recently published his findings on this question in the report, Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism. He found that disproportionate portrayals of climate skepticism in the press appeared primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States. Furthermore, the majority of these skeptics appeared in right-leaning publications, revealing a system of partisan bias. Painter examined over 3,000 articles in two print papers in each of six different countries (Brazil, China, France, India, UK, US), and an additional 1,900 from the UK.

Painter and his team looked for a change in print space given to skeptical voices over two periods in 2007 and 2010 respectively, significant differences within countries, differences within the print media of the same country, and correspondence between the prevalence of skepticism and the political leaning of the newspaper.

Poles Apart reveals three critical findings. First, the number of articles including skeptical voices increased in 11 out of 12 newspapers of the six countries. Secondly, there were substantial cross-country differences. Most significantly, the UK and US media accounted for 80% of skeptical voices quoted in all six countries, and 85% of all times in which skeptical politicians were quoted (as opposed to scientists). Finally, skeptical voices tended to be printed in right-leaning newspapers. This was especially true in the US and UK, and particularly notable with opinion and editorial pieces.

In many instances, the media justifies the prevalence of skeptical articles as providing equal access for both sides of the debate. Yet this is still a form of bias. Shouldn’t the breakdown of articles mirror the scientific community, maintaining a balance closer to the nine-to-one ratio exhibited in peer-reviewed literature?

Of course, there are climate issues on which media debate is appropriate. Scientists and policy makers alike constantly discuss which renewable energy sources to adopt, how best to mitigate the effects of climate change, and what to include in climate change legislature. However, there is largely scientific consensus that climate change is caused by anthropogenic actions. While it is appropriate to publish articles debating the best ways to reduce household energy usage, it is controversial to consistently include articles that claim that climate change is, as Rush Limbaugh so eloquently ranted, “one of the most preposterous hoaxes in the history of the planet.”

So has the media “tragically and thoroughly” failed us, as argued by a group of concerned Australian scientists? Poles Apart presents a strong argument that this is in fact the case. According to various polls, the number of Americans who still believe that scientists are debating the reality of climate change is astoundingly high, between 40 and 63 percent. Perhaps more frightening is that only 15 percent of Americans understand that the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that climate change is anthropogenic. Given this “climate of doubt,” it is no wonder that the US Congress has failed to pass robust climate change legislation. In fact, Painter believes that with anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of the country as climate skeptics, a comprehensive political response becomes close to impossible.

Based on analysis of Painter’s study and others, our answer is yes–large parts of our media have failed us. However, we cannot blame solely the media. Rather, we must recognize two hard realities: that political and economic interests in the US contribute significantly to fostering climate skepticism, and that by failing to confront our media regarding the coverage of climate skepticism, we, too, are accountable.


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