Current Climate: case studies of US media climate coverage ~ self-censorship and denial

After many years of scientific consensus on the reality and critical nature of anthropogenic climate change, there has of late been some improvement in the manner and extent of US press coverage on this issue. Surely, better news reporting has had some role in the documented growth of awareness of climate change by the US citizenry. But US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue to rise even as the level of CO2 in our atmosphere has reached its highest level in human history. In the words of NASA climate expert James Hansen (2008), there is “a wide gap … between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public.”

A national survey by the Pew Research Center (2007) indicated that global warming is only a top-tier priority for a minority of US adults and only 47% believe that humans bear most of the blame for climate change. A more recent Gallup poll (2008) found that although there is growing attention to climate change, there hasn’t been a consistent increase in the amount of “worry” about it in the US since Gallup began asking back in 1989. Although polls show that a majority of US residents would support climate mitigation policies (Pew, 2007), these findings help explain why some US voters continue to elect political representatives that fight measures to address this crisis.

Research shows that when a topic is granted a substantial amount of media coverage, that issue increases in priority with the public. Trumbo (1996) found that in the past, the US population became less concerned about global warming as news coverage declined. Good news reporting increases the chances for related political action, but sub-par coverage disempowers society by preventing full knowledge of what is happening in the world. Despite some recent enhancement of media reports, quite often, lines of mass communication are still constructed with rhetoric emphasizing uncertainty, controversy, and climate skepticism.

Scholars in the field of communications explain that media outlets produce a marketable daily product of news, packaged to be pleasing to advertisers and which at least appears to be informative. These (mostly) for-profit companies set the agenda as to the amount of importance we attach to an issue and even what we think and talk about. But agenda-setting also includes downplaying or keeping an issue out of the public spotlight. A study by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV)[1] counted how often the topic of climate change was raised on major Sunday morning political TV programs while interviewing presidential candidates during 2007. Out of well over 2,000 questions asked, only three mentioned global warming. Three programs, NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week, and CBS’s Face the Nation completely ignored global warming in questioning candidates that year.

Of course, the US political impasse on climate change cannot be blamed entirely on the mainstream press, but this sector has a special role in society. The “code of ethics” of the US Society of Professional Journalists[2] states that members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy [and that] [t]he duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” Journalists, according to this code, should “[t]est the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” “be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know” and “[d]eny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.” It would seem that adherence to this code might be increasingly jeopardized as the US commercial media system continues on a path towards greater conglomeration where profits are a priority, staff cuts are common, and journalists are more regularly left to rely upon a shared pool of sources in building a story, rather than their own investigation.

What is more difficult to quantify, although it is a genuine problem in the US, is how often the issue of climate change is relevant to a story, be it about energy, loss of species, dwindling water resources, weather, etc., but global warming is glaringly omitted from the piece. Also often excluded from US press reports is the contextual fact that there are increasing numbers of extreme weather events around the world. While such meteorological phenomena may not be, on an individual basis, blamed directly on climate change, the scientific community has for many years indicated that this is what we can expect in a warming world.

Because the mass media are so influential and central to a functioning society, their selection of stories to report upon, or “news judgment” leads to pressure from all directions—including persuasion to change or omit stories. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and Columbia Journalism Review (2000) of US news reporters, editors, and executives indicated that self-censorship is prolific and that some stories are ignored because they conflict with the interests of news organizations or their advertisers. Research has shown that self-censorship serves many functions including dropping stories that might bring about unwanted tension and criticism. Avoiding stories which might lead to such repercussions without official directives is one definition of self-censorship.

Recent work has focused upon the role of self-censorship in climate news coverage. Scientific research has established a new paradigm of an abruptly changing climatic system, but as pointed out by the US National Academies’ National Research Council (2002), this predicament has not been well understood or appreciated outside the climate science community. Climate tipping points or positive feedback mechanisms[3] are a robust area of research and yet remain an unfamiliar concept in the US. In comparing two years (2006-2007) of media coverage on the topic of climate tipping points by US news outlets to that of English-speaking news agencies worldwide (Antilla, 2008), self-censorship in the US was apparent as journalists outside the US, especially in the UK, reported on climate feedback loops substantially more than their US counterparts. Even more surprising was that during the year 2006, nearly one-half of the small number of US pieces that discussed such tipping points were commentaries by syndicated opinion writers.

