Media Influences: False Balance
Media Influences: False Balance
In the United States, less than 2% of the population are doctoral-level scientists, and only a small fraction of scientists are climate or weather scientists. Similar statistics apply to other industrialized countries. Therefore, most people in the United States and abroad do not obtain their knowledge regarding climate change issues directly from the scientific literature, but rely on commentators, the Internet, popular books, and especially news reports in the mass media such as radio, newspapers, and television.
Although some media have been characteristically dismissive of the view of most scientists—namely, that climate change is happening, is caused mostly by humans, and can be mitigated—the journalistic ideal is to present a neutral, objective, or balanced account of climate science and the debates around it. This has often led to what some media experts call false or superficial balance, that is, the allotment of equal time or status to two points of view even when a dispute pits a large scientific community against a small number of dissidents. The result, for many news consumers, is a mistaken notion that science is fickle or unable to make up its mind about climate change.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
The idea that when reporting on disagreements journalists should be fair, rather than slighting facts unfavorable to one point of view, arose with the growth of modern newspapers in the nineteenth century and was made explicit by professional journalism organizations in the twentieth century. For example, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says that journalists should encourage the exchange even of views they find repugnant and provide “a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”
Journalistic principles thus urge reporters to present what are often called “both sides” of every issue. In the case of global warming, however, as with other scientific issues, two-sided or “he-said, she-said” coverage can actually give rise to bias or distortion. This is because in the scientific world, a definite consensus or widely agreed-upon position on global climate change already exists. This view is only rarely disputed in the professional scientific literature and has been affirmed by many scientific professional groups, including the United Nations' Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), National Academy of Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, and many more around the world. Portraying the state of scientific knowledge as uncertain or evenly balanced between two groups of scientists, namely advocates and skeptics, presents a fundamentally false picture of the state of scientific thought.
WORDS TO KNOW
BIAS: In a person, a tendency to omit or exaggerate facts to favor a predetermined opinion; in numerical data, an offset or constant error that changes the value of all measurements equally.
SKEPTIC: Person who doubts a claim on the grounds that its truth has not been adequately proved. Skeptics, as opposed to denialists, may have reasonable grounds for their reluctance to believe: indeed, skepticism is essential to the scientific process of discovering new knowledge, in which claims are carefully tested before being accepted as correct.
A 2004 study reviewed coverage of global warming from 1998 to 2002 in major U.S. press outlets. The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, looked only at news reports, not opinion pieces. It found that 53% of articles gave equal attention to the view that humans contribute to global warming—the view affirmed by the vast majority of climate and weather scientists—and the view that climate change is a natural fluctuation. An additional 6.18% of articles emphasized the minority view that human beings are not a major cause of greenhouse warming. “Through adherence to the norm of balance,” the authors summed up, “the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias.”
Impacts and Issues
Although there are vocal dissidents and skeptics of climate change, openly biased or distorted reporting is rarely cause of false balance that advocates explicitly against the scientific consensus view of global climate change. The majority of false balance is generated from the “he-said, she-said” style of science reporting that is still dominant in at least U.S. media treatments of global climate change. This form of reporting greatly amplifies the views of a relatively tiny minority of critics—many not even climate scientists—by giving them equal time and status with the views of the great majority of climate and weather scientists.
Probably due at least in part to superficial or false balance, U.S. public agreement of the reality of anthropogenic climate change severely lags behind scientific knowledge. A 2006 poll found that 70% of Americans think that global warming is happening; a 2005 poll asking this question found that only 41% thought it was human-caused. A poll in 2007 still found only 50% agreeing that global warming is human-caused.
IN CONTEXT: HUMANS AND TEMPERATURE CHANGE
“The burning of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. About 80% of the energy used in the United States is derived from fossil fuels. The recent rapid rise in both surface temperature and CO2 is one of the indications that humans are responsible for some of this unusual warmth. In addition, model predictions of temperature change have been shown to closely match observed temperature changes when data from both natural and human-induced causes are used together.”
SOURCE: Staudt, Amanda, Nancy Huddleston, and Sandi Rudenstein. Understanding and Responding to Climate Change. National Academy of Sciences, 2006.
In comparison, the percentage of climate scientists who assert that Earth is warming is very high, and the small percentage who argue against the majority conclusions that climate change is primarily driven by human activity still acknowledge the data portraying extraordinary recent global warming. A 2004 study reported in the journal Science of 928 scientific papers mentioning climate change in their abstracts from 1993 to 2003 found not a single one that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that climate change is real, and driven by human activity.
Spencer R. Weart. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Boykoff, Jules, and Maxwell Boykoff. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change 14 (2004): 125–136.
Mooney, Chris. “Blinded By Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality.” Columbia Journalism Review (November/ December 2004).
Oreskes, Naomi. “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Science 306 (2004): 1686.
“Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists, 2007. <http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp> (accessed September 17, 2007).
Mann, Michael. “The False Objectivity of ‘Balance.’” RealClimate, November 15, 2005. <http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/11/the-false-objectivity-of-balance/> (accessed September 16, 2007).