Balance Is Bias When Reporting on Global Warming, Study Claims

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:22pm EDT

( - When it comes to U.S. media coverage of global warming, telling both sides of the story can actually be a form of bias, a recent study says.

The report -- "Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias; Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus" -- was authored by university teachers Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff, and it is being promoted by the liberal media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR).

According to the report, mainstream newspapers -- in their effort to present balanced reporting -- are giving global warming skeptics more credence than they deserve.

"By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming," the report says.

"Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. Meanwhile, the world dangerously warms, conservative think tanks gut the precautionary principle, and humankind...faces a dire future," the report says.

A United Nations climate-change panel has concluded that human-caused global warming is a serious problem, and those findings should be given greater weight than the doubts of global warming skeptics, "many of them funded by carbon-based industry interests," the authors say.

The Boykoffs analyzed 636 "hard news" articles about human contributions to global warming that appeared between 1988 and 2002 in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.

It found that:

* 53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations;

* 35 percent emphasized the role of humans -- "which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming" -- while presenting both sides of the debate;

* 6 percent emphasized doubts about the claim that human-caused global warming exists, while another 6 percent included only the "predominant scientific view" that humans are contributing to Earth's temperature increases.

The authors concluded that in the effort to achieve "the norm of balance," U.S. reporters are "systematically proliferate[ing] an informational bias."

Dueling scientists

Many articles on global warming include what the Boykoffs call "dueling scientists" -- the "he said/she said" method of reporting.

According to the Boykoffs, press reports offering opposing views allow skeptics to deflect attention away from the U.N. panel's "consensus" that global warming is caused by humans. That provides "space" for politicians to call for "more research," instead of calling for reduced consumption of fossil fuels.

Through "balanced" reporting, the authors of the study claim, the mass media have misrepresented the scientific consensus of humans' contribution to global warming as highly divisive.

"Such coverage has served as a veritable oxygen supply for skeptics in both the scientific and political realms," the Boykoffs concluded.

The Boykoffs said their critique is not meant as a personal attack on individual journalists. "We are more concerned with the institutional features and professional norms and practices of the mass-media system than we are with naming names of questionable journalists," they said.

'Too funny'

Dan Gainor, director of the Media Research Center's Free Market Project, said the media coverage of global warming doesn't need to be skewed any more than it already is.

"The irony of a group named FAIR calling for unfair reporting is almost too humorous to contemplate," Gainor said.

"Thousands of scientists and climatologists dispute virtually every aspect of this study's claims about global warming," he added. "To ask professional journalists and news organizations to ignore that and to present only one 'approved' view is disgusting propaganda.

"The media need to give this unFAIR request all the attention it deserves -- absolutely none," Gainor said.

The Free Market Project analyzed media coverage of global warming during the Bush presidency and found it strongly biased against businesses. According to the FMP's analysis, the media promoted only the liberal environmentalist position six times as often as they reported an opposing view.

In addition, the media ignored the devastating economic impact the Kyoto treaty would have on the United States. According to Energy Department analysis, U.S. adoption of the treaty would have cost the nation anywhere from $200 billion to more than $400 billion each year, as well as between 1.1 million and 4.9 million lost jobs.

Gainor's group is part of the Media Research Center, which is the parent organization of the Cybercast News Service.

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