You probably heard wrong. Many in the media neglected to report the story completely. And the graph above doesn’t describe the distortions in coverage very clearly, either. Here’s a simpler statement of the results….
In case you haven’t been following the recent UN report on climate change* in the media, you may be surprised that many mainstream journalists have been clearly applying “false balance” when they cover the phenomenon and its denial. In other words, reporters are slanting the news by casting unreasonable doubt on almost universally accepted findings. They appear not to have read either the UN document (WGI AR5, Physical Science; or, the Fifth Assessment Report, part 1) or even the 27-page summary, because if they had, they’d have recognized their own perspective and “sources” as somewhat less than reliable.
The UN report basically says that climate change is “unequivocal.” It will continue no matter how greenhouse gas emissions play out in the future. The international panel also finds it “extremely likely” (95% certain) that human influence has mainly caused the global warming we have observed since 1950–only 63 years ago.
The evidence for human, also called “anthropogenic,” origin of some climate change has grown, and will likely continue to grow, for several reasons:
….. More and better observations by scientists and nonscientists alike,
….. Our improving knowledge about climate system response to environmental stimuli, and
….. Better climate models from the actuarial scientific community.
Max Greenberg, Denise Robbins, and Shauna Theel of Media Matters closely evaluated the media’s distortion of the facts between August 1 and October 1, 2013, the dates when the UN report appeared, with supporting graphs and text.
Some of the highlights from their article:
Half of the print media reported manmade warming falsely. Only 3% of the world’s climate scientists do not believe in climate change. However, over a quarter of the reports from major news outlets (Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Bloomberg News) during the study period were either neutral on the subject or quoted doubters (those who don’t believe climate change is occurring/don’t believe it is manmade). As many as half of the people quoted by The Wall Street Journal discredited the views of almost 100% of all scientists. Four other major print outlets–The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, and USA TODAY–managed to cover the UN report with accurate balance.
Climate doubters reported in the media were more likely to lack scientific credentials than those who acknowledged climate change. About 81% of the “experts” quoted who denied anthropogenic climate change had zero background in climate science. This statistic means that four of every five skeptical faces you’ve seen on TV or encountered online or in the newspaper have not really spent time looking into Mother Nature’s recent changes of life. The 81% you see saying “no” are mostly uneducated politicians, bloggers, and media people. Almost 60% of the people in the media who say humans are implicated in global warming are actual scientists.
CBS represented doubters six times more often than doubters actually exist in the climate science community. Of the people CBS quoted or televised, 20% were climate doubters. (For example, CBS Evening News gave the head of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Benny Peiser–whom the network described as a “skeptic”–equal weight to a bona fide climate scientist.) ABC, NBC, and CNN did not include false balance in their coverage.
Doubters dominated on Fox, and the majority were unqualified. In the Fox coverage, 69% of guest “experts” cast doubt on climate science. About three of every four doubters Fox hosted had no academic qualifications in climate science at all.
The mainstream media used concocted “think tanks” in their reports instead of interviewing genuine experts. Greenberg and coauthors cite the example of the Heartland Institute and skewed coverage of its climate change bias by the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and Fox News.
The Washington Post seems to be doublethinking Heartland. The paper directly compared a professionally unreviewed and controversial Heartland Institute report to the rigorously researched AR5. WaPo described Heartland mildly as a “nonprofit group funded by individuals and corporations” without revealing the radically conservative and political nature of these connections. The Post directly quoted its president, Joseph Bast (a nonscientist): “Any warming that may be due to human greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be so small as to be invisible.”
Yet the Post had previously reported a billboard posted by Heartland that compared those who believe in global warming (including 97% of scientists, as noted earlier) to serial killer and domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski–the Unabomber. Also, the Post noted several apparently inappropriate grants to Heartland ($736,500 from Exxon Mobil between 1998 and 2006, and $25,000 in 2011 from foundations affiliated with Koch Industries, which has “substantial oil and energy holdings”). Bloomberg News and Fox News also mainstreamed Heartland president Bast, who ranks with Judith Curry and Willie Soon (a scientist among the 3%) as one of the most frequently quoted climate change deniers in the media study.
Another Bloomberg News “expert” doubter, “toxic industry” advocate Marc Morano, runs a climate denial blog featuring arguments that often run counter to those of the overwhelming scientific majority. Morano’s blog is sponsored by the libertarian Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and funded by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the anonymous Donors Trust. Bloomberg grossly understated the Morano blog’s position, calling it merely “skeptical of climate change.” Senior New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin characterized the same blog as “toxic and divisive.” In May 2013, Bloomberg neutrally presented Morano’s absurd claim that catastrophically high carbon dioxide levels should be “welcomed” because “plants are going to be happy.”
Greenberg, Robbins, and Theel’s analysis of climate change in the media included any article, op-ed, editorial, or segment, as well as any mention longer than one sentence, that referred to the latest UN report. For more on the complex measurements the authors undertook and their media examples, see the Media Matters report and its section on methodology.
The graphic above presents the conclusions of the study. To save you from parsing out what the columns really mean, here’s a short take:
*Maybe everyone missed this incredibly important climate report because its official name is a tad unwieldy: United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [usually known as “IPCC”] Fifth Assessment Report. The official abbreviation for this publication is “AR5.” Only the Summary for Policymakers [SPM] of the Working Group I [WGI] contribution to the report [WGI AR5]–the Physical Science Basis–appears in the AR5 material released to date. The panel published this first installment of AR5 at the IPCC Working Group I 12th Meeting in Stockholm during the week of September 23-26, 2013. We’ll see the results from the other two major working groups at intervals during 2014 (I won’t bother you with their names and acronyms here), and a synthesis report from Copenhagen the week of October 27-31 next year. It will NOT be coming from the IPFCCC. Confused? You won’t be if you pay close attention to the professional summary video on YouTube by the team of 259 international experts. The music’s a little imposing, but you’ll find your nine minutes very well spent.