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September 6, 2004

Top U.S. newspapers’ focus on balance skewed coverage of global warming, analysis reveals

By Jennifer McNulty

Reporters and editors at four of the nation’s top newspapers adhered to the journalistic norm of balance at the expense of accurately reporting scientific understanding of the human contributions to global warming, according to an analysis that appears in the current issue of the journal Global Environmental Change.

Maxwell T. Boykoff says the coverage of global warming findings has contributed to public confusion.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

The new study, “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press,” examined coverage of human contributions to global warming in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal from 1988 to 2002 to assess how scientific findings were conveyed to readers.

“By giving equal time to opposing views, these newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming,” said researcher Maxwell T. Boykoff, a UCSC doctoral candidate in environmental studies, who coauthored the paper with his brother, Jules M. Boykoff, a visiting assistant professor of politics at Whitman College.

“We respect the need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served,” added Boykoff. “In this case, it contributed to public confusion and opened the door to political maneuvering.”

In a thorough analysis of 636 articles, the Boykoffs found that:

• 52.7 percent gave “roughly equal attention” to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.

• 35.3 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which the Boykoffs said more accurately reflected scientific thinking about global warming.

• 6.2 percent emphasized the dubious nature of the claim that anthropogenic global warming exists.

• 5.8 percent contained exclusive coverage of human contributions to Earth’s temperature increases.

Although some media analysts assert that coverage improved as scientific understanding grew, the study suggests otherwise. Recognizing the challenges of characterizing the views of the scientific community on a controversial topic, the Boykoffs focused on the findings of groups such as the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was created in 1988. The scientific community reached general consensus by late 1990 that immediate action should be taken to combat global warming, yet media coverage lagged through 2001, according to the Boykoffs.

The researchers chose 1988 as the beginning of the sample period because events that year sensitized the public to the idea of global warming: NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the U.S. Congress about the presence of anthropogenic global warming and the immediate need for action; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned in a speech that with global warming, “we may have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself”; and a major heat wave and drought hit North America.

In compiling their sample, the researchers focused on news stories. Of 3,543 articles, approximately 41 percent came 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. The Boykoffs randomly selected 636 articles, representing 18.4 percent of the total, then analyzed the content on two subjects: anthropogenic global warming, and what should be done about global warming; they then rated articles according to the dominant themes of each one.

“We were not exploring ideological bias in the news media--whether reporters are liberal or conservative,” said Boykoff. “We looked at how the journalistic norm of presenting competing points of view contributed to informational bias and the disconnect between scientific findings and public understanding.”

The researchers also documented trends in coverage, attributing one shift--from a focus on anthropogenic contributions in 1988-1990 to “balanced” accounts--to the “increasingly complex politicization of the global warming issue” and the “well-publicized research efforts of skeptics.”

They also note the role of concerted “disinformation” campaigns funded by carbon-based industries that catered to journalists’ need to represent opposing viewpoints. One proposal, leaked to the press, advocated recruiting a “cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify.” With a $600,000 media-relations budget, the campaign was designed to target science writers, editors, columnists, and television reporters with the explicit goal of undercutting prevailing scientific wisdom in the press, according to the Boykoffs.

The Boykoffs found that in 1989 and 1990, government officials, armed with the assertions of skeptics, surpassed scientists as the most cited source in prestige-press articles. Calling for more research as a precursor to taking mandatory action, these politicians contributed to coverage that indicated an even split within the scientific community, at a time of general agreement among scientists about the existence of anthropogenic influences on global warming.

Boykoff reports that coverage of “what to do about global warming” reflects a similar balance-as-bias gulf, with 78 percent of articles from 1988 through 2002 featuring “balanced” coverage of courses of action that ranged from cautious to urgent and from voluntary to mandatory, even as pleas from scientists became more urgent. In 1990, more than 700 scientists at the World Climate Conference urged countries to “take immediate actions to control the risks of climate change,” and an agenda of mandatory action came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

“In light of general agreement in the international scientific community that mandatory and immediate action is needed, coverage has been seriously and systematically deficient,” said Boykoff. “In effect, the press has provided ‘balanced’ coverage of a very unbalanced issue.”

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