The Confusion Over Climate Reporting

By Keith Kloor | June 24, 2011 8:21 am

One reader, in response to my post on the PBS discussion of Al Gore’s Rolling Stone essay, asks me if I have

any comment on Gore’s primary critique; namely that the MSM is failing the public on this issue? I thought media bashing and climate change was your bete noire”¦.

I do have some thoughts, but let’s first have a look at John Broder’s nice summation in the NYT of Gore’s media criticism:

Much of Mr. Gore’s essay is devoted to criticism of the news media as failing to report accurately on the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that it is most likely caused by human activities. He said the media had been cowed by an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign financed by the oil, gas and coal industries, or had presented ideological entertainment in the guise of news reporting.

I would say that of all these points, only the last one rings true to me (“ideological entertainment in the guise of news reporting”)–but only with respect to broadcast TV, which is in line with my own critique of the PBS segment on Gore’s essay.

I have argued many times on this site that I think all the histrionic criticism of climate reporting in mainstream newspapers and magazines is unwarranted. I still believe that. My other thoughts on this issue are best captured by Andy Revkin here:

The [Gore] piece retreads old arguments implying that if the disinformation on this tough issue were swept away (along with bad media habits), some kind of magical consensus would emerge. That’s a fundamental misreading of a lot of social science, at least to my eye. There are inconvenient truths, yes. But we also have “An Inconvenient Mind.”

Additionally, here’s Bryan Walsh over at Time magazine:

Gore and other critics from the left are wrong about how poorly the media reports on climate change””and even more wrong about the difference it makes for the public.

But as Walsh also notes,

Gore’s bigger concern is television, where he’s on surer ground.

So in sum, I think it’s important for critics of climate reporting to not conflate the different mediums when they go on their journalism bashing benders.

On a related note, Walsh also makes some very important distinctions that climate concerned media critics should pay close attention to. He writes that “the scientific consensus over the reality of manmade climate change has grown increasingly strong in recent years,” but that

consensus on the reality of climate change is not the same thing as consensus on the exact effects and severity of climate change, where there is significant and natural scientific debate. Nor is there consensus””or some kind of unimpeachable fact””on how we as a nation and a world should deal with climate change. The reporting should reflect that very lively debate“”a fact that sometimes gets forgotten by environmentalists.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, Journalism
  • Tom Fuller

    Don’t get split up. TV is just as solid behind the consensus as print. It’s just Fox. And it’s not Fox. It’s a handful of idiots.

    The consensus is far too solid in the media. You need more diversity in print and on TV and radio. There should actually be more skeptics and skeptical opinion, not less. And I’m not a skeptic.

    It’s an amazing illusion–that skeptics have captured the media. The only people who could possibly take that seriously are people who don’t consume it.

    When the skeptic share of voice in any media besides the blogosphere reaches 1%, let me know, or sound the alarm, or something…

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Thanks for the links Keith.  While I agree that one needs to avoid monolithic arguments about ‘the media’, I still have a hard time believing that the impact of Fox isn’t enough to stall meaningful action by keeping enough of the Republican base perpetually misinformed about the scope of the problem.  This in turn allows the Republican leadership to ignore the issue altogether.

    Put another way, the Fox effect keeps the Overton window on the issue far further to side of ‘No Problem vs Problem’ than our current understanding of the science warrants.  Without the Fox effect, I’d suggest that the debate in the U.S. and elsewhere would be more along the lines of do you want a $5 tax on carbon in 2012 or $15? How much should the government invest in carbon capture and storage? Do you want Cap and Trade? What portion of permits should be auctioned? What role should agriculture and offsets play (if any)?

  • tom fuller

    Marlowe, if anyone umm, MT… actually believed this stuff they would take fifteen minutes to measure it. There are more statistics about viewership and readership than there are about global warming, and they are probably more precise.

    and I’ll bet people have checkedm because it’s so easy. Not having found what they wanted, they bin the results and resort to handwaving.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Marlowe,

    I agree with your assessment of the “Fox effect.”–in terms of the overall debate. I thought this was also one of the legitimate criticisms made of Matthew Nisbet’s paper that was widely discussed several months back.

