Climate deniers get twice the news coverage of pro-climate messages, study finds

Greenpeace said the fires they documented were 'clear evidence of a climate emergency', and warned the Siberian landscape is being transformed by heat and fire: Julia Petrenko / Greenpeace
Greenpeace said the fires they documented were ‘clear evidence of a climate emergency’, and warned the Siberian landscape is being transformed by heat and fire: Julia Petrenko / Greenpeace

Opponents of battling the climate crisis have had twice the media coverage of those advocating to take action, according to a study published on Monday.

The new report looked at more than 1,700 climate-related press releases over a 30-year period, and news articles including the information which were published in the US’s largest-circulation newspapers.

Researcher Rachel Wetts, an assistant professor at Brown University’s sociology department, found that approximately 14 per cent of press releases in opposition of climate action, or denying the science behind the climate crisis, were more likely to grab headlines compared to roughly 7 per cent of those in support of climate action.

Professor Wetts’ findings suggest why Americans show less concern about the climate crisis than people in other countries, and why climate policy has often stalled.

The 2020 Digital News Report found that globally, seven in 10 people view the climate emergency as a serious problem. However in the US a significant portion (12%) dispute its severity, in part because they may be “sceptical of the science”, the report said.

Regardless, Americans who say the climate crisis is not serious are just as likely to share views on it via social media or email as those who are deeply worried about it. “We see a highly vocal minority making a big noise online,” the report states.

Professor Wetts said: “The way climate change has been covered in the media could help us understand why there’s so much public disengagement on this issue.”

The study involved categorising hundreds of press releases issued by businesses, advocacy organisations, scientific researchers, trade organisations and the public sector into those which supported or opposed climate action.

The press releases were issued between 1985 and 2014, the last year of complete data available when Professor Wetts began the study. It is unclear whether the balance has shifted in recent years, which have seen an increased focus on the changing climate along with growing calls to tackle the crisis, led by youth activist groups such as Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate movement.

Plagiarism-detection software was used to scan almost 35,000 newspaper articles published about climate change in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today – the three largest-circulation newspapers in the US — to find the press releases which had been used in coverage.

Although only 10 per cent of releases pushed anti-climate messages, the rarer releases were twice as likely to get coverage as pro-climate action statements despite there being many more of them.

Statements that came from big companies, or groups representing business interests, had a higher chance of receiving news coverage. Around 16 per cent of releases issued by business coalitions and trade associations got coverage, compared to about 9 per cent from other kinds of organisations.

Professor Wetts said that the opinions of big business and opponents of climate action were given “outsize opportunity to sway this debate”.

The study points to the fact that large and wealthy organisations, particularly in the fossil-fuel industry, received greater prominence in some mainstream media outlets, seemingly down to their vast financial resources and people power from PR firms, lobbyists and advertising agencies to craft policy messages.

The study also suggests that large advertisers at news media outlets may have been able to influence coverage through their ability to withhold ad revenue.

Big business may have also been awarded an advantage due to their “real or perceived importance in the functioning of the economy”, leading to their views being seen as relevant to public well-being.

“In particular, the views of large employers are likely to be seen as newsworthy since these organizations could potentially respond to policy changes in ways that could cause economic disruption such as through plant closures, large-scale layoffs, or offshoring,” the study found.

Perhaps surprisingly, science and technology organisations, like IBM, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – a federal research facility which recently co-authored a landmark study on the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide emissions – were among the least likely to see their views gain traction. Only 2.9 per cent of their press releases generated news coverage.

Professor Wetts said her findings appear to support the argument that mainstream news organisations often mislead readers by giving equal weight to two sides of an argument. Separate studies have found that print and TV news outlets have historically overrepresented the extent of disagreement on the scientific basis of climate change, and given a prominent platform to a small number of contrarian scientists.

“Journalists seem to feel that they always have to include opposing voices when they report on climate change,” Wetts said. “But sometimes they give those opposing voices so much weight, they lead readers to believe that climate denial is more than a fringe stance.”

The impact of news coverage that lends equal weight to those who oppose climate action goes beyond altering public perception. It could also lead political leaders to modify the actions they take in the fight against the climate crisis, the study found.

“The media is providing a distorted picture of how different groups feel on this issue,” she said. “That can dampen political will to act on climate change, with potentially serious consequences for how we as a society address — or fail to address — this issue.”

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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