There is an interesting article in this month’s Global Environmental Change journal. The paper, Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change (subscription only at the moment) by L. Antilla, documents the way in which the mainstream media (at least in the U.S.) tends to present climate science as more controversial than it actually is. A major focus of the paper is an analysis of the way in which climate science is “framed” (in the journalistics sense of “highlighting certain aspects of a story so as promote a particular interpretation”). In a recent Scientific American article (here), a similar argument is made with respect to the health industry; in this case the writer, David Michaels, is quite blunt that the “framing” is the purposeful fomenting of doubt by powerful industry lobbyists, rather than innocent errors by naive journalists. Antilla doesn’t go so far, but she does give some striking examples, such as an Associated Press piece about the impact of soot on the albedo of snow, which AP titled “Scientists blame soot for global warming”. As if the title weren’t misleading enough, the article goes on to say that “Many scientists believe the burning of fossil fuels is causing an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, triggering … the greenhouse effect.” Whether purposeful, or merely due to careless writing, this kind of statement casts the science (and the opinion of scientists) as far more uncertain that it is in reality — in this case implying that there is doubt that CO2 levels are increasing, something which actually has zero uncertainty.
Antilla finds that this kind of error is pervasive in the reporting of climate science. We found particularly interesting the comment (following earlier work by Wilson, 2000) that:
“newspapers [are] the ascendant source of knowledge on climate change for reporters themselves; interviews with scientists and the use of science journals were distant second and third sources, respectively.”
Evidently, the source of information journalists are getting is by its nature unreliable. Providing a more direct source of information from practicing scientists is, of course, the major reason for RealClimate‘s existence.
Antilla, L. 2005. Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change. Global Environmental Change, vol. 15, 338-352.
Wilson, K., 2000. Drought, debate, and uncertainty: measuring reporters’ knowledge and ignorance about climate change. Public Understanding of Science, vol. 9, 1-13.
Michaels, D. 2005 Doubt is their product. Scientific American, Jun. 15.