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 nations 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
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 Earths 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
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 industrys
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
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