A group of scientists from around the world is using new web-based technology to assess the accuracy of media coverage of climate change, and the organization spearheading these efforts is looking for support to take its work to the next level.
The organization, known as Climate Feedback, uses what’s known as web annotation technology to layer scientists’ comments directly onto articles and opinion pieces, so that readers can easily understand whether -- and to what degree -- the pieces are consistent with scientific understanding of climate change. Climate Feedback then assigns a credibility score known as “feedback” to each media piece, which serves as an overall guide to its accuracy -- or lack thereof.
The result looks like this:
At Media Matters, we’ve given scientists a forum to set the record straight when media distort their climate studies. Now Climate Feedback is further improving the media conversation by giving scientists the opportunity to respond to a wide variety of climate change coverage, as founder Dr. Emmanuel Vincent explained in an email to Media Matters.
“We think scientists need to have a voice of their own in the media,” Vincent said. “Not as a replacement of journalism, but as a way to ensure that scientific results are not misunderstood or distorted.”
The approach Climate Feedback employs is unique in several respects. It borrows from the peer review process used to evaluate scientific research papers, ensuring that media coverage of climate science receives a similar level of scrutiny. “After an article is selected for review, scientists with relevant expertise are invited to provide their feedback directly” using the web annotation platform, Vincent said. “Reviewers then fill [out] a short questionnaire with their rating and appreciation of the overall credibility of the piece that are all revealed at the same time to guarantee the independence of scientists’ reviews.”
Vincent noted that Climate Feedback usually solicits comments from five to 10 scientists for each media evaluation, which is substantially higher than the two to three reviewers typically involved in a classic peer review of scientific literature. “This distributes the workload among scientists who can focus on discussing what they know best,” and helps “convey a more robust sense of the consensus when there is one.”
Climate Feedback also ensures that only highly qualified experts weigh in on the accuracy of the media reports it analyzes. According to Vincent, contributors must have been the lead author of an article published in a top-tier peer-reviewed scientific journal within the last three years, and they must have a doctorate in a relevant discipline. Depending on the nature of the claims made in the article, Climate Feedback may seek comments from experts in a variety of subjects including biogeochemistry, oceanography, climate variability, paleoclimatology, climate impacts on ecosystems, human health and beyond.
Once an evaluation is published, Climate Feedback shares it with the reporter or columnist via email or social media. As an example of his group’s success, Vincent pointed to an article in London’s Telegraph newspaper, which “appended a correction and made major modifications” to its original article, “withdrawing 5 sentences, in such a way that the title of the article announcing an imminent ice age is not supported anymore.” Additionally, one Climate Feedback evaluation formed the basis of an open letter from a group of scientists to The Wall Street Journal, criticizing an opinion piece for “attempt[ing] to throw clouds of uncertainty around the hard facts about climate change.” And just last week, members of the British House of Lords referenced another Climate Feedback evaluation while calling on The Times of London to more accurately cover climate science.
Since Climate Feedback launched in late 2014, Vincent has observed several common media failings, including using flawed reasoning, making logical fallacies, cherry-picking data, and offering misleading or imprecise statements. One example he highlighted was a May 2015 Forbes column by “merchant of doubt” James Taylor, of the Exxon- and Koch-funded Heartland Institute, which misleadingly denied the impact of global warming on polar ice. Vincent noted in his email that Taylor’s column received “almost a million views and is by far Forbes’ most influential climate article in 2015 – which gives an idea of the scale of the problem we’re tackling.”
Indeed, because the challenge is so great, Climate Feedback is ramping up its efforts via a crowdfunding campaign this week. The aim is to raise enough funds to hire a scientific editor and build a “Scientific Trust Tracker,” which will aggregate the group’s ratings to assess the overall credibility of various news sources. According to Vincent, the new tool “should provide a healthy incentive for more accurate science reporting,” because “building trust is essential for news sources and scientists’ endorsements can help journalists with integrity to get ahead.”
