Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Climate change: the media and the scientific consensus

Why has the world - and in particular the US - been so slow to act on climate change? There has been a scientific consensus since the 1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report that climate change is both human caused and a serious concern, a consensus that has only grown stronger over time. Unfortunately, this consensus hasn't been reflected in the media. That's the conclusion of a paper [PDF] by Maxwell Boykoff in the journal Climatic Change earlier this month. Boykoff studied television news clips on climate change from 1995 to 2004, and categorised them according to whether they presented humans as having a significant or negligent influence on the climate, or took a balanced view and presented both sides. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the stories - 69.33% - fell into the latter category (only 2.67% were outright denialist). But while this is textbook journalism, it is also fatally misleading about the issue:

The institutionalized and professional journalistic practice of balanced reporting has served to amplify a minority view that human’s role in climate change is debated or negligent, and has concurrently engendered an appearance of increased uncertainty regarding anthropogenic climate science. This ‘policy-relevant’ information, in turn, enters a highly contested arena when it permeates climate policy discourse and is used in policy decision-making. When mass media coverage distorts rather than clarifies scientific understanding of anthropogenic climate change, it can greatly impact how U.S. federal policy actors both perceive and approach actions and remedies.
(Emphasis added)

It would be interesting to see a similar study for New Zealand, but I suspect that it would produce the same dismal result.

This is a general problem with the reporting of scientific issues, and its not going to go away. Journalists are going to have to find a better way of reporting thse issues than the absurdly misleading "An eminent scientist says the world is round; here's someone from the Flat Earth Society who disagrees". Both the public and politicians depend on the media to inform debate, and on climate change at least, they seem tohave fundamentally failed in that task.