Climate Change Communication Challenges Part 2: The Media

The mass media is vitally important to the debate on how to deal with climate change.  Television, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other online resources provide key updates on climate science and policy decisions.  However, there have been great discrepancies between the science being done and the quality of reporting.  There are a number of factors that contribute to this.

The gutting of the mainstream media’s science sections has been a major problem in sniffing out misinformation.  CNN dissolved their science reporting team in 2008 and as the San Jose Mercury News recently reported, only 20 newspapers have a devoted science section, down from 150 two decades ago.  Without specialists that can understand new climate studies coming out, newspapers and television outlets cannot provide the kind of in-depth but easy-to-understand information to help the public understand the nuances of climate change.

The news media also has a traditional set of journalistic norms that most journalists follow.  These include balance, dramatization, and personalization.  These are all valuable traits in journalism.  However, some of them have been taken to extremes in the discussion of climate change.

The goal of balance in particular has warped climate coverage by providing equal coverage to skeptics and believers alike. At this point, though, there is a strong scientific consensus on climate change.  The 2009 study cited in the introduction shows just how strong the science is.

At the same time, discounting skeptics is a disservice to the public.  Their questioning is an important part of the scientific process and besides, what if there's a 1% chance their right?  It's important to consider that and decide if actions on climate change are still worth taking.  Providing equal status to climate change skeptics is a different story, though.  It feeds into a lazy narrative of he said/she said, which provides almost nothing to the discussion about the true challenges we face.  It does make for easy reading by putting it inside a narrative structure that is personal and easier to relate than the intricacies of a cap and trade system.  But is this what we really need?  I think not.

Rather than underestimating the public’s ability to understand and live with the uncertainties of climate science, it’s time to lay things out as clearly as possible.  This requires newspapers to improve their coverage of climate science and also understand that impartiality does not mean the minority deserves equal standing.  The minority of non-believers may be vocal and make for good news coverage, but they shouldn’t dictate what the public hears about climate change.

A 2009 survey of Earth scientists shows that 90% of the 3146 respondents believe the Earth’s temperature is warming.  Of those surveyed, 82% believe human activity is a significant contributing factor.  The numbers are even more stark for self-identified climatologists.  Of the 79 individuals, 96% believe temperatures are rising and 95% believe humans are the cause.  This indicates a strong scientific consensus on climate change.  Yet public opinion lags far behind these numbers, with only 57% of US citizens saying they believe climate change is real according to a Pew  Research Center for People and the Press.  Why the discrepancy?  Part of it is due to a communication problem.

This is the second part of a three part series examining the challenges of communicating climate change.  Last week’s installment examined the role of language in communicating climate change.  The final installment will discuss the challenges of visualizing climate change causes and effects.

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