REPORT: Climate Denial Letters In Top US Newspapers

LA Times Policy Against Climate Denial Letters To The Editor Not Followed By Other Papers

The Los Angeles Times recently announced it does not publish Letters to the Editor that deny man's role in climate change, but most major newspapers are not following suit. A study from Media Matters found that 14 letters that deny manmade climate change have been printed in The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, The Washington Post and The New York Times so far in 2013.

LA Times: We Do Not Print Climate Denial Letters “Based In Falsehood”

LA Times Announces It Does Not Print False Climate Denial Letters. Paul Thornton, the Los Angeles Times' letters editor, stated on October 5 that the paper would not print letters that “have an untrue basis,” including those “that say there's no sign humans have caused climate change.” Thornton later elaborated on his reasoning:

[S]cientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a body made up of the world's top climate scientists -- said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn't whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us. Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there's no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy. [Los Angeles Times, 10/5/13] [Los Angeles Times, 10/8/13]

Climate Denial Letters Printed In All Other Top US Newspapers

WSJ, USA TODAY, Wash. Post And NY Times Printed Climate Denial Letters. A Media Matters review found that, contrary to the Los Angeles Times, all other top U.S. newspapers printed climate denial letters in 2013. In four of the most prominent U.S. newspapers, 14 letters were printed that denied man's role in global warming in 2013 so far -- eight were printed in the Wall Street Journal, and four were printed in USA TODAY. Meanwhile, New York Times and Washington Post published one letter pushing climate denial each:


Letters That Denied Climate Change Were Riddled With Factual Inaccuracies. Of the 14 letters printed in major US papers that denied manmade climate change, at least seven included clear scientific falsities. For example:

  • WSJ Letter: Solar Activity Is The Likely Cause Of Climate Change. On January 11, the Wall Street Journal printed a letter that claimed the “likely cause [of recent warming] is increased solar activity, which is simultaneously increasing the temperature on Mars. Unless there is an advanced Martian civilization burning vast amounts of coal and oil, global-warming alarmism needs some serious re-evaluation.” In reality, while global temperatures have been increasing, the sun has been cooling for the past 35 years. [Skeptical Science, updated 10/8/13] [Wall Street Journal, 1/11/13]
  • Wash. Post Letter: Majority Of Scientists Disagree On Manmade Warming.  A Washington Post letter claimed that if you “Ask 100 scientists to quantify the human effect on 'climate change' and you'll get 100 answers.” However, 97 percent of all peer-reviewed papers on climate change agree that human activities are driving global warming. [Washington Post, 7/5/13] [IOPscience, 5/15/13]
  • USA TODAY Letter: All We Can Do Is Feel The Weather. USA TODAY published a letter responding to a set of opposing editorials on climate change which suggested that global warming is not happening because the writer's hometown “had a colder than normal winter, spring and summer.” [USA TODAY, 10/16/13]

We only included letters that denied man's role in climate change outright as “denial,” not letters that emphasized uncertainties in climate science without casting doubt on whether it was actually manmade, or cast doubt on whether climate change was addressable. For example, a letter printed in the Wall Street Journal that suggested “actual evidence of global warming [was] M.I.A. for a decade or two” was not classified as “denial,” nor was a USA TODAY letter that asserted that any action on climate change “will have so little effect as to be pointless” due to the “naturally occurring” greenhouse gas emissions from “volcanoes and livestock.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/6/13] [USA TODAY, 2/14/13]

Many Newspapers Don't Have A Climate Denial Policy

Washington Post Prints A “Broad Spectrum” Of Views. Mother Jones contacted editors from several papers across the country to find out how they “handle climate-denying letters.” According to Mother Jones, the Washington Post said that it published letters that “raise questions about the scientific consensus”:

[T]he [Washington] Post wants its letters section to reflect a “broad spectrum” of views and that it has “published letters that are skeptical or raise questions abo­ut the scientific consensus. In general, these have been letters that we think make informed and interesting points challenging the science or the way it's used. It's a complex topic that's no more above critical scrutiny than anything else.” [Mother Jones, 10/21/13]

USA Today: “You Have To Give People Who Believe The 5-Percent Opinion Their Say.” According to the editorial page editor at USA TODAY, the newspaper has an “aggressive” fact-checking process for all letters. However, USA TODAY also does not take issue with printing letters that deny the effects of climate change, saying, “You have to give people who believe the 5-percent opinion their say.” Mother Jones reported:

Brian Gallagher, editorial page editor at USA Today, said his paper has an “aggressive” fact-checking process that applies to all letters and op-eds and that it won't print anything that is “flatly false.” Beyond that, he said, the paper gives letter-writers “as much latitude as express their opinions.”


Gallagher argued that the IPCC's 95-percent certainty that humans are warming the planet doesn't mean that contrary views should be left out of the paper. “Sometimes the 5 percent is right,” he said. “You have to give people who believe the 5-percent opinion their say.” [Mother Jones, 10/21/13]

Wall Street Journal And NY Times Do Not Have A Stated Policy On Climate Denial Letters. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times do not have a clearly stated policy in place that tells readers that letters to the editor must be factually accurate. [New York Times, accessed 10/29/13] [Wall Street Journal, accessed 10/29/13]

METHODOLOGY: We searched Factiva (for The Wall Street Journal) and Nexis (for all other papers) from January 1, 2013 through October 27, 2013 for search terms “climate change,” “global warming,” “greenhouse gases,” or “carbon dioxide,” and tailored searches for each newspaper to capture their letters or opinion page. The New York Times search required the additional term “To the editor:” to be included, Washington Post required the term “editorial,” and the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times both required the term “letters.” All results for “climate change or global warming or greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide” were reviewed for USA TODAY.

Our analysis included any letter to the editor that included any of the four primary search terms. We classified a letter as “Accepts Manmade Climate Change” if it stated or heavily implied that climate change is real, “Denies Manmade Climate Change” if it suggested that climate change is not real or not mostly manmade, “Casts Doubt On Addressable Climate Change,” if it suggested large uncertainty about climate change (on issues other than whether it is manmade) or claimed that global warming is an unsolvable problem, and “No position” if it took no stance on climate change. We classified a letter as “factually inaccurate” if it included a statement that could be rebutted by fact, but not if it contained a true statement misleadingly used to support a point.