Study: Media shape views on global warming

By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

A recent study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science suggests conservative media play a negative role in relation
“to certainty that global warming is happening.”

Coincidentally, the study also shows liberal media play a positive in role in relation to certainty about global warming, but the study was written from the perspective that global warming is a certainty.

The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 Americans in 2008 and 2011 about their media consumption and views of climate change. Authors included Jay D. Hmielowski of the University of Arizona; Lauren Feldman of American University; Teresa A. Myers of George Mason University; Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University; and Edward Maibach of George Mason University.

The authors wrote: “Consensus continues to grow within the scientific community that global warming poses serious risks to human societies and natural ecosystems (IPCC, 2007). A variety of impacts are already occurring in the United States (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009). Many Americans, however, perceive climate change as a distant problem that will primarily affect future generations of people in other countries (Leiserowitz et al., 2011). In turn, global warming is consistently ranked as a relatively low public priority, compared to a range of other national issues (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2012). Moreover, global warming, and the environment more generally, have become politically divisive issues (Dunlap and McCright, 2008; McCright and Dunlap, 2011a). For example, whereas Democrats tend to accept the evidence for global warming and believe that it is human-caused, significantly fewer Republicans hold these beliefs (Dunlap and McCright, 2008).

This political polarization is partly the product of a coordinated denial movement (Dunlap and McCright, 2011) that uses conservative media as a conduit for casting doubt on the science of climate change among ideologically receptive audiences (Hamilton, 2011). Part of this strategy includes undermining scientists and their research (Dunlap and McCright, 2011). Trust in scientists has been in decline for several decades among U.S. conservatives (Gauchat, 2012), and trust in scientists as a source of information on global warming dropped sharply between 2008 and 2010, particularly among conservative Republicans (Leiserowitz et al., 2010). By contrast, Democrats and liberals have higher and more stable levels of trust in scientists (Brewer and Ley, 2012; Leiserowitz et al., 2010).”

An April 22 report by Scott Clement in The Washington Post (“How Americans see global warming — in 8 charts,” concluded that surveys have shown Americans do not believe global warming is an imminent threat, that it is “not a top priority,” that “belief in global warming has been on the rise,” that views tend to be more partisan than they were, that the Earth may be warming but the cause is debatable, and that “trust in climate scientists” is not universal.

In examining the media’s role in shaping public opinion about global warming, the Public Understanding of Science study specifically cited Fox News and The Rush Limbaugh Show as examples of biased coverage that leads followers to believe global warming is not occurring.

In recent years, cable and talk radio outlets in the USA have begun to differentiate themselves by offering more opinionated and partisan content,” the study’s authors wrote. “For example, several content analyses have revealed that Fox News and conservative radio programs (e.g., The Rush Limbaugh Show) cover issues and events — from the Iraq War to the campaign for the U.S. presidency — in a way that is more supportive of conservative and Republican interests than CNN, MSNBC, and the national network news programs (Aday et al., 2005, Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2008). Consistent with this broader coverage, content analyses have shown that conservative media consistently claim a lack of scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change (Dunlap and McCright, 2010). Studies have also found that Fox News airs significantly more stories that question the existence of human-caused climate change than stories that accept these scientific claims (Feldman et al., 2012).”

The study added: “Although early content analyses found that U.S. media outlets across the political spectrum overemphasized the ‘debate’ surrounding the existence of global warming (Zehr, 2000), recent studies suggest mainstream news sources (e.g., CNN) are now less likely to give equal time to global warming skeptics (Boykoff, 2007). An examination of CNN’s broadcasts found more interview guests are concerned about global warming than dismissive, and that its stories are more likely to emphasize that global warming is happening and caused by human activity than Fox News broadcasts (Feldman et al., 2012). In addition, liberal-leaning outlets such as MSNBC tend to convey similar coverage of global warming as mainstream media (Feldman et al., 2012).

This difference in coverage between conservative and non-conservative media outlets results in different patterns of media effects,” the authors wrote. “Previous research has shown that providing context for climate skeptics’ claims questioning global warming or including a mainstream scientist who challenges these claims reduces the effect of the skeptic on people’s views of global warming (Corbett and Durfee, 2004). In addition, studies have found positive associations between viewing CNN and MSNBC and other non-Fox television news programming and acceptance of the problem of global warming (Feldman et al., 2012; Krosnick and MacInnis, 2010). Based on this evidence, we posit that:

H2: Non-conservative media use will be positively related to certainty that global warming is happening.”

View the full Public Understanding of Science study by clicking here.

From the Aug. 14-20, 2013, issue