    I’m not sure, though, there is that direct a line from Fox to the Republican leadership, as you imply. But I agree with Jon Stewart, when he told Chris Wallace last weekend, that Fox is ideologically biased in an activist manner. They place partisan politics above so called “fair and balanced” reporting.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Tom let me suggest you start with this study.

    Keith, I’m not saying that the line is by any means direct, but there is, I think, a connection that is hard to ignore.

  • Chuck Kaplan

    Marlowe and Keith,

    Are you really saying that Fox (which i do not watch) counteracts the pro-consensus of ABC,NBC,CBS,PBS,NY times and Boston Globe(my paper),Washington Post,Newsweek, Time etc.?

    We lukewarmers are grateful for journalists such as Keith and Andy Revkin who are pro-consensus, but at least give we lukewarmers a hearing.

    As Keith noted in Walsh’s comments, there are more and more serious scientists who question the severity of global warming, never mind the inconvenient facts which increasingly indicate that the effects are less catastrophic  than previously thought, and natural variations more of a factor.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Chuck,

    What I’m saying is that Fox News purposely slants its programming and news coverage in a way that displays an obvious ideological/political bias.

    Jon Stewart got it exactly right when he told Chris Wallace there is no equivalency between  Fox News and the other mainstream broadcast outlets (except MSNBC), much less Comedy Central.

    CNN and ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS aren’t part of some liberal media machine, despite what blowhards like Limbaugh would have his listeners believe. But as Stewart correctly pointed out in that interview, these outlets often play up conflict and scandal to feed the 24-hour newsbeast (PBS is a notable exception, but not always). And the way to do that with issues like climate change that get on the TV radar is to bring on partisan talking heads that will naturally push their own agendas and disagree vehemently with each other.

    It’s the “crossfire” formula that Stewart famously derided years ago.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @chuck
    “inconvenient facts which increasingly indicate that the effects are less catastrophic  than previously thought, and natural variations more of a factor.

    care to provide any evidence to back this claim up? Otherwise it’s hard to take you seriously.

  • Sashka

    The last quote is right on the money. Put in other words, there is no more consensus today than there was 30 years ago.

    CNN and ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS aren’t part of some liberal media machine

    Suppose they are not. They just independently blow into the same pipe. A distinction without a difference, IMHO.

  • Tom Fuller

    Average daily viewership, Fox prime time: 1.83 million / day
    Would you like to compare that to the combined viewership of dedicated channels such as Nature, National Geographic, Discovery, etc.? Can you point to major network shows that regularly feature skeptical voices outside of the 1.83 million served by Glenn Beck?

    This is just a rerun of the famousTobis fallacy. Assert there is a huge problem with media bias. Demand that journalists change. Show no evidence whatsoever. Repeat until general nausea sets in.

    If you are going to make an assertion, provide us with some evidence, please. And don’t do like Marlowe and link to a report on the U.S. election that has one section on opinions on climate change using the same ’97% of scientists agree’ garbage that is usually saved for late night television advertisements of anti-ageing creams. Marlowe, what in that report do you think backs up your opinions on media consumption, balance and bias?

  • Tilo Reber

    Gore’s position is that you can only sell AGW alarmism if only one side of the issue is ever heard.  Gore is an advocate of propaganda to shape the minds of the public.  In the meantime, his extravagant life style, his huge carbon footprint, his dealing in carbon trading, the 100,000 dollar talks he gives and his exaggerated presentations all serve to undermine what he accuses the media of undermining.

  • Tilo Reber

    Keith: “What I’m saying is that Fox News purposely slants its programming and news coverage in a way that displays an obvious ideological/political bias.”

