When the media reports on global warming, efforts to strike a balance by examining both sides can turn into bias.
Two researchers argue, in a paper published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change, that following the norms of American journalism, U.S. media have promulgated a bias in the coverage of climate change essentially by giving too much credence to climate skeptics at the expense of the scientific consensus.
Maxwell T. Boykoff, a doctoral candidate in environmental studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and his brother, Jules M. Boykoff, of the Department of Government at American University, wrote, U.S. prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 has contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse ... the prestige press's adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.
Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Frank Maisano, director of strategic communications with the law firm of Bracewell & Patterson and former spokesman for the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition, told United Press International, The way I look at it, I think reporters have given the global warming 'certainty' even more credibility that it deserves.
Max Boykoff told UPI the effort to achieve balance in reporting about global warming leads to an over-emphasis on the viewpoint of a few skeptics, while the scientific community presents a strong consensus that the globe is warming and human activities are largely responsible.
In light of general agreement in the international scientific community that mandatory and immediate action is needed, coverage has been seriously and systematically deficient, Max Boykoff said. "In effect, the press has provided 'balanced' coverage of a very unbalanced issue.
He said a content analysis of four main U.S. newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, from 1988 to 2002 showed there was a significant dissonance between the media and the discourse in science.
The Boykoffs looked at 636 articles written over the 14-year period, 41 percent of which were from the New York Times, 29 percent from the Washington Post, 25 percent from the Los Angeles Times and 5 percent from the Wall Street Journal.
They found 52.7 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the view that humans contribute to global warming along with the view that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.
About a third emphasized the role of humans, while presenting both sides of the debate. The remaining 12 percent or so were split between the skeptical view that anthropogenic warming exists or its reverse, that humans exclusively are contributing to the warming temperatures.
So what's wrong with that? The Boykoffs' view is that only the second category -- the third emphasizing the role of humans while admitting some uncertainty -- accurately reflects scientific thinking about warming.
I find it absolutely outrageous, Maisano said.
He said despite the ballyhooed consensus, there remains considerable debate in the scientific community about important areas of climate science -- so there is nothing biased about reporting it.
My whole philosophy is that this thing is completely off base in the first place, because there are so many complexities to climate change, Maisano said.
He cited NASA scientist James Hansen, who basically is credited with discovering global warming but since 1998 has actively questioned the scientific certainties of climate change because of many new elements related to aerosols and other issues.
He has raised the bar on scientific uncertainty to say that there are many things we just don't understand, Maisano said.
There does come a point in media coverage of a scientific debate in which journalism should reflect more of the prevailing scientific consensus, rather than sampling every minority opinion, according to Kelly McBride, ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for professional journalists.
We have done that on other issues, McBride told UPI. There was a time in this country when the generally accepted school of thought was that people of color and women were inferior, either intellectually, physically, morally, to white men.
As evidence to the contrary mounted, she said, journalists stopped balancing their reports with this point of view.
Part of the problem is that reporters are not necessarily capable of judging which science is proven and which is still up for debate, McBride said. "That doesn't mean they shouldn't be. I think that part of the change that is happening in American media is that reporters have to be more of an expert in the areas they cover.
For reporters who cover the environment, I don't know that you need a degree in the science, but you've got to be competent to get to the point where you can judge the industry as a whole and say, 'These are the theories in the industry that are generally accepted.' As a responsible journalist, you have to provide a certain amount of context.
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