STUDY: Media Sowed Doubt In Coverage Of UN Climate Report

False Balance And “Pause” Dominated IPCC Coverage

A study of coverage of the recent United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that many mainstream media outlets amplified the marginal viewpoints of those who doubt the role of human activity in warming the planet, even though the report itself reflects that the climate science community is more certain than ever that humans are the major driver of climate change. The media also covered how recent temperature trends have not warmed at as fast a rate as before in nearly half of their IPCC coverage, but this trend does not undermine long-term climate change.

Media Used False Balance In IPCC Coverage 

UN Report Showed Warming To Be “Unequivocal.” The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report, the first part of which was released in September 2013 along with a Summary for Policymakers, found that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and will continue under all greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Further, the panel found that human influence is now thought “extremely likely” -- representing 95 percent certainty -- to be the “dominant cause” of global warming since the mid-20th century. [IPCC, 9/27/13]

Half Of Print Outlets Used False Balance On Existence Of Manmade Warming. Surveys have shown that 97 percent of peer-reviewed literature and climate scientists accept that human activities are a major factor causing global warming -- only 3 percent do not accept this consensus position. Yet doubters comprised over 18 percent of those quoted by Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post -- giving this minority view over five times the amount of representation it has in the scientific community. Half of those quoted in The Wall Street Journal were doubters, about 29 percent in Los Angeles Times, about 17 percent in The Washington Post and about 12 percent in Bloomberg News.

Four other major print outlets --The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters and USA TODAY -- avoided false balance in their coverage of the report. With these outlets included, almost eight percent of print media quotes were from those casting doubt on manmade warming.

CBS Gave Doubters More Than Six Times Their Representation In Climate Science Community. CBS Evening News gave the head of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Benny Peiser -- who CBS described as one of the “skeptics” -- equal weight as a climate scientist, without noting that Peiser has no expertise in climate science in a segment titled “Globe not warming as previously thought.” Doubters constituted 20 percent of those quoted on CBS -- over six times their representation in the climate science community. By contrast, ABC, NBC and CNN did not include false balance in their coverage. And although MSNBC quoted four doubters, these quotes came from a segment on Hardball in which host Chris Matthews and his guests rebutted the doubters. [Mother Jones, 10/7/13] [Carbon Brief, 2011] [CBS, CBS Evening News, 9/26/13]

Doubters Dominated On Fox News, The Majority Of Whom Were Unqualified. Fox News tipped the balance toward those on the opposite side of the facts, as 69 percent of guests and 75 percent of mentions cast doubt on climate science. Seventy-three percent of doubters hosted by Fox News had no background in climate science.

Doubters Were More Likely To Lack Scientific Credentials.  Of those quoted who denied that humans are the dominant driver of global warming, about 81 percent did not have a background in climate science. Instead, some media opted for bloggers, political figures, and media pundits to disparage the scientific consensus on climate change. Many of the doubters have also received a considerable amount of funding from the fossil fuel industry.