Climate Feedback is doing this work at an important time. Major U.S. media outlets continue to give undue attention to those who deny the scientific consensus that fossil fuel pollution and other human activities are causing global warming, while scientists remain vastly underrepresented in some of the most high-profile media discussions of climate change, such as those taking place on the broadcast networks’ Sunday shows. And revelations of Exxon’s climate change deception exemplify the ability of the fossil fuel industry to inject misinformation into the media to undermine climate policies. As the fossil fuel industry continues to wage war on the Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement, and other major climate initiatives, too many Americans remain confused about the causes of climate change (although the trend is positive), and not enough recognize the urgent need for action.
As Vincent explained, “We now have growing evidence that corporate interests have been using the same playbook as Tobacco companies a few decades earlier: using the media to sow doubt about the science of the smoking-cancer connection then and of climate change now in order to confuse the public and undermine democratic support for dealing with the issue.”
Climate Feedback is a valuable resource to counteract the fossil fuel industry’s harmful influence and encourage media consumers to “stand with science” to achieve more accurate climate change coverage.
Following Temperature Record Announcements, Oil Industry Ads Outpaced Climate-Related Coverage By Almost 5-To-1
CNN aired almost five times as much oil industry advertising as climate change-related coverage in the one-week periods following the announcements that 2015 was the hottest year on record and February 2016 was the most abnormally hot month on record. Specifically, CNN aired 23.5 minutes of American Petroleum Institute ads during its morning, afternoon, and primetime coverage over those two weeks, compared to just five minutes of coverage about climate change or the temperature records. That disparity does not even account for dozens of Koch Industries ads that also ran on CNN, which were not energy-focused but did serve to boost the image of the oil billionaire Koch brothers’ primary corporation.
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On Earth Day, 175 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement -- the most countries to ever sign an international accord on a single day. Conservative media are reacting by recycling debunked myths about the landmark climate change agreement. Here are the facts.
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The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) claims that it is speaking for the small business community in its opposition to Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination. In reality, NFIB is a front group that has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers network and other large corporate interests, and its opposition to Garland is part of a campaign against environmental, labor and healthcare policies that most small businesses support.
NFIB has released a scorecard criticizing Garland for allegedly having “ruled against private parties and especially private businesses with striking regularity.” But here is how NFIB rates on Media Matters' small business scorecard:
Contributors at USA Today and Bloomberg View are echoing false attacks on attorneys general who are investigating whether oil companies deceived the public on climate change, and grossly misrepresenting why the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands has subpoenaed records from an oil industry-funded think tank as part of his investigation.
A coalition of attorneys general has committed to holding fossil fuel companies including Exxon accountable if they obfuscated climate change research in order to protect their financial interests. This follows reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times showing that Exxon’s own scientists confirmed by the early 1980s that fossil fuel pollution was causing climate change, yet Exxon funded organizations that helped manufacture doubt about the causes of climate change for decades afterwards. One of the climate denial organizations that Exxon funded was the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker is now subpoenaing CEI for “records of the group's donors and activities involving climate policy,” as InsideClimate News reported. CEI said it “will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena,” and called it "an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association.”
Now, contributors at USA Today and Bloomberg View are defending CEI and Exxon by misrepresenting Exxon’s alleged wrongdoing. Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle authored a column on April 8 headlined, “Subpoenaed Into Silence on Global Warming,” in which she claimed the attorneys general are trying to “shut down dissenters” and criminalize “advocating for policies that the attorneys general disagreed with.” Similarly, USA Today contributor Glenn Reynolds proclaimed in an April 11 column that the attorneys general investigations look like “a concerted scheme to restrict the First Amendment free speech rights of people they don’t agree with,” and that their goal is to “treat disagreement as something more or less criminal.”
In casting the issue as a matter of “free speech,” both McArdle and Reynolds ignored the real reason the attorneys general have launched investigations into Exxon and subpoenaed records from CEI. As InsideClimate News explained, despite Exxon’s “emerging understanding of climate change science in the 1970s,” the oil giant subsequently worked to “undermine the scientific consensus, in part by financing research organizations including CEI.” InsideClimate News added:
CEI is one of several organizations that have been repeatedly named over the years by those who have criticized Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for financing the climate denial work of third parties. After the Royal Society of the United Kingdom castigated Exxon in 2006 for giving money to groups misrepresenting climate science, Exxon said it had stopped financing the CEI.
