When climate change first become a public issue, journalists reported the views of the scientific community. Over time, climate change became a political issue, and news coverage came to reflect that. Journalists feel a responsibility to show a balanced view of every issue (Gans, 1979). Today, the news media give a voice to climate skeptics in an effort to achieve what feels like balanced coverage (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007).

In this video from 1980, Walter Cronkite warns that our climate is changing. At this point, climate change has yet to become a political issue. Cronkite merely delivers the views of the scientific community.

In this segment from 2014, climate change provides the backdrop for a moment of political theater. On CNN's Crossfire, science advocate Bill Nye debates Nick Loris of the Heritage foundation. By giving Nye and Loris equal time, CNN indicates their opinions deserve equal weight.

The problem is that journalists vastly overrepresent climate skeptics. Look at coverage of the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

 
Only three percent of climate scientists doubt human-caused climate change (Doran & Zimmerman, 2009).

Only three percent of climate scientists doubt human-caused climate change (Doran & Zimmerman, 2009).

 
And yet, more than 18 percent of those quoted in Bloomberg, the LA Times, Washington Post and CBS cast doubt on climate change.

And yet, more than 18 percent of those quoted in Bloomberg, the LA Times, Washington Post and CBS cast doubt on climate change.

 
 
Fifty percent of those quoted in The Wall Street Journal cast doubt on climate change.

Fifty percent of those quoted in The Wall Street Journal cast doubt on climate change.

 
Worse yet, 69 percent of those interviewed on Fox doubted climate change.

Worse yet, 69 percent of those interviewed on Fox doubted climate change.

 
 
Across all news outlets, among those who denied that humans are causing climate change, roughly 80 percent lacked a background in climate science (Media Matters for America, 2013).

Across all news outlets, among those who denied that humans are causing climate change, roughly 80 percent lacked a background in climate science (Media Matters for America, 2013).

 

 

In general, conservative news media tend to privilege the voice of skeptics. Fox News largely dismisses climate change and rejects its human causes. It also interviews a large proportion of climate doubters (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012).

 

In this segment from Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace discusses climate change with a panel of conservative pundits. His panelists argue (a) that scientists are still debating climate change and (b) that dealing with climate change would hurt the economy.

 

By giving a voice to climate skeptics, news outlets undermine the authority of the scientific community, leading readers and viewers to feel less concerned about climate change (Malka, Krosnick, Debell, Pasek, & Schneider, 2009).

 

People who pay attention to science news

  • Hold more beliefs based in science
  • Believe climate change poses a significant threat
  • Support action to stop climate change

 

People who pay attention to political news


 

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People who pay attention to mainstream news

  • Tend to trust scientists
  • Feel more certain about climate change
     
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People who pay attention to conservative news


 

Surprisingly, Republicans who watch CNN or MSNBC are more likely than Democrats to believe that climate change is happening. This may be because conservatives tend to see matters in black and white rather than in shades of gray (Kruglanski, 2004). Conservatives who watch MSNBC listen to scientists and environmentalists and cultivate the view of the scientific community.


 

Too Little Coverage

Perhaps more significant than how climate change is covered is whether it is covered at all. In all of 2014, the NBC Nightly News spent just 25 minutes covering climate change, while ABC's World News Tonight devoted only 13 minutes to the issue (Media Matters, 2015). People understand issues that are covered more frequently and prominently to be more important (McCombs & Shaw, 1974). By failing to cover climate change, reporters make the problem feel inconsequential.

Journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need... a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.
— Mark Brayne, Former BBC Correspondent