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).
The problem is that journalists vastly overrepresent climate skeptics. Look at coverage of the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
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).
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
- Hold fewer beliefs based in science
- Are less likely to believe climate change poses a significant threat
- Are less likely to support action to stop climate change (Zhao, Leiserowitz, Maibach, & Roser‐Renouf, 2011)
People who pay attention to mainstream news
- Tend to trust scientists
- Feel more certain about climate change
People who pay attention to conservative news
- Tend to distrust scientists
- Feel uncertain about climate change (Hmielowski, Feldman, Myers, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2013)
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.