The opposition

We have preciously few representatives in Congress with a background or interest in science, and some of them display an active contempt for the subject. As long as we continue to elect scientific illiterates like Senator James Inhofe, who believes global warming to be a hoax, we will lack the ability to engage in intelligent debate.
Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of meteorology (2007: 67)

Rather than attempt to publish in peer-reviewed journals, the very few climate deniers with any scientific background choose to make their voices heard via mainstream media. The following statement was made to this author in 2006 by an editor of a US nationally read newspaper. This helps to articulate the landscape of the US press corps when it comes to contrarian voices:

Until the day comes when there’s no disagreement anywhere on the nature, extent, and causes of global warming, and on the possible policy responses to it, we think it’s our obligation to search out the disagreements that do exist, understand them, and report on them as appropriate in each story.… We disagree that it is never appropriate to have non-scientists or advocates comment on or respond to scientific findings. [T]hat smacks of giving science a sort of priesthood status that no human endeavor deserves. It would also open us to the charge of censoring dissenting views.

Some climate skeptics hold high profile media positions while others find little resistance from the US press in dispersing their messages while being assisted by PR agencies that have long been promoting conservatives as guests or news sources. Conservative media personalities with skeptical leanings towards climate change, such as George Will (one of the nation’s most widely recognized and read commentators), Rush Limbaugh (the nation’s top talk radio persona), Ann Coulter (nationally syndicated columnist and frequent TV guest), and Glenn Beck (nationally syndicated radio personality and Fox News talk show host) have great influence over their enormous audiences.

The progressive group “MediaMatters for America” monitors and reports on conservative misinformation in the press (www.mediamatters.org). In 2007, this group found that after Glenn Beck began his former CNN program in May 2006, he had hosted guests that challenged the science of climate change at least 17 times and on only two occasions interviewed guests who accept the consensus.[4] George Will also frequently downplays the reality of climate change, concern for which he has dismissed as manufactured hysteria.

The following headlines from opinion pieces published in the national press demonstrate the continued strength of this contingent:

· “Global warming? Hot air.” George Will, Washington Post, 12/23/04
· “The theology of global warming.” James Schlesinger, Wall Street Journal, 8/8/05
· “Kyoto’s big con.” Editorial Staff, Wall Street Journal, 1/19/06
· “Climate theology and its exponents.” Editorial Staff, Washington Times, 4/3/06
· “Spinning global warming.” Robert D. Novak, Washington Post, 4/3/06
· “The greenhouse myth.” Steven Milloy, FoxNews.com, 4/20/06
· “There is no ‘consensus’ on global warming.” Richard Lindzen, Wall Street Journal, 6/26/06
· “Stern review: the dodgy numbers behind the latest warming scare.” Bjorn Lomborg, Wall Street Journal, 11/2/06
· “Be not afraid: global warming delusions; the popular imagination has been captured by beliefs that have little scientific basis.” Daniel B. Botkin, Wall Street Journal, 10/21/07
· “Dark Green Doomsayers.” George Will, Washington Post, 2/15/09

The print press may be the most studied venue exploited by climate deniers, but TV punditry, talk radio, magazines, journals, and the blogosphere have also been highly accessible to these individuals. In fact, traditional radio, still one of the most widely utilized media formats, is a bastion for climate skeptics. An analysis in 2007 of 257 news/talk radio stations held by top commercial station owners revealed that 91% of the total weekday talk programming was conservative[5]. Rush Limbaugh regularly rants on climate change:

I don’t believe the emissions warm the planet in the first place. I don’t buy any of it. But your kids are being sold this bill of goods, folks. They are eating it up. Keep a sharp eye on them. They might soon qualify for Climate Change Delusion Syndrome.
9 July, 2008.

