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America's Media Loves Global Warming Skeptics

f you are among the group of people in America that “get” science, you probably share in the general frustration that global warming here masquerades as a “controversy” or unsettled issue — in which there are good, supported arguments on both sides...
October 5, 2012, 10:09pm

If you are among the group of people in America that “get” science, you probably share in the general frustration that global warming here masquerades as a “controversy” or unsettled issue — in which there are good, supported arguments on both sides — rather than the scientific fact that it actually is. If I had to guess, I’d say that, within mainstream media, the proportion of news relating to global warming skepticism versus global warming information/news is, oh, about 40/60. (That proportion is radically different at News Corp.)

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So, climate change skepticism gets undue attention in the US media, but is it just the US? A new study out today in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggests that the answer is a qualified “yes,” with the UK a not-too-distant second in the race to give bad science a pulpit.

The study is a bit limited, but still worth mentioning. The researchers only looked at five countries in addition to the USA: Brazil, China, France, India, and the UK. They then picked (only) two newspapers from each country representing left and right-wing perspectives. In the US, that was The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, while in the UK, it was the Guardian/Observer and the Daily/Sunday Telegraph. The criteria for including skeptical views is as follows: " … direct and indirect quotes of individual sceptics, short mentions of them, generic quotes (such as ‘sceptics say…’), opinion pieces authored by sceptics, and opinion pieces or editorials quoting or mentioning them."

Of the 2064 articles examined from November 2009 to February 2010 — the period including “Climategate” — 240 articles, or 12 percent, contained skeptical viewpoints. The graph below shows articles with skeptical viewpoints as a percentage of total articles on global warming by nation.

Almost a full third of global warming articles in the US contain a viewpoint skeptical of established science, which is a bit embarrassing, but, even moreso, totally unsurprising. The Wall Street Journal fared a lot worse than The New York Times, obviously: the vast majority of skepticism presented by the paper went uncontested. Again, that’s not especially surprising. One thing that is surprising is that, overall, left-leaning newspapers in the sample gave just slightly more attention to skeptics than right-leaning (by one article, which is actually meaningless, statistically speaking), though those newspapers were more like to provide rebuttals to those skeptics.

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From the paper:

The difference in the USA is particularly marked. The NYT ran 14 opinion pieces which included sceptical voices, all of which were contested. In contrast, the WSJ ran 17 opinion pieces, all but one of which was left uncontested. Seven of these were written by regular columnists at the paper. A similar picture can be found in the editorials of the two papers, where all of the NYT’s editorials which included sceptical voices were dismissive of sceptical arguments, whereas in all but one of the WSJ’s such voices were uncontested15. In conclusion, we can say that from our sample, there is little evidence for much difference in the percentage of articles containing sceptical voices between left-leaning and right-leaning or centrist newspapers in Brazil, France and India. However, in the USA and the UK, where sceptical voices generally appear in much higher numbers, the differences are more marked. The strongest evidence for a distinction between left-leaning and right-leaning newspapers can be found in the opinion pages in France, the UK and the USA, where right-leaning newspapers are much more likely to include uncontested sceptical voices.

The study also includes a separate section looking at the taxonomy of global warming skepticism, breaking down between those that deny it altogether, deny that it’s human-caused, or deny that action is needed to prevent global warming or to mitigate its effects. Of the six countries, the US was the only one with a significant number of skeptics falling into the first category, e.g. that outright denied global warming is real in any form. With the exception of a few articles in the UK, the rest of the world seems willing to accept that, at the very least, the planet is heating up.

Finally, we get to the eventual Why? A suggestion in the paper is the global warming skeptics are more organized in the US. So, with numbers and volume, the US media gets cowed into giving the movement a pulpit. Of course, it’s also a chicken-and-egg argument because in giving up that pulpit to bad science acolytes, it helps build the movement. So you wind up with a feedback loop of sorts, with the skeptic crowd getting louder and larger. Is the media obligated to forcefully break the cycle by silencing skeptics? Not really. After all, a presidential candidate ranks among global warming skeptics, even if that’s a rather soft skepticism.

So it’s not about silencing skeptics, but in providing rebuttals to wrong information. Any asshole can have an opinion about facts, but facts are still facts and science is still science. So it’s not even about providing a “balanced argument.” There isn’t an argument about global warming within the scientific community. There really isn’t. The media’s responsibility is to treat misinformation as misinformation. Being newsworthy doesn’t mean being correct.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.