    Good.  But it hardly balances all of the left wing ideological bias that we get bashed with every day by the rest of the media.  80% of journalists say that they vote Democrat.  One would have to be truely deluded to think that will not effect their reporting.  Maybe a leftist is incapable of recognizing left wing bias when he’s looking right at it.  But conservatives recognize it.  So all the talk of Fox bias simply has the stench of hypocrisy as far as we are concerned.

  • kdk33

    You gotta love the Fox argument: some people disagree with me, and they reason they do so is because other people disagree with me and actually say so; therefore, the way to have less people disagre with me is to not let anyone who disagrees with me actually say so.

    Maybe people disagree because the evidence is fairly abiguous, and warmists aren’t doing themselves any PR favors of late.  And maybe the disagreement falls largely along party lines because many of the solutions are things that left-leaners want anyway and are things that right-leaners want desperately to avoid.

    Oh, heck, that makes way too much sense.  Better to blame it on Fox for tricking all those gullible republicans.  And that Rush guy too.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Tom (10),

    My thinking (in part) on the influence of Fox News is similar to what Nisbet wrote in his climate policy/media paper from a few months ago–that they largely reinforce/harden the views of their viewers.

    But it’s disingenuous of you to point to Fox’s total audience, when their is an echo chamber effect with Talk Radio et al. Also, in terms of media influence, hard numbers aren’t an accurate barometer.

    By influence, I mean setting the daily national media agenda and the political and public conversation that follows from that, in which case a publication’s total number of readers or an outlet’s total viewership are not relevant.  Surely you know that.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith,
    I guess it comes down to a question of significance. While I don’t disagree that there is some reinforcement going on, I also think that the Fox effect is real to the extent that  there are some viewers who would otherwise be agnostic or defer to mainstream scientific opinion if not for the manner in which Fox chooses to cover the issue.  It’s not an either/or thing, but a combination, as Krosnick points out:
     

    “We therefore suspect that the relations documented in Figure 1 are likely to result from a combination of persuasion by Fox News coverage and of selective exposure by Republicans and conservative viewers to Fox News.  Likewise, the relations observed between exposure to non-Fox news and the outcomes measures examined here may be the result of both persuasion and selective exposure”

  • Tilo Reber

    Keith: “My thinking (in part) on the influence of Fox News is similar to what Nisbet wrote in his climate policy/media paper from a few months ago”“that they largely reinforce/harden the views of their viewers.”

    The left wing media hardens and reinforces the views of their viewers and there are far more left wing media sources.  So again, what is your point?

    Keith: “But it’s disingenuous of you to point to Fox’s total audience, when their is an echo chamber effect with Talk Radio et al. ”

    And the left wing media has it’s echo chamber effect with left wing talk radio, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, most of hollywood,  with Daily Kos, with Huffington post, with PBS, with most of the editorials in most of the newspapers, etc.  So again, what is your point?

    If the warmers have the best argument they should be able to win with it.  If they can only win when they are the only ones on the field, then they don’t deserve to win.  This is like going to a ballgame and listening to one team complain because the other team showed up to contest them.  The problem of the warmers isn’t Fox news, it’s that they’ve got nothing.  They keep making these complaints about “thousands of climate scientists”, and “the science”, but in reality, they’ve got nothing.  Warmers are like a poker player betting as though he had a royal flush when really he only has a pair of dueces.  The skeptics are calling the bluff and they are not impressed by the dueces.  This whole thing is so utterly dumb.  The complaint is that Fox is preventing the left from stampeding the public into economically and socially destructive actions by exposing the failings in AGW theory and by exposing the real motives of the warmers.  Good for Fox.  I doubt that they are doing as much as you think, but for whatever they are doing, I thank them.

  • Chuck Kaplan

    #8

    My continuing concerns are warming in the high latitudes and reduced alkanization of the oceans (Acidification of the oceans is nonsense).