Climate case studies
A. Melting ArcticThe following is an analysis of media coverage of recent scientific findings relating to a climate positive feedback loop—melting Arctic ice. This provides an opportunity to compare multiple press stories (inside/outside the US) covering the same scientific study. Researchers Holland, Bitz, and Tremblay authored “Future abrupt reductions in the summer Arctic sea ice,” published (12/12/06) in Geophysical Research Letters,[6] and stated in their introduction:

[C]hanges have led to the suggestion that a 'tipping point' may have been reached in which strong positive feedbacks accelerate ice retreat and result in an era of thinner, less extensive ice cover in the Arctic [Lindsay and Zhang, 2005[7]].

Evidence is mounting that the observed changes are associated with anthropogenically driven climate change and climate models predict Arctic change to continue into the foreseeable future. The transition from perennial to seasonal Arctic ice cover has numerous implications for the climate system.

An essay posted at RealClimate.org (1/12/07) by co-author Bitz listed some of the news outlets that reported on this study. By conducting further research, additional coverage was identified and here seven stories are compared: Reuters (12/11/06), the Times (UK, 12/11/06), CBC News (Canada, 12/11/06), Fox News.com (12/11/06), the New York Times (12/12/06), the Independent (UK, 12/12/06), and BBC News (12/12/06).

All of the above outlets—except the New York Times—included the concept of positive feedback mechanisms. The BBC, the Times, and FoxNews.com included the following quote from Holland:

As the ice retreats, the ocean transports more heat to the Arctic and the open water absorbs more sunlight, further accelerating the rate of warming and leading to the loss of more ice. This is a positive feedback loop with dramatic implications for the entire Arctic region.

The story frame constructed by the New York Times which excluded the concept of climate tipping points—a major component of the science—left this audience with an incomplete understanding of the implications of the melting Arctic. This reinforces the findings of the above mentioned research on news coverage of positive feedback mechanisms (Antilla, 2008), in that generally speaking, the US press has been censoring itself on this particular aspect of our climate system—even though improved understanding of climate feedback loops is imperative when it comes to effective climate mitigation.

B. Skeptic Convention
By comparing the story frames of two US nationally read newspapers (the New York Times and Washington Post) with one popular UK newspaper (the Independent) in coverage of the same climate-related event, we gain insight into cross-Atlantic media cultures. Members of the climate countermovement held a conference in New York in March of 2008 (another is set for March 2009). The Post and the Times provided substantial coverage, together publishing 1,591 words on this event. The headline used by the Post, “Global warming skeptics insist humans not at fault,” must have greatly pleased the conference organizers.

While both the Post and the Times provided some context as to the relatively miniscule size of this group, the skeptic message was strongly highlighted. The Post (3/4/08) gave a great deal of space to the contrarians including “high-profile” skeptic S. Fred Singer, who told this paper, “his group surveyed the same peer-reviewed studies the IPCC did” but anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are “not a cause for concern, at least not yet.” The president of the Heartland Institute (a “free-market think tank funded by energy and health care corporations”) told the Post, he believes skeptics “are now on the verge of overturning the idea that humans are driving climate change … [and] we’re at a tipping point that’s going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Also on 3/4/08, the New York Times ran “Cool view of science at meeting on warming” and quoted well known skeptic Patrick Michaels (“a climatologist with a paid position at the antiregulatory Cato Institute”) who “says humans are warming the climate … but disputes the value of cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases.” Singer’s message was also driven home by the Times, “climate change was mainly driven by vagaries in the sun” and the science points to “natural causes and a moderate warming trend with beneficial effects for humanity and wildlife.” While the spectacle of this convention may be news, these national press outlets provided highly influential venues for climate disinformation.

In juxtaposition, London’s Independent published a 192 word article, “Tobacco and oil pay for climate conference,” which included no quotations from, nor explanations of positions held by, organizers or attendees. Instead, the Independent’s article stated:

The first international conference designed to question the scientific consensus on climate change is being sponsored by a right-wing American think tank [Heartland Institute - -Competitive Enterprise Institute was named as one of the co-sponsors] which receives money from the oil industry. The same group has tried to undermine the link between passive smoking and health problems and has accepted donations from a major tobacco company.