Additionally, the Climate Investigations Center (CIC) uncovered that the year after CEI received $270,000 from Exxon for “Global Climate Change,” “Global Climate Change Outreach,” and “General Operating Support,” CEI released a climate science-denying TV commercial with the tag line: “Carbon Dioxide: They Call it Pollution, We Call it Life.” CIC stated that the commercial “caused such an outcry, we believe it triggered ExxonMobil to cut funding to CEI altogether.”
Bloomberg View’s McArdle warned that the attorneys general investigations could set a bad “precedent” that would “eventually be used against” the “enemies of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and ExxonMobil.” But that has already happened: climate science denier and then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was found by the Virginia Supreme Court to have overstepped his authority by demanding that the University of Virginia provide emails and other documents from climate scientist Michael Mann. Identical documents were sought by the American Tradition Institute, whose senior director of litigation, Chris Horner, was also a senior fellow at CEI.
McArdle did mention in her column that her husband Peter Suderman had “briefly worked for CEI as a junior employee.” While she was at it, she could have disclosed that Suderman currently works for Reason magazine, and that the Reason Foundation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Exxon.
The Obama administration has released a comprehensive new scientific report detailing how climate change affects human health, presenting the broadcast networks' nightly news programs with a good opportunity to cover a critical topic that they rarely addressed last year.
The Climate and Health Assessment, which is the result of three years of research by approximately 100 health and science experts in eight federal agencies, builds on the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment and signifies increased "scientific confidence in the link between climate change and a broad range of threats to public health."
These threats include some of the most severe effects of global warming, such as increased incidence of death from extreme heat waves and worsened air quality, as well as some less discussed impacts, including the potential for carbon pollution to make our food crops less nutritious and the toll that weather-related disasters can take on our mental health. The report also details how climate change will increase or otherwise alter the risks of suffering from various diseases and illnesses, including Lyme disease from ticks, West Nile virus from mosquitos, water-borne illnesses, and Salmonella poisoning from food.
Any of these topics could provide fodder for an important and informative nightly news segment that would help viewers better understand the threats and challenges posed by climate change.
NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News did each provide a substantial report last year on the ways climate change is impacting allergies and asthma, respectively. But here, too, the Obama administration report provides opportunities for additional coverage.
For instance, the networks could examine these issues from an environmental justice perspective; the report finds that minority adults and children "bear a disproportionate burden associated with asthma as measured by emergency department visits, lost work and school days, and overall poorer health status." And when considering all of the various health impacts, the report identifies many specific populations that are "disproportionately vulnerable" to climate change:
[C]limate change exacerbates some existing health threats and creates new public health challenges. While all Americans are at risk, some populations are disproportionately vulnerable, including those with low income, some communities of color, immigrant groups (including those with limited English proficiency), Indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.
The networks could also cover some of these public health findings alongside a distressing new study on sea level rise, which projects severe impacts on coastal cities that will undoubtedly have profound implications on the health and well-being of millions of Americans. Or they could address the public health benefits of the most significant U.S. climate policy in U.S. history, the Clean Power Plan, which the networks infrequently covered in 2015 -- and which polluting fossil fuel industry groups and allied attorneys general are now fighting in court.
Major news outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, Time magazine, The Associated Press, and McClatchyDC have already covered the new White House report. Now is the time for the broadcast networks' nightly news programs to improve on last year's coverage and educate their viewers about the myriad ways that a changing climate is affecting our health.
Image at top via Flickr user Graeme Maclean using a Creative Commons license.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) called out The Wall Street Journal for its long history of wrongly defending fossil fuel companies, including the Journal's recent attempts to confuse its readers about the rationale for a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of Exxon Mobil and other oil companies. Writing in the Huffington Post, Whitehouse cited Journal editorials dating back to the 1970s and described the Journal's modus operandi as follows: "Deny the science, question the motives, exaggerate the costs, help the polluters."
The Journal has repeatedly distorted Whitehouse's calls for a federal investigation into whether Exxon and other oil companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by purposely misleading shareholders and the public about climate change. The Journal continued to misrepresent the basis for an investigation in an April 1 editorial that falsely claimed Whitehouse wants to "punish those who disagree with him on climate."
