Review of climate change coverage finds that US media publishes far more voices questioning or flat-out denying the fact of global warming than its counterparts around the world.
A new study analysing climate change coverage in six countries - China, the US, the UK, France, India and Brazil - finds that US media publishes far more voices questioning or flat-out denying the fact of global warming than its counterparts around the world. These contrarian voices are rare in the Chinese press, the study's authors found - but so are any stories about climate change.
The authors - a pair of researchers from Oxford University and the University of London - looked at two newspapers in each country: People's Daily and Beijing Evening News in China, and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the US.
They analysed two distinct periods of coverage: February to April 2007, which included the release of two reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a resulting flurry of related news stories; and a three-month span between November 2009 and February 2010 that covered "Climategate" (the release of 1,000 hacked emails from climate scientists at a UK research institute), controversies over errors in the IPCC reports and other events that drew the attention of climate sceptics.
What they found was that scepticism in US and UK news stories leapt dramatically from the first period to the next, while the percentage of sceptical articles actually dropped in China and France. One-third of the articles in US climate coverage during that time contained voices sceptical of the presence, cause or consequences of global warming, while only 7 percent of stories in the Chinese papers articulated those concerns.
The nature of the sceptics' criticism varied between the countries as well. "In Brazil, China, France, India, and the U.K., we see a mix of skeptics . . . who accept that the planet is warming, but question the cause and impact," the authors wrote. "In the U.S., we see a different trend: a much greater number of deniers who believe that there is no evidence that the planet is warming."
There are multiple ways to view these results. Generally, presenting a variety of viewpoints in a news article is a good thing. It encourages debate, highlights the relative strengths and weaknesses of each position, is fair and makes for a more-informed populace.
It's not a good thing, however, if the inclusion of contrary voices misleads readers into believing that a controversy exists when it actually does not. As many, many media critics have pointed out, coverage of global warming (especially in the US) has been hurt by journalists' instinct to include opposing voices alongside any argument, even if it means reaching far across the broad consensus of scientists who accept that man-made emissions are warming the planet to fringe characters who dispute this version of events.
In a different paper on the same subject, James Painter - an author of the media survey - found that the presence of sceptical voices on climate in a country's media has nothing to do with the quality of its journalism, or the nature of the science itself. It is directly tied to how politicised a topic climate change is in that country. In Continental Europe, climate change is science. In the US and the UK, it's a political football.
The bigger worry is how little attention media in either China or the US pays to climate change.