The frame of the Independent’s story sits in sharp contrast to the balanced approach employed by the Post and the Times. Here US audiences were once again left with mixed messages as to the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Media criticism and solutions

My general impression is that the coverage of climate change over the last 15 or 20 years will be seen in the future as the single greatest failing of American professional journalism ….
Bill Blakemore, ABC News reporter, May 2008. Panel on covering climate change, Columbia Journalism Review

The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by George Bush Sr. in 1992 and as of this writing, we still have no substantive national climate policy in the US—this is clear evidence that efforts to maintain the status quo (including excessive consumption) have been highly successful. This predicament would not be possible without the complicity of mainstream media organizations.

In order for US voters to elect a greater number of leaders that are willing to tackle global warming, the public must be better informed. Climate change must be a major and recurrent story in the news. Depth, breadth, accuracy, and consistency are required. But it is important to note that the power of the US press is formidable; when news agencies cover an issue consistently, the public reacts by changing policies and passing laws (Gelbspan, 2004). Media stories that provide context and frame climate change as real and urgent as well as a tremendous challenge to be met by all of us, significantly enhance public understanding.

Concern for improved communication between climate scientists and the press has led to increased cross-discipline dialogue on this topic as well as a new area of academic study. Also on a positive note, there has been, for some time now, a number of organizations (academic and non-academic) critiquing the US mainstream media and/or working towards national media reform.[9] In addition, new venues have opened up for communication on climate science, such as the award-winning blog managed by a panel of international climate experts, RealClimate.org.

The Washington Post recently published a story that made the rare connection between “human-generated heat-trapping gases” and the intensity of extreme weather. “Report on climate predicts extremes” (6/20/08) covered a study issued by the US Climate Change Science Program which provided an assessment of how global warming has “helped to transform the climate of the United States and Canada over the past 50 years—and how it may do so in the future.” Hopefully, this type of coverage will increase and survive the minefield of environmental skepticism.

Antilla, L. (2008) “Self-censorship and science: a geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points,” Public Understanding of Science OnLineFirst 9/16/08 doi:10.1177/0963662508094099.

Emanuel, K. (2007) What We Know about Climate Change. Cambridge, MA: Boston Review.

Gallup, Inc. (2008) “Little increase in Americans’ global warming worries: public just can’t seem to get worked up about it.”

Gelbspan, R. (2004) Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists have Fueled the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. New York: Basic Books.

Hansen, J. (2008) “Global warming twenty years later: tipping points near.” Congressional Testimony.

National Academies’ National Research Council (2002) Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, http://www.nap.edu/books/0309074347/html.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [in Association with Columbia Journalism Review] (2000) “Self censorship: how often and why: journalists avoiding the news,” http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=39.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (2007) “Global warming: a divide on causes and solutions: public views unchanged by unusual weather.” www.pewresearch.org/pubs/282/global-warming-a-divide-on-causes-and-solutions.

Trumbo, C. (1996) “Constructing climate change: claims and frames in US news coverage of an environmental issue,” Public Understanding of Science 5: 269-83.

[1] www.democracynow.org/2008/1/10/study_of_over_2_000_sunday
[2] www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
[3] Climate system responses to climate change which lead to additional/enhanced changes.
[4] http://mediamatters.org/items/200705020001
[5] ‘The structural imbalance of political talk radio’ (joint report by the Center for American Progress and Free Speech, 22 June 2007)
[6] 33:L23503, doi:10.1029/2006GL028024
[7] Lindsay, R.W. and Zhang, J. (2005) ‘The thinning of Arctic sea ice, 1988-2003: have we passed a tipping point?’, Journal of Climate 18: 4879-94.
[8] www.cjr.org/the_observatory/covering_climate_panel_video.php
[9] www.MediaMatters.org, www.FreePress.net, www.FAIR.org, and www.ReclaimTheMedia.org.

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MA: King's College London; BA: University of Washington; Association of American Geographers; International Environmental Communication Association; PUBLISHED WORK Antilla, L. (2010) “Self-censorship and science: a geographical review of media coverage of climate tipping points,” Public Understanding of Science 19(2): 240-256; Antilla, L. (2005) “Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change,” Global Environmental Change 15(4): 338-52