Who speaks for the climate?
Via the mass media, experts and non-experts offer radically different perspectives, yielding unreasonable confusion and doubt, CU researcher contends
By Clint Talbott
Few people start the day with a stout cup of coffee and a fresh scientific journal. Most follow news in politics and science through the lens of the mass media.
That simple truth has big implications in the realm of climate science. People’s understanding of climate change, climate science and climate policy has been shaped by journalistic norms and fluctuating levels of coverage. Public understanding is also affected by the media’s conflation of incomparable issues.
One result is the U.S. public’s stagnating understanding of (or “belief” in) human-caused global warming even as climate science demonstrates ever more certainty about it.
Those are some conclusions of Max Boykoff, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, who has spent more than a decade researching media depictions of climate research.
He is an expert in the study of media and climate. Boykoff’s name is “virtually synonymous with the field,” notes Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.
That reputation is likely to be further cemented with last month’s release of Boykoff’s book on the subject, “Who Speaks for the Climate?” In it, he dissects the complex and confusing landscape of public perception, scientific understanding and political action.
As he has in previous journal articles, Boykoff illustrates pitfalls that journalists—and consequently the public—sometimes stumble into.
Professional journalists are ethically bound to give both sides of a story. This pro/con framework is designed to help citizens make informed decisions.
But that journalistic obligation can be misapplied if a bona fide expert is “balanced” with a non-expert, particularly when the expert represents a mainstream view and the non-expert is on the fringe. In such cases, Boykoff contends, the media’s ethical pursuit of balance propagates “faux balance.”
“Faux balance,” he says, can generate doubt about scientific data that are nearly universally accepted.
An example of “faux balance,” Boykoff notes, is a 2009 CNN broadcast in which host Lou Dobbs ran a segment called “Climate Change Battle.” Dobbs said there was “a renewed battle over global warming … whether it even exists.” To debate the topic, he introduced “two of the best experts on climate change.”
One was John Coleman, a founder of the Weather Channel who holds a bachelor’s in journalism. The other was Henry Pollack, a professor emeritus of geological sciences at the University of Michigan and a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has conducted the most thoroughly vetted scientific assessments in human history.
Coleman called climate change “the greatest hoax in history” and argued that “there is no man-made global warming or climate change of any significance.” The climate is actually cooling, Coleman said.
Pollack replied that climatologists study long-term trends rather than year-by-year fluctuations and that average global temperatures over land and sea have been warming for decades. Briefly, Pollack also noted that greenhouse gases are acting just as scientists have long understood they would.
The problem, Boykoff notes, is that Coleman lacks Pollack’s specialized, scientific expertise. Further, the “Climate Change Battle” segment made it appear that there was significant scientific debate on data about which there was no significant debate among climate scientists.
“Dobbs propped up the expertise and authority of weathercaster John Coleman against that of geophysicist Henry Pollack, thereby putting their claims and counter-claims on par with one another,” Boykoff writes.
Putting such mismatched sources on equal footing, Boykoff says, is “reducing expertise to a matter of debating skill.”
Pollack’s expert statements mirrored those of the IPCC, which declared that the warming trend over the last half-century is “unequivocal.” The IPCC also estimated that the likelihood that humans contributed to most of the observed warming was 90 percent or higher.
Boykoff cites several examples of “faux balance” in mainstream media ranging from the journal Politico to National Public Radio. These journalistic tendencies reflect human nature, Boykoff notes. While raucous debate can be riveting, consensus is boring.
But on main points of climate science, there is wide consensus. As the IPCC, the National Academies of Science and many other authorities note, there is broad scientific agreement that the climate is warming, that greenhouse gases exert a warming effect and that greenhouse-gas concentrations are higher than they’ve been in centuries.
Science, public opinion diverge
When dogs bite people, that’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, headlines will follow. That hoary newspaper bromide summarizes another journalistic norm: the quest for novelty.
As anyone who follows the news knows, journalists (and readers) like stories that highlight the unusual.
Journalists also seek stories that can be told with a dramatic narrative flair. Fictional stories from “Beowulf” to “Avatar” have a narrative arc, and news articles that “tell a story” in dramatic form draw eyeballs.
Journalists also strive to “personalize” stories, either by using the anecdote of a personal experience as a means of introducing a broader trend, or by relying on personalities as experts.
The frequency of “faux balance” declined significantly between 2003 and 2006, Boykoff writes.
There have been other changes in coverage during the last decade as well. One is the frequency with which major news organizations cover climate change.
Partly because of journalistic conventions—along with the mass media’s event-driven focus on episodes ranging from the release IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report to the hacked emails that underlay the “Climategate” story—the number of news stories rose and fell dramatically during recent years.
Monitoring 50 newspapers across five countries broken down into five regions, Boykoff found that coverage spiked in 2007 when the IPCC released its latest assessment reports and again in 2009, when the climate talks in Copenhagen were closely preceded by the leak of hacked emails dubbed “Climategate.”
Since 2010, however, media coverage of climate change worldwide and in the United States has plummeted.
In the United States, Boykoff tracked five leading newspapers: The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Los Angeles Times. All of them followed roughly the same pattern.
This matters, because media attention helps drive public awareness and political action. The percentage of Americans who recognize that the earth is warming dropped from 79 percent in 2006 to 63 percent this year, according to just-released polling by the Pew Research Group.
Those surveyed were responding to this question: “From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?”
If the question is based on “what you’ve read and heard,” the drop in media coverage of climate change could help explain the decline in Americans’ acceptance of the evidence of warming, Boykoff and others suggest.
Apples, oranges, climate and policy
While instances of faux balance seem to be on the decline, other pitfalls have appeared. One is the tendency of journalists to conflate issues.
Boykoff cites several examples of this.
In many newspaper articles and TV segments, issues that have broad scientific agreement (e.g., the climate has warmed in recent decades) are often juxtaposed with questions about which there is still robust scientific debate (e.g., whether the warming climate is linked to apparently increased hurricane intensity).
Climate scientists who express divergent opinions about the existence of rising hurricane intensity are not, except in very rare cases, also likely to question the empirical evidence of warming. But Boykoff says news stories and other popular depictions routinely conflate the degree of scientific certainty on such disparate issues, spawning doubt and confusion.
One famous example comes from “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary featuring Al Gore. The movie’s promotional poster featured an image of a hurricane emerging from a smokestack.
The image “did suggest a causal connection between (greenhouse gas) emissions and hurricane activity,” Boykoff writes. “Such attention-grabbing imagery may have boosted ticket sales. However, this effectiveness came at the expense of accuracy.”
Another type of conflation occurs when the mass media combine discussions about the causes of climate change with debates about potential policies designed to confront it.
When Congress considered “cap and trade” legislation, this conflation was common. Individual scientists might have expertise in highly specialized areas of climatology, but that doesn’t make them experts in climate policy, Boykoff notes. Conversely, he notes, policy experts are not necessarily experts in climate science.
“There is a big difference between the descriptive of what’s happening and the prescriptive of what should be done,” Boykoff says.
Boykoff has his own prescription of how to improve public discourse on climate change. It involves climate scientists making concerted efforts to help journalists, publishers and editors understand nuances in climate science.
Journalists, he says, can help scientists better appreciate pressures in their world, including tight deadlines, the need for distillation of complex concepts into simple language, newsroom negotiations and journalistic norms.
Boykoff emphasizes that it is not his intention to “demonize individual journalists,” many of whom are generalists trying to report on a wide range of issues under increasing pressures of time and space.
At the same time, he says, citizens ignore or dismisses the influence of media portrayals of climate science and policy “at our peril.”
Read more about Boykoff’s work on The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog.