A new study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests that sceptical views on climate change are only published because of the power of lobbying groups and political bias. But perhaps there is also bias in the opposite direction.
Green is good
At least, that’s the general assumption among the chattering classes and across much of the media. Companies compete to demonstrate their eco-credentials via reduced waste or recycled packaging (both worthwhile aims in themselves) and publish sustainability or environmental performance reports. Governments compound the message by increasing green taxes. But this means that everything tends to be looked at through green-tinted glasses, making objective judgement difficult.
A current interesting example of this attitude comes from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, in the form of a new report called Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism
. Only the executive summary is available for free download, but this is quite enough to provide food for thought (those wanting to read the complete publication will need to shell out £19.95).
The conclusions as reported are that Brazil, China, France and India have a much lower proportion of stories sceptical of climate change in the media than do the UK and USA. In these two countries, there were both more sceptical articles and the proportion increased substantially following the ‘Climategate’ revelations in the leaked University of East Anglia emails. The author, James Painter, looked at newspapers reflecting both left-of-centre and right-of-centre editorial lines in all six countries, and additionally reviewed all ten UK national newspapers.
He found that sceptical views were expressed more often in opinion pieces and editorials than news stories and that politicians were quoted more frequently than climate scientists. There was also a greater airing of sceptical views in the right-of-centre papers (the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and Wall Street Journal) than the left-leaning ones (the Guardian, Observer and New York Times).
To quote from the summary: “For example, in the second period [after Climategate] the Guardian had 11 opinion pieces including sceptical voices, but nine of them were essentially dismissive of sceptical views. In contrast, the Daily/Sunday Telegraph included 24 opinion pieces of which over half expressed an essentially sceptical viewpoint. Likewise, over the two periods, in all the opinion pieces in the NYT containing sceptical voices, the author disputed climate scepticism or rejected it. In contrast, of the 17 opinion pieces found in the WSJ, only one fitted this category.”
The author suggests that the issue has become more politicised in these two countries, implying that journalists and editors should go with the mainstream science as the primary authority (and also that dismissing sceptical views is desirable). He concludes that, as well as influences within newspapers, there are societal forces at work: “... the presence of sceptical political parties, the power of sceptical lobbying groups, the public profile of sceptical scientists, a country’s energy matrix, the presence of web-based scepticism, or even a country’s direct experience of a changing climate.”
The study analyses and tries to separate various types of scepticism; the summary lists “...from those who are sceptical that the world is warming, to those who are sceptical about the influence of humans on warming, to those who are sceptical about the pace and extent of its impacts, to those who are sceptical about whether urgent action and government spending are necessary to combat it.”
Putting to one side whether it is sensible to lump together people who don’t believe in warming with those who think that it’s real and largely manmade but that emissions reduction policies are not the way forward, there is an underlying assumption that the IPCC should be implicitly believed and that any influences which question the received wisdom are undesirable. A similar thread ran through the same author’s study of reporting at the seminal (but abortive) Copenhagen climate change talks in 2009 (Summoned by Science: reporting climate change at Copenhagen and beyond), which essentially proposed ways to make communication about the mainstream view of climate change more effective.
Many people – scientists and others – question the degree of certainty expressed officially about the causes, effects and prescriptions for global warming, but studies like this suggest that they should be ignored or dismissed. Similarly, the BBC now generally sees no need to provide any balancing criticisms in reporting climate change: mainstream science is regarded as essentially unquestionable. It is this attitude, as much as the interpretation of the evidence itself, which continues to motivate many of the dissenters who might broadly be classified as sceptics.
Another interesting aspect is the background of the people doing the reporting and writing studies such as Poles Apart. We know that there are rather few journalists with a science background, and most of those are science rather than environment reporters (most climate change stories are written by environmental correspondents). James Painter, formerly with the BBC, lists no science qualifications. Neither do any of his colleagues at the Reuters Institute; humanities and language degrees are typical qualifications prior to a career in the media. And, although I haven’t looked at all the individual bios, none of the Institute Steering Committee or Advisory Board members appears to have any science qualification. All are essentially academics or media specialists (I’m open to corrections if I’m wrong).
The danger of this is that most non-scientists will assume that the official line on scientific issues is right: why should they do otherwise? Even if they have doubts, they may not understand the arguments either supporting or criticising the science.
So there you have it. The green tint of the glasses gets deeper, and the pro-environmental bias becomes more entrenched.
What is badly needed is a greater number of scientifically-literate journalists, who are prepared to sift through the evidence and reach their own conclusions. Many will doubtless come to the same conclusion as the current generation of reporters, but others may take a more nuanced view. And that can only be good for supporting a properly-informed public and political debate. Policies to tackle climate change will have an enormous impact on the economy, society and our daily lives. The press must play its role in properly informing the debate, rather than blindly following the party line.
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