Is the Media Biased about Climate Change?
Certainly, many people are confused or misinformed about climate change. There are many conflicting reports in the media – and few topics have engendered as many claims and counterclaims of media bias . The issue of Climate Change and the Media was the subject of a 2006 Senate hearing of the Committee on Environment & Public Works. It is a good place to start to examine the matter.
Media Bias generally refers to accusations of either censorship or propagandism on the part of particular news sources, where such content is framed in the light of a preconceived agenda. Relevant categories of bias include favoring a station’s corporate economic interests, having a political slant, or sensationalism that tends to distort news to make it a better commercial “product.”
The Hearing: The hearing was chaired by Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK). In his opening statement, he accused the media of over-hyped reporting, of subverting its role as an objective source of information on climate change into the role of an advocate, and of hyping scientifically unfounded climate alarmism. Apparently no testimony was needed.
It was an interesting cast of characters who testified before the committee, two climate skeptics, a climatologist, a science historian, and an oil company lobbyist.Their testimony and the author’s short comment on each follow below:
Dr. R. M. Carter is a marine biologist and well known author from Australia. Dr. Carter testified that his research showed that throughout history, the rise in global temperatures had proceeded rising carbon dioxide concentration. His claimed that some natural cause must be causing the Earth’s temperature to rise, which released the carbon dioxide.
Comment: After the hearing, he was challenged by climatologists to produce any research showing the natural variablilty he claimed, but none has yet been produced. He also should have been aware that the recent CO2 increase has come from the billions of tons of fossils fuel burned each year by man. It is interesting that Senator Inhofe was concerned about media bias in Australia.
Dr. Daniel Schrag is a climatologist from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard. He testified that there is no serious debate about whether the Earth will warm as carbon dioxide levels increase over this century – as it will. The burning of coal, oil and gas, and deforestation are playing a significant role in increasing CO2 levels. The current level, in excess of 380 parts per million (ppm), is higher than it has been for at least the last 650,000 years, and perhaps for tens of millions of years. We know from Lonnie Thompson’s work on tropical glaciers that this warming is not part of any natural cycle.
Comment: His testimony represents the accepted scientific viewpoint on global warming. Skeptics would claim there is still a serious debate, that the science is not settled, and that man is not the cause of global warming. His testimony contradicted that of Dr. Carter on natural causes and he backed it with a reference to the research.
Dr. David Deming is a geophysicist from Oklahoma University. He reported that his research on oil well borehole temperatures showed a warming of about one degree Celsius in North America over the last 100 to 150 years. He also claimed that the Earth’s temperature has not gone up in the last 10 years and that the Earth was entering a cooling period.
Comment: The one degree temperature rise he reports is consistent with NASA’s data but NASA’s data also shows that 1998 and 2005 have been record highs and that the trend is clearly upward. Dr. Deming is a controversial figure and he has been removed from most of his teaching duties at OU because of his unorthodox views.
Dr. Naomi Oreskes is a Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California. She testified that in1983, the National Academy formed the Nierenberg committee to examine the scientific evidence of global warming. The committee accepted the scientific conclusions, but declined to view global warming as a problem, predicting that any adverse effects would be adequately remedied by technological innovation driven by market forces. This prediction has not come true as technological innovation has not saved the homes of the citizens of Shishmaref, Alaska, nor stopped the acidification of the world’s oceans, nor prevented the melting of polar ice.
Comment: The testimony was an accurate account of the history and points out some of the effects of global warming on the oceans and the lives of native Alaskans. The village of Shishmaref, inhabited for 400 years, is facing evacuation due to erosion from waves now allowed by the disappearance of year round sea ice, and the thawing of coastal permafrost. Skeptics would claim that there is no global warming so there was no need for markets to respond, that the melting ice is natural, and that the oceans are only more acidic by 0.1 pH unit. (Note: That means they are 20% more acidic.)
Dan Gainor is a Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and Director of the Business & Media Institute (BMI). He testified that journalists claiming to provide the “truth” on climate change are criticizing America for its stance on the issue and on the Kyoto treaty, while ignoring the billions of dollars such an agreement would cost America. The media is obsessed with Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” Let’s recall the media’s irresponsible position, when roughly 30 years ago they reported a new ice age was coming and we would all freeze to death.
