There’s a 97 percent consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed climate science literature and among climate experts. There’s a 96 percent consensus in the climate research that humans are responsible for most of the current global warming. The 2013 IPCC report agrees with this position with 95 percent confidence, and states that humans are most likely responsible for 100 percent of the global warming since 1951.
Yet a new study conducted by Media Matters for America shows that in stories about the 2013 IPCC report, rather than accurately reflect this expert consensus, certain media outlets have created a false perception of discord amongst climate scientists.
Conservative News Outlet False Balance and Fake Experts
Specifically, politically conservative news outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were responsible for the lion’s share of the false balance, disproportionately representing climate contrarians in their stories about the IPCC report.
The Media Matters study focused on American news outlets, but similar patterns have been observed in other international media markets. Mat Hope at Carbon Brief reviewed UK media coverage of the IPCC report. Similarly, he found that the politically conservative Times, Daily Mail, and Telegraph gave climate contrarian views disproportionate coverage, unlike The Guardian, Observer, and Independent. Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian also heavily featured climate contrarians in its climate stories leading up to the 2013 IPCC report.
Because there are so few climate scientist contrarians to choose from, most of the guests casting doubt on human-caused global warming and the IPCC report were not climate scientists. It’s important to remember that the scientific evidence has no political bias, which suggests that the disproportionate representation of climate contrarians is a result of the political biases in the media outlets themselves.
The 19 percent of guests classified as ‘climate scientists’ in the above graphic is also very generous to the conservative American media outlets. The 19 percent is comprised of Judith Curry, Willie Soon (who has received $1m from coal and oil industry interests since 2001), and Anthony Tsonis (whose research on ocean cycles is entirely consistent with human-caused global warming, but whose views Fox News portrayed inaccurately).
This practice is known as “false balance,” where the 3 percent of climate contrarians are given a disproportionate amount of media coverage, creating the perception that there is a significant divide amongst climate experts. In their purported efforts to be “fair and balanced” and represent “both sides,” these media outlets are actually creating an unbalanced perception of reality. The reality is that 97 percent of climate experts and evidence support human-caused global warming. The findings in the IPCC report are consistent with that expert consensus, as we would expect, since the IPCC report is simply a summary of the body of scientific research.
Bias Seeping into the BBC
Unfortunately this practice of false balance appears to be spreading to politically neutral media outlets. The BBC has been heavily criticized for its interviews of climate contrarians leading up to the publication of the IPCC report. BBC editor Ehsan Masood attempted to defend the network’s false balance coverage this week, arguing that there is a difference between climate contrarians and skeptics, and that it’s important to cover the latter to avoid “shutting out dissenting voices.”
There certainly is a difference between biased contrarians and open-minded skeptics. The problem is that the BBC can’t seem to tell the difference. For example, they granted an extensive interview to Bob Carter, a marine geologist with minimal experience in climate science, who works for numerous conservative think tanks including the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In fact, the interview largely centered on the right-wing think tank response to the IPCC report, the NIPCC report, which is neither a legitimate scientific document, nor skeptical. Rather it is the epitome of cherry picking and myth regurgitation.
If the BBC wants to give airtime to “dissenting voices” in climate, it should invite them to debate policy solutions. Amplifying the voices of climate contrarians who reject fundamental aspects of climate science is not constructive. As Masood admitted,
“Very few journalists (at least in the developed world) would give space to those claiming HIV doesn’t cause Aids, to flat-Earthers, or those who believe that vaccines make us ill.”
Will the BBC begin following every Attenborough program by giving Creationists airtime? Giving space to those like Bob Carter that reject the expert consensus on human-caused climate change is no different. It amplifies the voices of the 3 percent minority and creates the false impression of a division amongst climate experts. As a result, only 45 percent of Americans are aware of the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming.
Media false balance as illustrated in the IPCC reporting by outlets like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, and Fox News is largely to blame for this “consensus gap.” This practice of false balance misinforms the public and does us all a disservice.