Almost 99% of scientists agree climate change is real and caused by human action. Nevertheless, media in the United States is giving more press coverage to organizations that take a stand against climate action than to those who want to tackle the issue, a new study showed.
Brown University researcher Rachel Wetts looked at almost three decades of national news articles and press released related to climate change. She found that 14% of the press releases that opposed climate action or rejected climate science got major national news coverage, compared to 7% of those that had a pro-climate stand. This produces a distorted image for the population, as people are artificially fed more information about climate denial.
This phenomenon is not without consequences. The findings help explain why Americans are generally less worried about the climate emergency than citizens from other Western countries, according to Wetts, and why policymaking in the US related to climate change has stalled. Even President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement has not stirred as much vitriol as expected.
“When you ask Americans what issues they care about most, climate change and the environment are always far down on the list,” Wetts said in a press release. “The way climate change has been covered in the media could help us understand why there’s so much public disengagement on this issue.”
Wetts wanted to find out to what extent the coverage of mainstream media can influence national views on climate change. She assessed and categorized press releases from diverse organizations such as businesses and advocacy groups published between 1985 and 2013 in order to see whether they supported climate action or not. To do so, she worked with a plagiarism-detection software to scan the content of climate change articles published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, the three largest newspapers in circulation in the US, so to establish how many of the press released had received coverage.
Even as only 10% of the press releases featured anti-climate action messages, they were twice as likely to get coverage compared to pro-climate action ones, according to Wetts. The researcher also found that the press releases from big businesses had more chances to get news coverage, as well as statements from groups representing business interests, adding another bias into the mix.
The study showed that about 16% of releases issued by business coalitions and trade associations got coverage, compared to about 9% from other types of organizations.
Meanwhile, science and technology organizations were among the least likely to get their views published in media outlets, with less than 3% of their releases getting coverage.
“The views of large businesses and opponents of climate action are being given an outsize opportunity to sway this debate,” Wetts said. “You’d think, if anything, businesses with greater scientific expertise would receive more newspaper coverage,” she said. “But I found the opposite to be true.”
The results support the popular opinion that mainstream news organizations mislead readers by giving the same importance to two sides of an argument, despite one side lacks scientific evidence. By doing so, they are altering public perception and influence the actions of political leaders on climate change, Wetts argued. This phenomenon is called “false balance”, because it creates the impression of a balance between two opposing sides (ie a climate scientists and a climate denier), when in fact there is a virtual consensus on the science.
“Journalists seem to feel that they always have to include opposing voices when they report on climate change,” Wetts said. “But sometimes they give those opposing voices so much weight, they lead readers to believe that climate denial is more than a fringe stance.”
A survey last year showed there are still big misperceptions about climate change and the ecological crisis among United States citizens. Nevertheless, more Americans than ever are worried about the climate crisis. Up to 60% of the US public rejected the claim by President Donald Trump of climate change being an “expensive hoax” — which, while encouraging, still leaves a big chunk of the US population that believes in this conspiracy theory.