Comment: He claims journalists reporting the scientific view on global warming are unpatriotic and anti-business. Of course, BMI was formed to combat media bias against America’s free enterprise system and expose the anti-business agenda of environmental extremists. He is correct that some reporters sensationalized the “new ice age”, but after 30 years, he and others are still using the incident to discredit the press and science. His attack on Gore’s movie was unfounded. Interestingly, in 2007, Dr. Carter was the star witness for the plaintiff in Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education, who sought to prevent the educational use of An Inconvenient Truth in England. The court apparently did not agree with Dr. Carter and ruled that, though the film had some errors, it was substantially founded upon scientific research and fact and could be shown.
Was the hearing biased? It would seem balanced in that two of the four scientists who testified represented the scientific side and two were skeptics. However, it was actually heavily weighted toward the skeptic side. A CNN survey found that 97% of climatologists who are active in climate research say the Earth is warming and humans play a role, yet two of the four scientists who testified did not agree. Dr. Carter and Dr. Deming have research records in other fields that give them credibility as scientists, but they are also journeymen for climate skepticism who can be counted on to deny global warming. Dr. R.M. Carter claimed the warming was from natural causes though he has not published or produced any research to back his claim, though asked. Dr. David Deming claimed the Earth warmed until 1998 and then entered a cooling trend. NASA’s data shows that 2005 was the warmest year on record so that is clearly not right.
Dan Gainor’s testimony was not balanced by an opposing view and there was not really testimony from journalists. The witnesses might have included Eric Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. He thinks that the press misrepresented the economic debate over carbon cap and trade, failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader, and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate.
The purpose of the hearing was seemingly to discredit the journalists and the scientists who do not agree with Senator Inhofe’s views. In his opening statement, he named and criticized a number of journalists and news organization who had been critical of him or his views, but those accused were not there to defend their views. Senator Inhofe claimed the press was not accurately reporting the “hard science”, though his beliefs are inconsistent with the “hard science” produced by scientific research. His stance on global warming, which he has stated many times is “Global warming is a hoax”.
Is the media biased? The “media” includes many sources, but overall the answer seems to be “Yes”. The media likes to sensationalize stories to attract attention and it often moves on without correcting the errors it commits. The story about the “Coming Ice Age” is an example . Few scientists believed that story at the time, but some editorial writers are still pointing to it as a failure of science. TV weather reporters often claim that a particular weather event is caused by global warming. That cannot be proven but it keeps the controversy stirred up and provides easy targets for skeptics. There is also a rush to be first with a story before the matter has been investigated as in the case of Climategate. After all the controversy, charges , and countercharges, the investigations cleared the scientists of scientific misconduct. But, once a story is “out there”, it can never be taken back.
The media also has a general bias toward the status quo. It’s easy, it involves little risk to the newspaper, and it is fine with those who have a financial or political interest in continuing the status quo. In 1997, the Wall street Journal, published an article titled “Science Has Spoken, Global Warming Is a Myth”. The article turned out to be a hoax , but it came right before the Senate was to consider the Kyoto Treaty and may have influenced the Senate to reject ratification, maintaining the status quo.
The press also presents stories as controversies to catch readers interest. They sometimes try to present both sides, even though there is little evidence to support one side. This is certainly true in the case of global warming where all the world’s major scientific organizations have endorsed statements that global warming is occurring, that it is caused mainly by mans’ activities, and it is causing undesirable changes in the environment. Sometimes the press doesn’t try to present both sides. Newspapers often report politician’s statements critical of climate science without balancing it with a scientist’s opinion. One example would be that many newspapers print Senator Inhofe’s famous statement “Global warming is a hoax.” but never point out that all four scientists at his hearing, even the skeptics, testified that the Earth was warming. Another point of view was expressed at the hearing by committee member Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) who said “ I can only say that I am sorry that I was not able to do more to change the minds of the few skeptics that remain in our nation. The climate is warming, it is due to human activity, and only a change in human behavior will ensure that my grandchildren will not suffer the consequences.”
Journalism Ethics: The solution to much of the bias would be for journalists and news media to follow the Ethical code of The Society of Professional Journalists, who believe that it is the ethical duty of the journalist to:
Seek the Truth and Report it: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
It is a principle of professional ethics that anyone who practices the profession, whether a member of the professional organization or not, is bound by the code of ethics of the profession. In this case, the ethical code would apply to anyone who reports the news.
(c) 2010 J.C. Moore