  • Wash. Post, Bloomberg Mainstream The Noxious Heartland Institute. The Washington Post compared a Heartland Institute report to the IPCC's, without noting that the report does not undergo the same rigorous peer-review process as the IPCC's and has been criticized by several climate scientists. The newspaper then quoted Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast claiming “any warming that may be due to human greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be so small as to be invisible,” without noting that Bast is not a scientist. The Post described The Heartland Institute as a “nonprofit group funded by individuals and corporations.” However, that description hardly captures the Heartland Institute, which as the Post has previously reported, posted a billboard “comparing those who believe in global warming to domestic terrorist Theodore J. Kaczynski,” the Unabomber, and “received $736,500 from Exxon Mobil between 1998 and 2006 ... and $25,000 in 2011 from foundations affiliated with Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch, whose firm Koch Industries has substantial oil and energy holdings.” Bloomberg News similarly mainstreamed Bast, describing his organization merely as a “Chicago-based group.” Fox News also quoted Bast, making him the most frequently quoted doubter in our study alongside Judith Curry. In the same segment, Fox News quoted Willie Soon, a co-author of Heartland's report, who was counted as a “climate scientist” for our study, as he is a scientist who has published research on climate change. He has received funding from the American Petroleum Institute and worked for many industry-funded organizations, including the Heartland Institute, while promoting climate denial.  [The Washington Post, 9/27/13] [The Washington Post, 11/24/12] [Bloomberg, 10/3/13] [Fox News, Special Report, 9/18/13] [Media Matters, 5/27/11]
  • Bloomberg News Promoted “Toxic” Industry-Funded Doubter Marc Morano. Bloomberg News highlighted climate misinformer Marc Morano despite the fact that Morano has no scientific expertise whatsoever. Morano runs a climate denial blog sponsored by the libertarian Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which has received funding from ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the anonymously-funded Donors Trust. Bloomberg labeled him only as the “executive editor of Climate Depot,” and called the blog merely “skeptical of climate change” -- New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin has called it “toxic and divisive.” This was the second time this year Bloomberg used false balance, promoting Morano touting arguments that run counter to science. In May 2013, Bloomberg circulated Morano's allegation that catastrophically high carbon dioxide levels should be “welcomed” because “plants are going to be happy.” [Bloomberg, 8/19/13] [Bloomberg, 5/10/13] [Media Matters, 12/27/12]
  • Wash. Post Pitted Scientists Against Sen. James Inhofe On “Pause.” In the same article that quoted Bast, The Washington Post quoted Sen. James Inhofe suggesting that the “pause” in warming vindicated his claims that manmade warming is nonexistent. The Post did not note that Inhofe has received over $1.3 million in political contributions from the fossil fuel industry since 1999, according to a search of Oil Change International's database. [The Washington Post, 9/27/13] [Oil Change International, accessed 10/7/13] [C-SPAN, 8/1/12, via YouTube]
  • Judith Curry, Alongside Bast, Was Most Frequently Quoted Doubter. Judith Curry is a contrarian climate scientist who was classified as a doubter in this study as she suggested to both The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal that the majority of recent warming is not manmade in contrast to the views of the vast majority of climate scientists. Curry also suggested to Fox News that IPCC scientists, who are not paid for their contributions, were motivated by “funding.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/22/13] [Fox News, Fox Report with Shepard Smith, 9/24/13] [The Guardian, 9/4/13] [Wall Street Journal, 9/10/13]
  • Bjorn Lomborg -- Not Counted As A Doubter In This Study -- Received Widespread Attention. Bjorn Lomborg is a prominent critic of climate change advocates, but was not classified as a doubter for the purpose of this study as he accepts that most recent warming is manmade. He received more media attention than any doubter in IPCC coverage. Reuters and Bloomberg News -- which misidentified Lomborg, a business school professor, as a “scientist” -- quoted him dismissing “alarmist” estimates of global warming. Both USA TODAY and The Washington Post published op-eds by him. [Bloomberg, 9/27/13 (updated 10/3/13)] [Reuters, 9/27/13] [Media Matters, 7/12/11] [The Washington Post, 9/13/13] [USA TODAY, 9/26/13]

What's Wrong With False Balance

False Balance Doesn't Represent Scientific Understanding Of Climate Change. Scientists are as certain that climate change is a man-made threat as they are that cigarettes can kill. But when journalists bend too far to include “both sides” of the story, it hides that the weight of the facts lies on one side. As Professor Richard Somerville of UC San Diego wrote in a Letter to the Editor criticizing the San Diego Union-Tribune, false balance “gives your readers the impression that we scientists know much less about climate change than we actually do, and that the subject is much more controversial among scientific experts than it really is.” [Associated Press, 9/24/13] [San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/22/13]

“Balance” Norms Can Be Used By Powerful Interests To Mislead Public. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that an internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute, exposed in 1998, sought to exploit the journalistic norm of “balance” to mislead the public on climate change:

The basic notion that journalists should go beyond mere “balance” in search of the actual truth hardly represents a novel insight. This magazine, along with its political Web site, Campaign Desk, has been part of a rising chorus against a prevalent but lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to dig beneath competing claims. But for journalists raised on objectivity and tempered by accusations of bias, knowing that phony balance can create distortion is one thing and taking steps to fix the reporting is another.

Political reporting hardly presents the only challenge for journalists seeking to go beyond he said/she said accounts, or even the most difficult one. Instead, that distinction may be reserved for media coverage of contested scientific issues, many of them with major policy ramifications, such as global climate change. After all, the journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science. On the contrary, scientific theories and interpretations survive or perish depending upon whether they're published in highly competitive journals that practice strict quality control, whether the results upon which they're based can be replicated by other scientists, and ultimately whether they win over scientific peers. When consensus builds, it is based on repeated testing and retesting of an idea.


Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change -- as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.

In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to “recruit and train” scientists “who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate” to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry. [Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec 2004, via Discover Magazine]

False Balance Often Leads To Quoting Those Without Any Credentials. Biologist Steve Jones, who was tasked with evaluating the quality of the BBC's science reporting in 2011, explained why quoting non-experts criticizing climate science is “absurd”:

This goes to the heart of science reporting - you wouldn't have a homeopath speaking alongside a brain surgeon for balance, as that would be absurd. It's just as absurd to have a climate sceptic for balance against the work of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. [The Guardian, 10/1/13]

Study Results Represent A Regression To Poor Journalism Practices. A study of “climate change” or “global warming” coverage by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA TODAY from 2003 to 2006 by Environmental Studies Professor Maxwell T. Boykoff found that by 2006 avoiding false balance had become the norm, as seen in the graphic below. The results of our study, by contrast, show several of these outlets regressing to an era of false balance.

[Area, 6/7/07]

“Speed Bump” Dominated IPCC Coverage

Print Media Mentioned “Pause” In Warming In Almost Half Of Coverage. Forty-one percent of overall coverage, and over 49 percent of print media coverage, mentioned that the rate of warming has been slightly lower over the last 15 to 17 years. This fact has been seized on by those trying to cast doubt on global warming, even though scientists have explained that this short-term “speed bump” does not undermine the fact that long-term climate change continues on course. While many of the articles and segments that made note of this phenomenon explained why it is not a retort to the science indicating long-term climate change, several headlines may have misled readers about its significance.

[Union of Concerned Scientists, 9/25/13] [Think Progress, 9/30/13]

Using Short-Term Temperature Trends To Draw Conclusions Is Misleading. Using the short time period of 1998-2012 is “very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do[es] not in general reflect long-term climate trends” due to natural variability, according to the IPCC. Further, it added, “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850,” and temperatures are expected to keep rising in the long run. As a blog run by climate scientists, Real Climate, explained, “Those who have these [IPCC] data before their eyes can recognise immediately how misguided the big media attention for the 'wiggles' of the curves towards the end has been.” 

A chart published previously by Skeptical Science illustrates how a short-term trend can be cherry picked from the longer warming signal:

[The Guardian, 9/27/2013] [Real Climate, 9/27/13] [Skeptical Science, accessed 10/10/13]

Warming Through 2012 Is Within Range Of Past IPCC Projections. Despite recent less-intense warming and the fact that past temperature projections were not intended to predict warming over short time spans, the IPCC reported that “the observations through 2012 generally fall within the projections made in all past assessments.” [IPCC, 9/27/13]

METHODOLOGY: We searched Nexis and Factiva for “panel on climate change” from August 1, 2013 through October 1, 2013 for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY and The Wall Street Journal. For TV outlets, we did an additional Nexis and Factiva search for “climate change OR global warming OR climate report.” We also searched an internal video archive for “climate change OR global warming OR climate report” for Fox News and MSNBC daytime shows, which are not included in Nexis. 

Our analysis included any article, op-ed, editorial or segment devoted to the latest IPCC report, as well as any mention longer than one sentence. 

We only counted those quoted who commented on climate change in the context of the IPCC report, and classified them in terms of how they treated the scientific consensus on climate change within the context of the article or segment. Guests were included as “doubters” if they cast doubt on whether the majority of recent warming is manmade, self-identify as a “skeptic,” or stated that the benefits of warming would outweigh the costs without explicitly mentioning that at some point the costs would outweigh any benefits. Fox News introduced a quote from Anastasios Tsonis by saying he thought periods of warming and cooling “appear to have nothing to do with human activity,” so he was classified as a “doubter” for the purposes of this study.

We treated authors of bylined op-eds as figures quoted, but did not include editorial boards in this count. We classified those quoted as climate scientists if they held a PhD in a physical science or engineering discipline and had published research related to climate change. We classified guests as scientists if they held a PhD in a physical science or engineering discipline, but had not published research related to climate change.

This study originally omitted several CNN segments whose transcripts were in Nexis but not Factiva. The last two charts and total percent of pause mentions have been updated accordingly. Media Matters regrets the error.