Reactions to Our Analysis of Climate Science on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC

, , former science communication officer | April 14, 2014, 12:43 pm EDT
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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.

Publicly, CNN’s senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, shared the report on Twitter, as did MSNBC host Chris Hayes. To date, nobody from Fox News Channel has weighed in.

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 News Channel Coverage of Climate Science

We found that Fox News hosts and guests were the mostly likely to understate the reality and effects of climate change as well as the most likely to disparage climate science and scientists.

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 Coverage of Climate Science

CNN’s coverage featured several misleading debates about climate science.

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 Coverage of Climate Science

MSNBC’s misleading segments all involved overstating the effects of climate change.

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.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , ,

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  • Richard

    One of the reasons I never became a viewer of Morgan’s show on CNN was the obvious lack of attention to its guests being accurate in their statements. Morgan lacked the expertise himself to question these guests. And he did not have on other guests at the same time who could/would dispute inaccurate info being shared.

    So, why endorse a program like this by watching it?!?

    Chris Hayes probably does the best job at presenting more sides of an issue than most such hosts do on TV nowadays. In fact, sometimes it gets kind of tedious, ‘boring’ to listen to all the subtle info being shared.

    • Thanks, Richard. One of our recommendations is that hosts who want to do climate debates should be well-prepared to challenge their guests on the scientific facts. We also suggest that they could do fact-checking segments on subsequent programs or use their website to fact-check guests who have said inaccurate things about climate science. Admittedly, it can be difficult to manage a live on-air conversation, but outlets have a lot of ways to deal with these that haven’t been fully explored. I also have a lot of sympathy for folks who work in TV news because they often have to cover so many things, and it’s rarer for them to be able to work a beat like newspaper reporters often do.

      Personally, I like documentary-style news more than panel discussions. To that end, you might want to check out the Politics of Power special Hayes and his team did last year. PBS’s Frontline also did an excellent climate documentary in 2012 and NBC News also did some recent, extensive reporting on climate issues.