Whitehouse directly responded to the Journal's distortions in the Huffington Post, pointing out that "[c]limate skeptics -- people who 'disagree' with me on the reality of climate change -- are not the targets of such an investigation, any more than smokers or people who 'disagreed' with the Surgeon General were targets" of an earlier Department of Justice lawsuit against tobacco companies, which the Journal also vocally opposed. He added: "Fraud investigations punish those who lie, knowing that they are lying, intending to fool others, and do it for money. No one should be too big to answer for that conduct."
Whitehouse concluded of the Journal's behavior: "[A]ll this makes it look like they are out to protect the fraudsters, by misleading regular people about what such a lawsuit would do and continuing their long tradition of downplaying or denying scientists' warnings about the harms of industries' products."
From Whitehouse's April 3 op-ed:
The Wall Street Journal is quite irate that I rank them with industry front groups and cranks denying climate change. But they have a record whenever industrial pollutants are involved. Look at the Journal's commentary on acid rain, on the ozone layer, and on climate change. There is a pattern: Deny the science, question the motives, exaggerate the costs, help the polluters. When they are wrong this often, but keep at it, you have to wonder whether they care about whether they're right or wrong, or whether they are performing some other service.
[I]f there is indeed a core of deliberate fraud at the heart of the climate denial enterprise, no industry should be big enough to suppress investigation of that fraud. Most of the writers I mentioned note similarities between the tobacco fraud scheme and the climate denial operation, as has the lawyer who won the tobacco lawsuit for DOJ; as apparently have more than a dozen state Attorneys General.
Climate skeptics -- people who "disagree" with me on the reality of climate change -- are not the targets of such an investigation, any more than smokers or people who "disagreed" with the Surgeon General were targets of the tobacco case. Those folks may very well be victims of the fraud, the dupes. Fraud investigations punish those who lie, knowing that they are lying, intending to fool others, and do it for money. No one should be too big to answer for that conduct.
This is an important difference, and it's the difference I'm talking about when I say the Wall Street Journal editorial page is trying to saddle me with an argument I'm not making because they don't have a good response to the one I am. Frankly, all this makes it look like they are out to protect the fraudsters, by misleading regular people about what such a lawsuit would do and continuing their long tradition of downplaying or denying scientists' warnings about the harms of industries' products.
A new climate change study "jolts sea-rise predictions," according to The Washington Post, with sea levels projected to increase so much that The New York Times says they would "likely provoke a profound crisis within the lifetimes of children being born today." This disturbing news made the top-fold front pages of the Post and the Times, but it was completely ignored by the broadcast television networks' nightly news programs.
The study, published on March 31 in the journal Nature, found that global warming could cause the Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, in part through a process previously "underappreciated" in sea level rise models. Combined with ice melting in other areas, the study projects that sea levels could rise about six feet by the end of the century, an estimate roughly double that of the most widely cited worst-case scenario. This amount of sea level rise would put hundreds of millions of people in cities and coastal areas around the world at risk of inundation, including New York City, Boston, Miami, New Orleans, and other major U.S. cities. (As Gizmodo bluntly put it, "Florida is screwed."). The study also projects that seas will rise nearly 50 feet by 2500, which as the Post's Capital Weather Gang noted, would result in even more catastrophic consequences:
In the study's projection for 2500, almost the entire state of Delaware would disappear. Much of Manhattan and Brooklyn would be reduced to just slivers of their current selves. The southern coast of Florida would end north of Lake Okeechobee. California's Central Valley would flood from Modesto to Colusa, and the state capital of Sacramento would be entirely under water.
The new study does come with a silver lining, according to the Times: "A far more stringent effort to limit emissions of greenhouse gases would stand a fairly good chance of saving West Antarctica from collapse, scientists found. That aspect of their paper contrasts with other recent studies postulating that a gradual disintegration of West Antarctica may have already become unstoppable."
The nightly newscasts' failure to cover this study follows a paltry year of climate change coverage on the broadcast networks in 2015. A Media Matters study found that ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively devoted less time to covering climate change during their nightly news and Sunday show broadcasts than they did in the previous year, even though 2015 was a landmark year for climate-related news that included the EPA finalizing the Clean Power Plan, Pope Francis issuing a climate change encyclical, President Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, and 195 countries around the world reaching a historic climate agreement in Paris.
