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The Media’s Failure With the Biggest Story in the World

The mainstream media are largely to blame for the public’s ignorance on climate change.

Insofar as it presents climate science within a false-balance framework, the media are, in effect, giving misinformation, which can be deadly. (Photo: Smokestacks via Shutterstock)

The subtitle of David Ray Griffin’s new book, Unprecedented, asks the most serious question raised by global warming, Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? The book argues that of all the factors that have led to this crisis, none is more important than the failure of America’s mainstream media. The following excerpt, after introducing this issue, discusses one of the most important dimensions of the media’s failure. The book was published before The Guardian, which had all along provided the best coverage, began its climate-change campaign, referring to the threat from climate change as “the biggest story in the world.”


Why has the U.S. government not acted boldly to respond to the climate crisis? One of the reasons is that – as pointed out by James Hansen, who retired from his day job to spend more time on political efforts and communicating with the public – getting the federal government to act on global warming “likely requires public pressure.”

This is, however, an uphill battle: According to a Pew poll in 2013, only 33% of the American public consider global warming a “very serious” problem, and only 28% think that it should be a “top priority” for the politicians in Washington. Of the 21 issues tested, moreover, global warming was at the bottom of the priority list. The Washington Post’s headline about the poll was: “Americans Are Less Worried about Climate Change than Almost Anyone Else.”

The main problem, Hansen said, is the existence of “a huge gap between the public’s understanding of the situation and the scientific understanding.” Elaborating on this gap, he said: “There is remarkable inconsistency between the scientific story and public story. The science has become stronger and stronger over the past five years while the public perception has gone in completely the other direction.”

He then added: “That is not an accident. There is a very concerted effort by people who would prefer to see business continue as usual. They have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources.” Hansen was thereby speaking about the disinformation campaign [funded by the fossil-fuel corporations].

The question, however, is why, even with tremendous resources, [a] small group of climate contrarians, with only a few scientists of stature, could have won the battle against the consensus of the climate scientists. According to this consensus view, global warming is real; it is due to greenhouse gases; and a continuation of business as usual will lead to terrible, even catastrophic, climate disruption. This view is truly a consensus, being shared by at least 97 percent of climate scientists, including – as reported [by geologist James L. Powell] – 99.8 percent of climate scientists who have written peer-reviewed articles on the subject.

Given this consensus, the gap between it and the public perception could have occurred only because the media somehow allowed it. Discussing the carbon lobby’s “deceptive campaign to put its financial interests ahead of the future of our children and civilization,” Mark Hertsgaard wrote: “As a journalist, it shames me that the [carbon] lobby could never have succeeded without the assistance of the media.” (1) Why would the media have done this?

A Parable

The failure of the media to resist the carbon lobby’s propaganda has been expressed by Eric Pooley, one of America’s leading journalists, by means of a parable:

Suppose our leading scientists discovered that a meteor, hurtling toward the earth, was set to strike later this century; the governments of the world had less than ten years to divert or destroy it. How would news organizations cover this story? Even in an era of financial distress, they would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail. After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.

Having suggested this scenario, Pooley explained that in his parable, carbon-using humanity is the meteor, which is threatening to destroy civilization. This threat is, Pooley said, “the great test, and the great story, of our time. But news organizations have not been treating it that way.”

Historic Media Failure

Pooley is only one of several journalists who have spoken of the failure of the media. In 2009, Joe Romm wrote that, although “our scientific understanding of business-as-usual projections for global warming has changed dramatically,” the U.S. public has largely “remain[ed] in the dark about just how dire the situation is. Why? Because the U.S. media is largely ignoring the story.” Romm and others have tried to capture in a phrase the size of the story the media have missed:

• Saying that 2010 had been “a stunning year in climate science,” which revealed that “human civilization is on the precipice,” Romm said that the media have been “missing the story of the century, if not the millennium.”

• Pulitzer-prize journalist Ross Gelbspan said, “the fact that the planet is caving in around us” is “biggest story in our planet’s history.” (2)

• In 2014, Tom Engelhardt said . . . : “Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories. It’s the prospective end of all news.

To return to Pooley’s parable: We cannot imagine that, if we knew that we had only 10 years to divert or destroy a humanity-destroying meteor heading straight at us, the governments and media would continue with business as usual. Governments, at least those with technological capabilities, would work together day and night to figure out the best approach, then provide all the needed resources – many trillions of dollars, if necessary – to prevent the destruction of human civilization.

The U.S. media would, as they did in World War II, explain the nature of the threat and why citizens will need to make sacrifices – perhaps enormous ones, because no sacrifice would be too great.

In that situation, it is possible that a contrarian movement might emerge, declaring the report about the meteor to be a scientific hoax. But if so, the media would surely not take it seriously – unless, at least, many of our best scientists agreed. Rather than spreading the contrarian story, the various news organizations would, recognizing that they had the biggest story since the beginning of human civilization, spare no expense in covering it.

However, with regard to climate change, the media – especially the American media – have acted in a very different way. Far from treating the CO2 threat as the biggest story since the beginning of civilization, they have failed to treat it as the story of the millennium, or the century, or the decade, or even the year.

Dimensions of the Media’s Failure: False Balance

The U.S. media’s failure to give the American people an accurate understanding of global warming and climate change has several dimensions.

