July 4, 2006
The Media And Science
By: Rowan Wolf
What do you ideally expect when you watch or read the news? Ideally, I expect facts and unbiased reporting. That is rarely what one gets. One expects that differing points of view will be included, but that fact remains fact. Increasingly, it seems that everything is a "a matter of opinion," and that bias and misinformation is the norm - not the exception. One case in point is the reporting on global warming.
Note: Thanks to Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth" for bringing this issue to new light.
Dr. Naomi Oreskes did a study in 2004 that was reported in AAAS - Science and elsewhere. Oreskes examined peer-reviewed scientific reports on climate change. She took a random sample of 928 articles (10% of the total) and found that none disagreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statements on global warming:
""Human activities ... are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents ... that absorb or scatter radiant energy. ... [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations." [p. 21 in J. J. McCarthy et al., Eds., Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2001)]
In other words, there is no scientific debate on whether global warming is happening, or that it is being influenced by human activities.
However, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) looked at how global warming was being reported by the corporate media and found a far different presentation. Reported in the November/December 2004 edition of FAIR, Jules and Maxwell Boykoff analysed the issue of Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias: Creating controversy where science finds consensus. They searched stories on global warming in the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and Wall Street Journal that appeared from 1998 - 2002. They found 3,543 articles and took a random sample of 636 of them (18%). Here is what they found (emphases mine):
"53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.
35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.
6 percent emphasized doubts about the claim that human-caused global warming exists, while another 6 percent only included the predominant scientific view that humans are contributing to Earth's temperature increases.
Through statistical analyses, we found that coverage significantly diverged from the IPCC consensus on human contributions to global warming from 1990 through 2002. In other words, through adherence to the norm of balance, the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias".
Since the general public largely reads and views "news" rather than scientific journals, the impression left is that there is huge debate over the reality of global warming and its causes. In other words, that the scientific community is split, when in fact there is a concensus.
However, corporations are invested is sponsoring "uncertainty," or even disinformation in regard to global warming. As in this recent commercial from the Competitve Enterprise Institute (from YouTube):
This is not the first time that the CEI has engaged in propaganda. See the PR Watch review of the book "Facts Not Fear Wants to Make the World Safe for Styrofoam."
One might assume that the bias that occurs from the media presentation of issues is just a natural outcome of reporting "both sides of the story." However, they don't report both sides of the story unless it serves a purpose. For example, they certainly didn't report "both sides of the story" in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. They have consistently silenced dissident voices (until very recently) on policies and activities of the Bush administration.
How much effect has there been from reporting on the creationsim vs evolution "debate?" When does so-called "balanced" reporting actually amount to propaganda? How has this contributed to the idea that scientific research is just another point of view? My guess it that influence is significant.
While this "journalistic" approach seems more aimed at misinformation than information, it becomes critical when dealing with issues of major importance such as global warming. The politicians' frequent response to why they aren't taking leadership and dramatic action on global warming is that it would be political suicide. Why? THe general response I have heard is that the public does not support or believe in global warming. The real answer is more likely that those profiting from environmental destruction enhancing global warming don't want any action.
How can there be a public demand for action when the "information" that the public gets is that the jury is out on global warming? There can't be, and so nothing is done and the "debate" goes on. Meanwhile, both the time and ability to respond to the crisis runs out of our hands like sand.
Posted by Rowan at July 4, 2006 10:40 AM Category: Global Warming