Accounting for an evolutionary shift in U.S. newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change


An analysis by a scholar at Oxford University of coverage of climate change in leading U.S. newspapers during the period 2003-2006 reveals an evolutionary shift in 2005 to reporting that more closely reflected the scientific consensus on attribution of climate change. Leading U.S. newspapers shifted almost completely away from misleading reporting that “balanced” the scientific view that human activity is a significant cause of climate change with the view that human influence is negligible (from 61% anthropogenic and 37% “balanced” in 2003 to 97% anthropogenic and 3%“balanced” in 2006). The article posits several factors that may account for why this shift in U.S. reporting took place.

Thank you to Richard Littlemore at DeSmogBlog—a Web site that does battle against the global warming disinformation campaign—for calling our attention (in his post “Clumsy Media Bias Dwindling, But U.S. Still Behind the U.K.”) to an interesting study of newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006.

Excerpts covering one key theme in the much longer article, which is published in Area, a journal of the UK Royal Geographical Society (the full text is available on the DeSmogBlog site):

Flogging a dead norm? Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006

Maxwell T Boykoff
Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University Centre for the Environment, Oxford OX1 3QY

The journalistic norm of ‘balanced’ reporting (giving roughly equal coverage to both sides in any significant dispute) is recognised as both useful and problematic in communicating emerging scientific consensus on human attribution for global climate change. Analysis of the practice of this norm in United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) newspaper coverage of climate science between 2003 and 2006 shows a significant divergence from scientific consensus in the US in 2003–4, followed by a decline in 2005–6, but no major divergence in UK reporting.

Rather than providing accurate information, ‘balanced’ reporting may instead perpetrate informational bias regarding scientific opinions on human contributions to climate change. This paper seeks to assess the potential for such bias by exploring the extent to which ‘balanced’ media coverage (commonly called ‘he said/she said’ reporting) of anthropogenic climate change remains a significant feature in United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) reporting of this issue.

The dataset for the study was composed of newspaper articles from US and UK ‘prestige press’ or ‘quality’ newspapers from 2003 to 2006. The research examined the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post in the US, and the Independent (and Independent on Sunday), The Times (and The Sunday Times) and the Guardian (and Observer) in the UK.

The results from this analysis reveal a dramatic increase in the quantity of newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in both the UK and the US over the study period, but also an evolutionary shift in US newspaper coverage in 2005 from explicitly ‘balanced’ accounts to reporting that more closely reflected the scientific consensus on attribution for climate change.

CSW note: The data indicate that US media representations of anthropogenic climate change diverged significantly from the scientific consensus in 2003, but that this was no longer significant by 2006. In 2003, 61% of U.S. newspaper articles portrayed anthropogenic contributions to climate change as significant, while 37% gave “balanced” accounts on whether anthropogenic contributions were significant or negligible. By 2006, 97% of U.S. articles portrayed anthropogenic influences as significant, while only 3% were “balanced” between the the scientific consensus and the contrarian viewpoint. It appears to be a major and decisive shift in the direction of the scientific mainstream.

Boykoff, characterizing the summer of 2005 as a “critical discourse moment” on this issue, continues:

Why might this shift in US reporting have taken place?...

First, primarily political movements in climate rhetoric and policy promises comprised a substantial amount of coverage. Reporting of the Gleneagles G8 Summit is one prominent example of this phenomenon. Ahead of the Summit, on his home soil, Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced strong climate policy rhetoric, seeing this meeting as an opportunity to leave a positive ‘legacy’ of committed policy action….Blair and Bush statements fed into tremendous US media speculation about a potential shift in the Bush Administration’s stance on climate policy. This coverage was also primed by pronouncements at the state level that increased the pressure for US federal action, including the widely-reported executive order by Arnold Schwarzenegger calling for an 80 per cent reduction in Californian greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. This prompted headlines across all the major US newspapers….

Second, primarily scientific activities contributed to this critical discourse moment. Generating particular media attention was news leaked to the New York Times regarding drafts of the report by the US Climate Change Science Program. After this report had completed multiple stages of scientific peer review, it was revealed that Philip Cooney – the Bush White House Chief of Staff for the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) – had made key changes to the document before its publication. For instance, before the word ‘uncertainties’ Cooney had placed the words ‘significant and fundamental’, which then ‘tend[ed] to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust’ (Revkin 2005, A1). Moreover, the aforementioned joint statement by 11 international science bodies was released just as news was unfolding about Cooney’s editing of the Science-Program documents….

Third, ecological/meteorological events in 2005 expressed a biophysical agency, further contributing to this shift. The most dramatic among various extreme weather events occurring that year was when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the US Gulf Coast, devastating large parts of New Orleans. While scientific research is still debating the extent of connections between climate change and hurricane intensity and frequency, Katrina prompted wide­spread speculation and discussion in climate policy and public circles, and many media reports on the potential link between human activities, future storm events and climate change. As Juliet Eilperin reported in the Washington Post: “Katrina’s destructiveness has given a sharp new edge to the ongoing debate over whether the US should do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming” (Eilperin 2005, A16), while further commentaries on the link between extreme weather events and international climate policy reaching the public domain came from prominent political actors.

Area (2007) 39.2, 000–000
ISSN 0004-0894 © The Author.
Journal compilation © Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2007

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