Greenhouse gas emissions have risen to a level that is altering the global climate. Yet despite the extensive scientific research behind this statement, the validity and consequences of clime change and global warming is still being questioned by many today. To help understand why, it becomes crucial to explore how the media depicts environmental issues, as it has a profound and influential effect on shaping the attitudes and actions of the public.
As research study published in 2005 by Jessica Durfee and Julia Corbett reveals, for most citizens, “knowledge about science comes largely through the mass media, not through publications or direct involvement in science.” In fact, the public understands science less through experience or education and more through “the filter of journalistic language and imagery.” Furthermore, the authors argue that this is especially true for “invisible issues” such as global warming, “with which a person lacks real-world experience that could shape opinion and understanding.” For example, they argue that if a person were to experience the hottest summer on record, a severe drought, or a forest fire, that same person would still rely on the news media to connect such an event to scientific evidence.
In support of previous research on the matter, Durfee and Corbett further discuss how journalists tend to overemphasize the level of uncertainty about global warming. Succinctly put, they argue that journalistic practices, including objectivity and striving for balance, “contribute to conveying this message of uncertainty.” Hence, when sources provide conflicting claims, reporters tend to use one of two strategies: they either attempt to be as objective as possible, or try to balance the conflicting claims within the story leading to both sides in the debate receiving equal weight, even when the majority of scientific evidence might fall to one side while the other side consists of “industry-supported fringe science.” Thus, journalists long-cherished norm of balance has become a form of informational bias, with media coverage tending to contain the ability to send the message to its audience that science is uncertain without ever mentioning or addressing “uncertainty.”
Probably the most significant aspect of the Durfee and Corbett (2005) study is their experiment in testing whether common elements in news stories – controversy and context – influence reader’s perceptions. Within this study, they discovered that people who read news stories with context reported the highest level of certainty regarding global warming, whereas people who read news stories with neither controversy nor context appeared to be the least certain. They concluded that while the media’s attraction to controversy is highly unlikely to dissipate, it is “heartening to know that the simple inclusion of scientific context might help mitigate the readers’ level of uncertainty.”
If anything, and as best conveyed by the authors themselves, the research presented here suggests that global warming requires a more “salient metaphor that emphasized its seriousness, immediacy, and scientific credibility.” For example, when the authors of the study asked people on the streets what they thought about global warming, a typical response was that a few degrees warmer wouldn’t be so bad. As made clear by these responses, and as stated by Durfee and Corbett, U.S. media coverage has clearly not communicated the “graveness of the phenomenon nor the negative consequences for daily life.” Ultimately, the study suggests that it might be up to the scientists, science communicators, and journalists to find ways to communicate the seriousness of global warming to a general public that will be increasingly affected by it.
The media’s ability to create public uncertainty on environmental issues is only made more dire when coupled with its well intended efforts to provide opposing views. The media has a tendency to accentuate differences of opinion, which enables propagandists to create a false impression of conflict. As outlined in an interview within an issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, John Wallace, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and co-director of the University of Washington Program on the Environment, states that problems arise when writers and reporters “fail to distinguish between subtle differences in opinion and diametrically opposing views.” In other words, this refers to situations when disproportionate weight is included or placed on the views of individuals who are “not qualified to offer informed scientific opinions,” as well as when “clear distinctions between scientific opinion and political opinion” fail to be made. What is important to note here, and what Wallace urgently stresses, is the fact that there are many people with strong points of view who don’t all necessarily deal with the “nuances and responsibilities” that scientists do. Logically then, reporters who are inexperienced in dealing with the subject area of environmental issues are especially prone to these problems, as they don’t always know who to call on for impartial scientific advice, making them “unaware of the broader scientific and political context of the story they are writing.”
Given the research available, it’s difficult to deny how public attention and attitudes regarding environmental issues have a tendency to be shaped and influenced by journalists and the media. By attempting to balance objectivity and opposing views, the media creates an unwarranted air of uncertainty and controversy around environmental issues as definitive as climate change. Ultimately, this reliance on the media for representation of almost all environmental issues, especially climate change and global warming, is a tremendous problem in the United States that needs to be addressed if we are to make meaningful and sustainable change for the future.
Durfee, J., & Corbett, J. (2005). Context and controversy: Global warming coverage. Nieman Reports, 59(4), 88-89. Retrieved from Fairfield University, Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Houston, F., & Wallace, J. (2000). Covering the climate: Beware of false conflict. Columbia Journalism Review, 38(6), 52-54. Retrieved from Fairfield University, Communication & Mass Media Complete database.