Probably the most pervasive of the reasons for the media’s failure involves the journalistic norm of balanced reporting. As one discussion put it: “Balance aims for neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention.” (3)

However, a 2004 article entitled “Balance as Bias,” by Maxwell Boykoff and Jules Boykoff, pointed out that “balanced reporting can actually be a form of informational bias. Despite the highly regarded IPCC’s consistent assertions . . . , balanced reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views amplified.” To explain why this should not have occurred, Boykoff and Boykoff quoted Ross Gelbspan, who wrote:

The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present competing points of view. When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness – presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight – is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of views on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not.

With regard to this journalistic norm, according to which balanced reporting about matters of opinion requires giving equal time to “both sides,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway added:

[O]nce a scientific issue is closed, there’s only one “side.” Imagine providing a “balance” to the issue of whether the Earth orbits the Sun, whether continents move, or whether DNA carries genetic information. These matters were long ago settled in scientists’ minds. Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth. (4)

James Hansen also regards misapplied science to be a major problem in communicating scientific conclusions to the public. He wrote:

The scientific method requires objective analysis of all data, stating evidence pro and con, before reaching conclusions. This works well, indeed is necessary, for achieving success in science. But science is now pitted in public debate against the talk-show method, which consists of selective citation of anecdotal bits that support a predetermined position. Why is the public presented results of the scientific method and the talk-show method as if they deserved equal respect?

In describing global warming as an issue on which the science has been settled, Oreskes and Conway were not exaggerating. As early as 1997, the Washington Post published a story entitled “Consensus Emerges Earth Is Warming – Now What?” (5)

Recently, however, the media have largely ignored the distinction between disputed opinion and settled fact. As a result, the media have produced bias. Having studied the stories about global warming in the US “prestige press” (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal) between 1988 and 2002, Boykoff and Boykoff reported that a majority of the stories were “balanced” in the sense that “these accounts gave ‘roughly equal attention’ to the view that humans were contributing to global warming, and the other view that exclusively natural fluctuations could explain the earth’s temperature increase.”

These stories gave unknowing readers the impression that the scientific community was divided on this issue. This distorted “balance” still continues, especially in Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and recently Reuters. In these publications, false balance is used not in deference to a journalistic ideal but to promote denial.

For example, Reuters, once one of the most prolific providers of climate stories, moved Paul Ingrassia, a self-described “climate skeptic,” into editorial management. Climate coverage suddenly dropped and, according to former Asia Climate Change reporter John Fogarty, a “climate of fear” about climate change coverage was created, and reporters “felt pressure from management to add ‘balance’ to climate change stories by including the views of global-warming skeptics.”

As a result of this perverse type of balance, as the heading of a 2012 Climate Progress story reported, “American Newspapers Are Number One in Climate Denial.” Covering a report based on comparing the New York Times and Wall Street Journal with leading newspapers in Brazil, China, France, India, and the United Kingdom, this story said:

America is unique when it comes to giving a platform to climate deniers and skeptics. According to a new analysis of data released [in 2011], American newspapers are far more likely to publish uncontested claims from climate deniers, many of whom challenge whether the planet is warming at all.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, a 2014 poll of 20 wealthy countries found that America leads the world in denialism, with 52 percent of the population stating that climate change is a natural phenomenon and denying that we are headed for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly.

In any case, for stories to be truly balanced, by representing the degree of consensus within the community of climate scientists, contrarian views should be given no more weight than the percentage of these scientists who support them. In May 2014, John Oliver humorously demonstrated on his fake TV news show, “Last Week Tonight,” what this would mean in a “Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate.” Having described the typical TV debate between a climate scientist and a climate denier, he pointed out that the debate should really be representative of the two positions. So after having two more people join the denier, Oliver brought in 96 more to join the scientist.

Although some have claimed that the problem of false balance with regard to climate change has been overcome in the U.S. media, a July 2014 report showed this not to be true. Fringe scientists who reject the consensus view have still received most of the press coverage, while those who say “greenhouse gases have caused strong global warming” received only 15 percent of the coverage.

A particularly egregious example of false balance appeared in an otherwise excellent AP story about the then-forthcoming IPCC report, which said that if global warming continues, there will be “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” The AP then quoted John Christy as saying: “Humans are clever. We shall adapt to whatever happens.” As Joe Romm said, “quoting John Christy on climate change is like quoting Dick Cheney on Iraq.”

Insofar as it presents climate science within a false-balance framework, the media are, in effect, giving misinformation, which can be deadly. Writing in the Guardian, Stephan Lewandowsky said: “The media failed to accurately report facts prior to the Iraq War; climate reporting is failing in similar fashion.” After the journalists who had supported the Bush-Cheney administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction, some journalists felt anguish about having used ” ‘evidence’ now known to be bogus” to support the push for war. “The lethal fallout from misinformation a decade ago,” wrote Lewandowsky, “primarily affected the people of Iraq.” But “the fallout from misinformation about climate change is likely to affect us all.”

1. Mark Hertsgaard, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 263.

2. Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point, with a new preface by the author (New York: Basic Books, 2004, paperback), xv, xvii.

3. Robert M. Entman, Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Democracy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 30.

4. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 214.

5. Joby Warrick, “Consensus Emerges Earth Is Warming – Now What?” Washington Post, 11 November 1997.

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