    Temperatures have not risen for 13, going on 14, years. The temperature trends are outside the 2 sigma range for the model consensus. Scientists used to think GW was linked to more hurricanes, now acknowledge cannot say.  There are more indications that ocean circulation has a bigger role, and the recent suggestion that solar may have more of a role(unproven but possible).

    More scientists are coming out with uncertainties in many parts of AGW (not the radiative).

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @17
    I asked for evidence and you spout off yet more ridiculous unsubstantiated claims.  Care to try again?

    Keith if #16 was an anti-vaxxer how would you respond :) ?

  • Chuck Kaplan

    #7,8

    And one more thing before back to work, nobody usually mentions the poweful influence of most public schools to propangandize. My daughter came home last year telling me Boston was soon to be under water unless Cap and Trade passed.

    Never mind that the rate of increase in sea level has slowed to a rate less than a foot a century.

  • Dean

    @6 and @11

    Different channels or networks do not counteract each other because many people only watch one of them.

    Nor does Fox need an absolute majority. Motivated minorities can and often have driven politics. Such political minorities gave us Prohibition and there are many other examples. And it is much easier to block action that it is to make it happen. Environmental minorities also have blocked actions that a majority would support on occasion. In fact, extremely tiny minorities can drive policy if they are concentrated in swing states.

    I do not think that a sudden change at Fox would magically create solutions or policies. But it might move the discussion to a better and more productive place in the US. But that still leaves the question of China and India . . .

  • EdG

    Sorry Keith, but as I commented yesterday, the proof that Gore’s claim of anti-AGW bias in the MSM is ludicrous is everywhere, everyday.

    The reason more people doubt Gore’s tales (and all that) seems much more simple: hysterical wolf crying with no wolf – at worst a dog. And when Humpty IPCC fell of the wall in Climategate, that was the tipping point.

    Or does the Supreme Court all watch Glenn Beck?

    “The justices of the United States Supreme Court this week became the world’s most august global warming sceptics… in their surprising commentary. Global warming is by no means a settled issue, they made clear, suggesting it would be foolhardy to assume it was.
    “The court, we caution, endorses no particular view of the complicated issues related to carbon-dioxide emissions and climate change,” reads the 8-0 decision…”

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/06/24/the-supremes-recommend-the-supreme-skeptic/#more-42189

    In in the meantime, the IPCC stumbles on accepting ‘grey literature,’ reports from Greenpeace, and conflict of interest; the gang shoots itself again with a particularly laughable new sea level scare story (with Mann even!); there’s no sign that any of the ‘debate is over’ predictions are happening; the latest AGW revival meeting in Bonn was a flop; and now even some EU types are rolling their eyes.

    Poor Gore. He really ought to go someplace quiet and get over this.

  • EdG

    On this topic, just found this. Dellingpole has such a way with words.

    “They think the main reasons for the public’s growing scepticism on Climate Change are 1. The media has been far too balanced on the subject and is not pushing the eco-message hard enough. 2. Big business is funding Climate Denialism. 3. Evil Conservatives ““ led by Evil Talk Show Hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck ““ are deliberately telling lies about Climate Change. 4. The Republican party is “anti-science”.”

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100093577/the-science-is-settled-us-liberals-really-are-the-dumbest-creatures-on-the-planet/

  • Barry Woods

    What about Gore linking extreme weather events to clkimate change (man made ) in the Rollingstone article.. No journalistic comments/fact checking about the accuracy of his statements. ?!Even Sceptoid, I Global Warming Sceptic, said to stop linking extreme weather to climate change

    Gore: Drought. Historic drought and fires in Russia killed an estimated 56,000 people and caused wheat and other food crops in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to be removed from the global market, contributing to a record spike in food prices. “Practically everything is burning,” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared. “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us.”
    Let us look at what a USA scientific institution said (peer reviewed) about the Russian Heatwave, many months later actually doing some science and looking at the evidence (Please note, NOAA can by no means be described as sceptical to AGW, quite the contrary. – and they do put lots of spin on it, they almost sound disappointed that they couldn’t link it))

