The Disconnect of News Reporting from Scientific Evidence: Balanced Coverage Results in a 'Misleading Scenario That There Is a Raging Debate among Climate-Change Scientists regarding Humanity's Role in Climate Change.'

By Boykoff, Max | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Disconnect of News Reporting from Scientific Evidence: Balanced Coverage Results in a 'Misleading Scenario That There Is a Raging Debate among Climate-Change Scientists regarding Humanity's Role in Climate Change.'


Boykoff, Max, Nieman Reports


The procession of hurricanes through the Caribbean Basin, lashing the southeastern United States, has served to spur an increase in news media coverage of various aspects of climate change. These devastating hurricane events provide a news hook through which many journalists have started to investigate the complex nexus of interacting natural forces and potential human influences. Debates regarding links between increased intensity of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and global warming notwithstanding, these discussions illustrate the ongoing and contentious battles about what is taking place in our carbon-based industry and society.

These highly politicized debates can be contrasted with the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding the issue of human contributions to climate change (a.k.a. anthropogenic climate change). Since the late 1980's, climate scientists have stated with increasing confidence that humans play a distinct role in changes in the climate. Acting on the science, the world community took initial steps to combat anthropogenic climate change in the form of the Kyoto Protocol; 128 countries have ratified it, but the United States is not among them.

The United States's obstinate anti-Kyoto stance, combined with more recent events, has prompted many foreign leaders, environmental groups, concerned citizens, and local officials to blame the Bush administration for its inaction in this critical issue. For example, German Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin recently said, "The Bush government rejects international climate protection goals by insisting that imposing them would negatively impact the American economy. The American President is closing his eyes to the economic and human costs his land and the world economy are suffering under natural catastrophes like Katrina and because of neglected environmental policies." [See articles on pages 97 and 99 for information about German coverage of this issue.]

Measuring the Effects of Balanced Coverage

While much focus of ire and frustration has focused on the Bush administration, another significant, yet often under-considered point of resistance to international cooperation on climate change also revolves around the media's ongoing adherence to the journalistic norm of balanced reporting. By adhering to this norm, the news media presents both sides of a story, with attempts often made to do so in equal measure. But when balance has been applied to the critical environmental issue of anthropogenic climate change, it has served to distort the findings of the world's top climate change scientists.

My research empirically examined this disconnect. Through content analysis of U.S. newspapers, as well as interviews with key actors at the inter face of climate science, policy, media and the public, I looked at how discourse on anthropogenic climate change is framed through the media, thereby affecting public understanding, discourse and action.

Since previous research found that the public generates much of its knowledge about science from the mass media, it is crucial to reflect on the role of the mass media in shaping public understanding of climate science and policy. Interactions between climate science, policy, media and the public are complex and dynamic. It is clear that science and policy shape media reporting and public understanding. However, it is also true that journalism and public concern shape ongoing climate science and policy decisions. Journalist Dale Willman, a veteran correspondent and field producer with CNN, CBS News, and National Public Radio, has commented, "in terms of agenda-setting ... the media don't tell people what to think, but they tell them what to think about."

In a peer-reviewed study published in 2004, coauthor Jules Boykoff and I examined this issue of balance in leading U.S. newspapers--The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. …

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