Climate deniers are often featured by the mainstream media as a way to ‘balance’ their reporting, and yet for most of this century, climate coverage has been neither fair nor balanced.
Since the early 2000s, scientific dispute over the reality of human-caused climate change has virtually come to an end. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading the news.
A new analysis of the media landscape shows that from 2000 to 2016, climate deniers received far more media attention than scientists. In fact, during this time, media outlets gave these contrarians nearly 50 percent more visibility than the top experts on climate change.
“Climate change contrarians have successfully organised a strong voice within politics and science communication,” the authors of the study write.
“Such disproportionate media visibility of contrarian arguments and actors misrepresents the distribution of expert-based beliefs.”
It’s a major discrepancy, found by comparing the media visibility of 386 prominent climate contrarians and 386 top climate scientists.
These two groups were carefully selected by researchers and included 772 people frequently approached by the media. The scientists were chosen from some 200,000 research publications, and the contrarians were chosen for publicly and repeatedly spreading disinformation on climate change issues.
Scanning through roughly 100,000 media articles, looking for bylines, citations and mentions, the findings reveal climate deniers got nearly 50 percent more coverage than climate scientists.
When the articles were winnowed down to just those from 30 major mainstream outlets – including The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post – the two groups got about the same amount of attention.
While this may sound like a small win, it is still very far from the scientific consensus. In fact, it was only when the researchers narrowed their sample down once again to look at the most scientifically credible sources, that the climate scientists finally pulled ahead.
When the analysis included only subjects who had actually published a scientific paper, climate scientists ended up with 38 percent more play time than contrarian politicians, business people, and academics.
Yet even that, the authors say, is too much coverage that doesn’t reflect the true consensus amongst people with real expertise in climate science. In scientific publications, the visibility of climate scientists crushes climate deniers by 280 percent. For scientific citations, that number goes up to 660 percent.
The authors accuse the media of distorting the climate change narrative by giving a small group of non-experts such an amplified voice and creating the impression of a scientific debate where there is none.
“Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials,” says author and climate scientist LeRoy Westerling from the University of California Merced.
“They are not in the same league with top scientists. They aren’t even in the league of the average career climate scientist.”
To be clear, the analysis does come with some limitations – like the fact that climate deniers are a much smaller pool of people than climate scientists. This means that when journalists are seeking ‘balance’ they have fewer contrarians to choose from, so the same ones might get picked more often.
Yet even outside this one study, there are others that also show how the media struggles with accurately reporting on climate change events. It’s also well known at this point that fossil fuel companies started a propaganda campaign decades ago that specifically targeted the mainstream media’s portrayal of climate change.
Today, it would appear we are still experiencing the fallout of that decision, especially as new media allows falsities to spread with greater speed and efficiency than ever before.
“These results show that false balance in the media is alive and well and the growing trend toward customised media that we access via the internet is feeding the disinformation trend,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the US National Climate Assessment.
“This study is a wake-up call for all media to do better: to check their sources in order to accurately communicate the reality of human-induced climate change, the relevance of its impacts and the urgency of action.”
The findings have been published in Nature Communications.