Context and Controversy: Global Warming Coverage: '... It Is Heartening to Know That the Simple Inclusion of Scientific Context Might Help Mitigate the Readers' Level of Uncertainty.'

By Durfee, Jessica; Corbett, Julia | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Context and Controversy: Global Warming Coverage: '... It Is Heartening to Know That the Simple Inclusion of Scientific Context Might Help Mitigate the Readers' Level of Uncertainty.'


Durfee, Jessica, Corbett, Julia, Nieman Reports


For most citizens, knowledge about science comes largely through the mass media, not through scientific publications or direct involvement in science. As sociologist Dorothy Nelkin has explained, the public understands science less through experience or education but through the filter of journalistic language and imagery. This is especially true for unobtrusive or invisible issues such as global warming with which a person lacks real-world experience that could help shape opinion and understanding. Even if someone lives through the hottest summer on record, severe drought, or forest fires, that person still relies on the news media to connect such events to scientific evidence.

In media coverage of global warming, scientists were the primary sources of information early on, but more recently politicians and interest groups have been cited more frequently in stories. As this happens, an issue ripe for examination is what messages media coverage communicate about global warming as sources of information change. Some researchers have found that as their sourcing changed, journalists tended to overemphasize the level of uncertainty about global warming. This conclusion has been reached by academic researchers and echoed by journalist Ross Gelbspan, who wrote "Boiling Point," a book about global warming. [See Gelbspan's article on page 77.]

Some media researchers suggest that journalistic practices--such as objectivity and striving for balance--contribute to conveying this message of uncertainty. When sources offer conflicting claims, for example, reporters tend to use one of two strategies: 1. try to be objective, or 2. try to balance the conflicting claims within the story, which leads to sides in the debate being given equal weight, even when the majority of scientific evidence might fall to one side while the other side consists of industry-supported, fringe science.

Media coverage can send the message to readers that the science is uncertain without ever mentioning "uncertainty." To deliver that perception requires the balancing of competing scientific views without a clear context to explain how the evidence lines up in the scientific community. But until we set out to test readers to determine whether story elements--such as conflict and context--contributed to or created a sense of uncertainty, no researcher had examined the impact of this journalistic practice. Our experiment would assess how newspaper readers respond to journalists' writing on global warming, while exploring specifically how controversy and context influence readers' perceptions about the certainty or uncertainty of global warming.

Testing Public Understanding of Global Warming

For our experiment, we created four versions of a news story based on a story of an actual scientific study that found a section of the Antarctic ice sheet was thickening. We used this subject matter because the finding suggested uncertainty about global warming, and therefore it would be a good test: We were curious to learn whether the addition of scientific context would be able to mitigate uncertainty or if the addition of conflict further heightened the uncertainty.

To find out, we wrote a few paragraphs about controversy. Another few paragraphs we wrote emphasized the context of this particular study. Controversy was inserted into one version of the story, context into another. To another version, we added both paragraphs--about controversy and context. In another, we placed neither paragraph but supplemented the thickening Antarctic ice story with general, encyclopedia-facts that were related to its size and formation. We also added some of these "encyclopedia-facts" to the other versions to make all of the news stories approximately the same length. Then we formatted them so they resembled a photocopy from a real newspaper.

We also designed a survey to assess the readers' level of certainty about global warming after reading the article. …

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