Unlike the network news broadcasts, CNN and MSNBC both aired segments about the new study. On CNN's The Lead with Jake Tapper, Tapper introduced a segment about the study by stating that the West Antarctic ice sheet is "disintegrating so fast your kids and your grandkids, well, they might not be able to dream about living in New York City or Philadelphia or Washington or Miami because there might not be a New York City or Philadelphia or Washington or Miami at the turn of the century":
Similarly, on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes, Hayes reported that "there's new evidence that ... the nightmare, worst case scenario" about global warming "will unfold in decades rather than centuries," and interviewed Columbia University climate scientist Radley Horton to discuss the sea level study's significance:
Media outlets are adopting the National Federation of Independent Business' (NFIB) claim that it is speaking for the small business community in its opposition to Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination. In reality, NFIB is a front group that has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers network and other large corporate interests, and its opposition to Garland is part of a campaign against environmental, labor and healthcare policies that most small businesses support.
A coalition of prominent scientific organizations and experts is calling for a presidential debate that is focused on today's most pressing science-related topics, including climate change. To come up with potential questions for the candidates, they are turning to the American public. You can submit a question by clicking here.
ScienceDebate.org, a non-profit backed by Nobel Laureates and hundreds of other leaders in science, academics, business, and government, is running a campaign calling for at least one presidential debate that is exclusively focused on science, health, tech, and environmental issues. Now, in partnership with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geosciences Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, the group is crowdsourcing the best science-related questions.
Questions posed by ScienceDebate.org have helped shape the past two presidential elections; in 2008 and 2012, the presidential nominees of both parties provided written responses to the group's top 14 science questions. For example, the group asked in the 2008 election:
The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change--a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?
In response to the question, both then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain said that they favored a cap-and-trade system and other measures to reduce carbon pollution and help avoid what McCain called "disastrous changes in the climate."
So far this election cycle, climate change has not been thoroughly addressed in the presidential primary debates, according to a recent Media Matters analysis. What's more, debate moderators have not posed a single climate question to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, the two front-runners for the GOP nomination.
Some of the best climate questions that have been posed during presidential debates were submitted to the moderators by people concerned about climate change. Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple observed that Arizona State University graduate student Anna Bettis provided CNN with "a simple and consequential question" that provoked an "extensive discussion" of climate change when she asked via video: "As a young person, I'm very concerned about climate change and how it will affect my future. As a presidential candidate, what will you do to address climate change?" Later, a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors urged the moderators of the Democratic and Republican debates in Miami to address climate change, and provided several suggested questions. Those two debates ultimately included seven questions about climate change, accounting for nearly one-third of the 22 climate questions asked over the course of all 20 primary debates. In the March 10 Republican debate hosted by CNN, co-moderator Jake Tapper noted that Republican Miami mayor Tomas Regalado, who had endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had requested that Tapper ask Rubio: "Will you, as president acknowledge the reality of the scientific consensus about climate change and as president, will you pledge to do something about it?"
But good questions on climate change and other scientific issues have been few and far between, which is why ScienceDebate.org says there should be an entire debate devoted to these issues. And the American people overwhelmingly agree; according to a Zogby Analytics poll, 86 percent of U.S. adults think the presidential candidates "should participate in a debate to discuss key science-based challenges facing the United States." As Shawn Otto, chair of Science Debate, has stated to Media Matters: "[I]t's the science issues--from climate change to the Internet, from the war on drugs to a sustainable economy--that are driving most of today's major policy challenges, and the American people deserve answers."
But before the presidential candidates can provide detailed answers on climate change and other science topics, people need to come up with the questions. Submit yours here!
With 20 presidential primary debates now completed, debate moderators have only asked 22 questions about climate change, which is just 1.5 percent of the 1,477 questions posed. In addition, the moderators were more than twice as likely to ask a climate question to a Democratic candidate than to a Republican candidate, and they have not asked a single climate question to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, the two front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination. Nearly one-third of the climate questions were asked in the two most recent debates in Miami, following a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors urging the networks to address the issue in those debates.