Report Glosses Over Media Failures In Climate Coverage

In a new report titled “Climate Shift: Clear Vision For The Next Decade Of Public Debate,” Matthew Nisbet of American University attempts to debunk environmentalists' complaints about media coverage of climate change. However, the evidence presented in the report is far more limited than the conclusion it seeks to draw.


Joe Romm of ClimateProgress reported on April 18 that environmental communication expert Robert J. Brulle “had his name pulled off the report's list of expert paid reviewers late last week when he finally saw the whole finished report.” Brulle disputes the report's conclusion that environmental groups “have closed the financial gap with their longstanding opponents among conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations.”

Brulle also takes issue with the report's media analysis. Nisbet states in the Executive Summary of the report that “the era of false balance in news coverage of climate science has come to an end. In comparison to other factors, the impact of conservative media and commentators on wider public opinion remains limited.”

According to Romm, Brulle stated: “I think this conclusion is bogus.” Romm further reported that Max Boykoff, who has studied media coverage of climate change extensively and is listed as a member of the report's panel of expert reviewers, said that “This particular conclusion reaches beyond the findings in the study.”


Nisbet set out to “assess the performance of the mainstream news media in 2009 and 2010” and concludes in his Executive Summary that “major U.S. news organizations have overwhelmingly portrayed the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change” (the consensus view being that global warming is real and humans are contributing to it.) Nisbet's broader argument is that environmentalists were not “out-communicated” by their opponents during the debate over cap and trade legislation in 2009 and 2010.

However, the study was limited to only 5 news outlets: The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Politico and The Wall Street Journal.

According to a survey conducted in December 2010 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 66 percent of Americans say television is their main source of news. Nisbet's study purports to represent the performance of “the mainstream media” but does not include a single television outlet.

Nisbet says he chose to analyze these particular sources in part because their coverage “informs the decisions of policymakers.” But this is not unique to the outlets Nisbet examines. As the New Yorker reported in October 2010, Republican Lindsay Graham's actions on failed climate negotiations in the Senate earlier that year were influenced by his fear of Fox News' coverage:

But, back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the [climate] bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, 'The second they focus on us, it's gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it's gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.' ”

The 2010 climate efforts in the Senate ultimately failed after Graham withdrew his support and zero Republicans would participate in the talks. Meanwhile, Republicans' voting base trusts Fox News more than any other major television news outlet. Public Policy Polling reported in January that 67 percent of self-identified Republicans trust Fox News while majorities of Republicans distrust ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. The survey also found that 72 percent of self-identified conservatives say they trust Fox News while majorities of conservatives distrust PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN.

In its 2009 biennial media attitudes survey, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 55 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Fox News, whereas only 32 percent viewed the Wall Street Journal favorably, and even fewer -- 29 percent -- viewed the New York Times favorably. Further, Pew's poll showed that most Americans -- 54 percent -- are not even familiar enough with the Times to give an opinion.

The notion that Republicans in Congress are more influenced on the issue of climate change by what appears on the pages of the New York Times or The Washington Post than by the coverage Fox produces nearly 24 hours a day seems far-fetched, particularly given how little coverage of climate change there is overall and the volume with which Fox News denies the reality of climate change.

This is a network whose personalities flatly reject climate change science and which has established an annual tradition of using winter weather to cast doubt on global warming. On the opinion side of the purported Fox News partition, Sean Hannity claims global warming “doesn't exist,” and on the “news” side, Bret Baier reports that “the Earth has actually cooled over the last decade.”

As we uncovered last December, Fox's Washington managing editor Bill Sammon sent an email at the time of the Copenhagen summit directing Fox journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.” This places Fox farther from the mainstream than even contrarian climate scientists like Roy Spencer, who has said “no one I know seriously debates that warming has actually occurred.”

Without accounting for this loud, popular, and influential network -- where there's evidence that false balance on climate science is not just practice but policy -- Nisbet is hasty in making conclusions about the U.S. media as a whole.


After evaluating articles on climate change in the Times, Post, Journal, Politico and from 2009 and 2010, Nisbet concludes: “In recent years, major U.S. news organizations have overwhelmingly portrayed the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change.”

But the report fails to explain the difference that shows up in its data between articles published before and after the “Climategate” controversy. According to numbers provided in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 of the report, only remained consistent in the percentage of articles that accurately portrayed the scientific consensus on climate change.

In Nisbet's data, the New York Times portrayed the consensus view in 98 percent of the climate change articles between January 1, 2009 and November 30, 2009. However, for December 1, 2009 through the end of 2010, the percentage had dropped to 87 -- corresponding with the time period in which the “Climategate” story picked up steam in late November 2009. An even larger deterioration of the portrayal of climate science is evident in the data for Politico and The Wall Street Journal.

The following chart uses the numbers provided in the report to demonstrate the decline in the percentage of articles reflecting the scientific consensus in the Times, The Post, The Journal and Politico:


At no point in the report does Nisbet address this trend or explain why, if the scientific consensus did not change from 2009 to 2010, the media's portrayal of that consensus in articles on climate change declined. A possible explanation is that “Climategate” shifted the way the news outlets present the science, despite the fact that nothing in the leaked emails undermined the body of evidence supporting anthropogenic global warming.


Nisbet's analysis of media coverage of climate change hinges on two central points. One, that aside from the Journal's editorial pages, the media outlets he examined “overwhelmingly reflected the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change,” and two, that there was “limited news attention to Climategate.”