    NOAA: Natural Variability Main Culprit of Deadly Russian Heat Wave That Killed Thousands

    http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20110309_russianheatwave.html

    The heat wave was due primarily to a natural phenomenon called an atmospheric “blocking pattern”, in which a strong high pressure system developed and remained stationary over western Russian, keeping summer storms and cool air from sweeping through the region and leading to the extreme hot and dry conditions. While the blocking pattern associated with the 2010 event was unusually intense and persistent, its major features were similar to atmospheric patterns associated with prior extreme heat wave events in the region since 1880, the researchers found.
     

    Note Al Gore links the event specificall to climate change (man made?) whereas NOAA say not… Of course you might argue that this might happen more in the future..
    BUT, this is NOT why Al Gore is saying, and he is an alarmist

    NOAA: The deadly Russian heat wave of 2010 was due to a natural atmospheric phenomenon often associated with weather extremes, according to a new NOAA study. And while the scientists could not attribute the intensity of this particular heat wave to climate change, they found that extreme heat waves are likely to become increasingly frequent in the region in coming decades.
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/03/09/noaa-findsclimate-change-blameless-in-2010-russian-heat-wave/

  • Jeff Norris

    Keith
    The bias I see in the other mediums is more passive.  It is shown in their story selection and presentation.  Reports that overtly or by association put climate change theory or policy in a positive light are more prevalent IMO.  For example this article we discussed in May.
     http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2011/05/25/the-disconnect-on-global-warming/
    I t would be interesting if Pew would conduct research on my claim similar to how they review political stories and candidates during an election year.  I think there is amble evidence that the other large mediums: Newspapers and Broadcast News do have a subtle liberal political bias in the way they select and present news and opinions.

  • Tom Fuller

    Keith, I don’t want to be disingenuous. But point me to a talk radio show that is ‘all climate skepticism only climate skepticism 24 hours a day.’ Doesn’t exist. Rush and the gang talk about a host of issues to the 17% of the country that is committed, and climate stuff comes up once in a while.

    And they say really stupid and wrong things. But so does the other side with 1,000 x frequency and reach. They publish these stats, dammit–why doesn’t anybody bring them into the discussion?

  • Tilo Reber

    Dean: “Different channels or networks do not counteract each other because many people only watch one of them.”

    Regardless – the opportunity for exposure to AGW propaganda is far greater in the media that it is to skeptical stuff.  Like I said, people not only get it from the news, they get it from Hollywood, from schools and from every type of editorial journalism.  They even get it from some of the weather channels.

    Dean: “Motivated minorities can and often have driven politics.”

    Nope, conservatives mostly just vote.  The left has most of the activists that try to excert influence beyond their numbers.  It is the left that have all these people who can only find meaning in the lives by pretending they are saving the world.  Look at the pictures coming from the IPCC meetings.  There is shot after shot of eco warriors and socialist “climate justice” types.

    I just shake my head at all the whigning from the left and the warmers about not having exclusive access to the minds of the public.  They don’t believe in freedom of speech and they are just fascists at heart. 

  • Jeff Norris

    Keith
    I think Mr. Gore wants to return to the good old days prior to Climategate.
                    Frequency     Percent
    Convinced        578         72.7%
    Skeptical          155        19.5%
    U.S. newspaper editorials in the Lexis-Nexis database from September 2007 to September 2009
    Talking Past Each Other? Andrew Hoffman

  • Jack Hughes

    “hard numbers aren’t an accurate barometer”

    Spoken like a true climate scientist :-)

    Just need to repeat “worse than we thought” and you get a Bachelor’s degree.

  • Tilo Reber

    Jack: “Just need to repeat “worse than we thought” and you get a Bachelor’s degree.”

    “Further research is required”  = MS

    Publish upside down proxy series = Phd

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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