Reactions to our recent analysis of how cable news networks portray climate science have been interesting, to say the least.
Before we released the report, we offered briefings to all the programs we studied and sent them copies of the report itself. As a result, we had at least one substantive conversation about the results with staff at each network. We hope those conversations will continue.
For now, we’re asking our members to contact CNN, where the network will soon pick a new host for Piers Morgan’s old time slot. We’ll have follow-ups for the other two networks in the coming months.
That said, there’s one network that seemed to grab all the headlines.
Everybody likes to talk about Fox News Channel
Fox is the most-watched cable news channel and sentiments about the network run deep. We found that Fox News Channel segments that touched on climate science were wholly accurate 28 percent of the time.
Predictably, some of the network’s detractors celebrated our findings while some fans dismissed them. But most people picked up on the fact that the network’s coverage has improved and is not monolithic: Bill O’Reilly and Bret Baier’s programs were responsible for most of its accurate coverage.
That said, soon after we published our report, a few Fox programs, including Baier’s, aired a report about efforts by the libertarian Heartland Institute to discredit mainstream scientific assessments. The Fox stories included some token criticism of Heartland’s new report — which is essentially an exercise in cherry-picking information to understate risks from climate change — from Don Wuebbles, a respected climate scientist. But the clip also featured Heartland Institute president Joe Bast falsely claiming that mainstream scientists and the peer-reviewed scientific literature can’t be trusted.
To debate or not to debate?
As report co-author Rachel Kriegsman noted, it was good to see that most readers picked up on the fact that CNN and MSNBC have room for improvement, too.
CNN segments were accurate 70 percent of the time. The remaining segments were mostly debates about established science. Our recommendation that CNN focus debates on if and how to respond to climate change – rather than whether or not we should accept mainstream climate science – got a little pushback from climate contrarians as well as the Daily Caller.
Similarly, Charles Krauthammer complained in the Washington Post last week that calls for media outlets to get the science right are “intolerant.” Tellingly, Krauthammer equated efforts to demand accuracy from news outlets on climate science to ‘political correctness’ on other issues that have little to do with science. In each case, critics seem to be conflating debates about politics and policy, which are valid, with debates about established science, which aren’t.
Can networks host valid science debates? Sure, if they focus on emerging rather than established science. For instance, Lou Dobbs hosted a segment on CNN several years ago in which three scientists discussed emerging hurricane research. However, we found no such debates in our analysis of 2013 coverage.
It’s also worth pointing out that Bill Nye and Bjorn Lomborg debated resilience policy on Piers Morgan’s show and both of them represented climate science accurately. Unfortunately, that was the exception, and other debates the network hosted gave a platform to people who spread a lot of misinformation about the science.
Doing well and doing better
MSNBC’s performance surprised us most of all. MSNBC hosts and guests were wholly accurate in 92 percent of the segments they aired. We thought they were going to do worse. Perhaps the handful of overstatements we’d previously seen on the network weighed heavily in our minds, but they were rarer than we thought.
In addition to curtailing overstatements from hosts and guests, the network could also do more to advance the dialogue around climate issues. As we noted in our analysis, a lot of MSNBC coverage involved criticizing climate contrarians, usually congressional Republicans, for rejecting the science.
A smaller portion of coverage created across-the-divide dialogues on climate. Chris Hayes, for instance, was one of the few hosts who interviewed Republicans who accept mainstream climate science. (By contrast, Fox News Channel only interviewed one such politician through all of 2013.) Ultimately, those conversations may be more productive for fostering an effective national conversation about climate change — one in which disagreements are rooted in competing values rather than competing views of scientific facts.
Drive-by comments and good dialogue
As a matter of habit, I often avoid reading online comments on news articles because it’s a good idea not to be this guy, especially if you work in science communication. Predictably, most of the people who were motivated enough to leave a comment on the articles seemed intent on offering a condemnation of Fox or a condemnation of UCS.
The major exception was on Reddit, where commenters had some pretty substantive back-and-forth about science communication and the efficacy of televised science debates. I’m not sure how media outlets will ultimately resolve the “comment problem,” but there are some good alternatives out there, including voting systems like Reddit’s.
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