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Media “Balance” and Climate Change

Media “Balance” and Climate Change

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

It’s easy to be confused when you want to be confused. For Joe and Jane Public, the reality of human-caused climate change is inconvenient and upsetting, and it’s more comfortable to ignore global warming facts or, alternatively, to lock onto benign, non-human causes. The great majority of climate scientists have told us for over 20 years that climate change is real, and that society’s hydrocarbon consumption, deforestation, and other activities are primary causes. American media helped Joe and Jane stay comfortable by either ignoring the scientists or applying “balanced” coverage.

As a lawyer, I know that it’s usually easy to find an “expert” to opine your way on complex technical issues. The tobacco companies succeeded in spreading confusion about cigarettes’ health effects, even after the Surgeon General’s 1964 indictment of smoking, with good media stroking and their own experts. Trial lawyers helped stopped that confusion in aggressive lawsuits that nailed tobacco companies for billions of dollars in damages.

Where there is controversy, such as about smoking’s effects until recently, reporters are trained to balance “both sides of the story,” even when the evidence is far from even – the “news” is about facts, not advocacy. But the effect of balancing conflicting experts may be confusion on issues affecting survival. A 2004 book chapter titled “Balance as bias: Global warming and the US prestige press” detailed a survey of over 600 articles in top newspapers between 1988 and 2002; most articles gave as much weight to a small group of climate-change-doubter scientists as they gave to the scientific consensus view that global warming was occurring. Confronted with articulate dissenters to an inconvenient scientific consensus, Jane and Joe can reasonably ignore the matter.

The block-out strategy has become more difficult for media and for consumers this summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others, has begun linking recent extreme weather events to human-caused climate change. The media gave wide coverage to the dramatic effects of drought and heat in forest fires, poor crops, and it listened more carefully to scientific explanations of why. We have crossed a line, and I believe the media can no longer give equal billing to the climate change denier, even though he’s an endangered species.

Image by Juhko (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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