It's not clear how Nisbet determined what constitutes a “limited” amount of news attention. According to the report, in December 2009 alone, 54 of the articles from the 5 news outlets mentioned the British scientists' stolen emails. By contrast, only 14 articles from the same news outlets mentioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's endangerment finding on greenhouse gases in the month after it was issued, according to a Nexis search for “endangerment.”

Coverage by those same outlets of other scandals related to leaked documents also didn't approach the amount of attention given to “Climategate.” A Nexis search turns up only 5 pieces mentioning Bill Sammon's email ordering Fox journalists to cast doubt on the global temperature record (the search was run for 30 days after the story was first reported.)

When hackers released documents showing that HBGary Federal and other security firms had created plans to sabotage and discredit critics of the Chamber of Commerce using underhanded tactics, the five news outlets examined by Nisbet produced only 6 pieces mentioning HBGary in the month after the news broke.

It's hard to imagine that the groups or individuals who orchestrated the “Climategate” scandal were disappointed with the media response.


The report counts the number of articles that mentioned the “Climategate” emails and finds the amount of attention given to the story to be “limited.” However, it does not address how the scandal was presented in those articles. Did the media outlets advance allegations about the content of the emails which were both unfounded at the time and later definitively shown to be false? Indeed, the leaked emails did not contain evidence that scientists had manipulated or falsified climate data, but media outlets claimed that they did or uncritically reported that false allegation.

As Nisbet notes in the report, the scientists “were exonerated of falsifying data.” Multiple inquiries into the emails concluded that the scientists had not tampered with climate data to fraudulently bolster the case for global warming. By as early as November 20, 2009, climate scientists had already debunked the claim that an email referencing a “trick” to “hide the decline” revealed wrongdoing on the part of the scientists. Nevertheless, countless media outlets failed to closely examine or referee the allegations of data manipulation that they passed along to their audience.

For instance, on December 7, 2009, reported that the emails “suggest some scientists faked data to support the argument of global warming.” Likewise, Politico reported on December 8 that the emails “show climate scientists debating whether to manipulate scientific data to strengthen the case for man-made global warming.” The Washington Post published an op-ed by Sarah Palin on December 9, 2009, claiming that the e-mails showed scientists “manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures.”

As we noted at the time, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News, CBS Evening News, Fox News and Fox Broadcasting similarly forwarded the baseless notion that the leaked emails showed deceitful manipulation of climate data.

A thorough content examination of how the media covered the “Climategate” emails would be more illuminating than simply counting the number of articles mentioning the story.


The report's Executive Summary states that “In comparison to other factors, the impact of conservative media and commentators on wider public opinion remains limited.” Rather than evaluate the climate coverage produced by conservative media outlets like Fox News as part of the media analysis, the report addresses the issue briefly in a subsequent chapter and concludes that “the use of conservative media outlets such as Fox News and focusing events such as Climategate tend to reinforce existing views about climate change rather than altering them.”

Setting aside that media outlets serving to “reinforce” false beliefs about science is a weighty problem in itself, the report misrepresents studies it cites to argue that Fox News and “Climategate” haven't substantially affected public opinion.

First, Nisbet writes that Stanford's Jon Krosnick found in a 2010 survey that frequent Fox News viewers were less likely to believe in manmade climate change or trust scientists. Nisbet adds: “Krosnick attributes the findings to motivated reasoning. Conservative-leaning individuals who already hold stronger doubts about climate change are more likely to view Fox News, and this viewing reinforces these doubts.” In fact, Krosnick's study actually concluded that the finding likely resulted from “a combination of persuasion by Fox news coverage and of selective exposure”:

It is impossible to discern from these results what causal processes produced the observed relations. One possibility is that exposure to frequent skeptical messages about global warming on Fox News caused viewers to adopt these opinions. A second possibility is that viewers who hold these opinions a priori choose to watch Fox News, because it frequently expresses views that agree with their own.

This latter effect is known in social psychology as a tendency toward “selective exposure” to congenial information. Some past research has shown that people who identify themselves as Republicans and political conservatives are especially likely to manifest such selective exposure.

Other research has shown that exposure to skeptical views about global warming can be effective at changing the opinions of viewers. We therefore suspect that the relations documented in Figure 1 are likely to result from a combination of persuasion by Fox news coverage and of selective exposure by Republicans and conservative viewers to Fox News. [emphasis added, in-text citations deleted for clarity]

In the report, Nisbet further suggests that a study by Lauren Feldman of American University supports the notion that Fox News and other conservative media do not change minds on the climate issue. In fact, Feldman's study concluded that “the results are strongly suggestive of the power of cable news to shape and polarize public opinion”:

While follow-up longitudinal or experimental research is needed to confirm the directionality of the relationship between cable news use and global warming perceptions and beliefs, the results are strongly suggestive of the power of cable news to shape and polarize public opinion. To the extent that the cable news networks continue to serve up partisan content in the quest for that lucrative niche audience, the opportunity for consensus-building and cooperation on global warming - as well as on other critical issues of the day - diminishes.

Nisbet also writes that a recent study of the “Climategate” controversy by Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach showed that “just 12 percent of all respondents said the event had diminished their certainty that climate change was happening and these expressed doubts were held strongest among those respondents scoring high on individualist/conservative values.” Nisbet downplays the impact of the controversy by using the phrase “just 12 percent,” but the authors of the study do not dismiss this number so quickly.

In fact, they conclude that their “findings all suggest that Climategate had a significant impact on overall public opinion, despite the fact that a large majority of Americans had not heard of it” and that “Climategate deepened and perhaps solidified the prior observed declines in public beliefs that global warming is happening, human caused, and of serious concern.”