“The corruption in reporting starts very early. It’s like the police reporting on the police.”
A recent analysis of reporting on the topic of climate change by some newspapers around the world helps bring home an important point: news isn’t always fair and balanced. It has to be viewed through the filter of the ideology held by those doing the reporting, or those who own the sources of media.
In this particular study which has just been published in Environmental Research Letters, researchers found that American newspapers were far more likely to publish claims from climate change deniers than in newspapers from other countries. In fact, challenges to the evidence as to whether the planet is even warming at all were almost exclusively found in the American media.
The United Kingdom came in second place. The researchers also looked at articles published in Brazil, China, France and India. It turns out that 34 percent of articles in US newspapers contained skeptical information. The UK was down at 19 percent, and the other countries were all between three and six percent.
One interesting question that was addressed in the study was whether the skepticism occurred more often in left-leaning or right-leaning publications. Skeptical articles that were considered non-opinion were—somewhat surprisingly—more predominantly found among the left-leaning newspapers. This can likely be explained, however, by the fact that the right-leaning newspapers contained much more skepticism among their opinion pages, so the non-opinion articles didn’t have to reiterate the point to the same degree.
There is even a substantial difference in the type of skepticism displayed. In the US, there is a much greater percentage of skeptics that question whether global warming is even happening (Type 1). In other parts of the world—particularly in the UK—the skepticism is more along the lines of whether we human beings are the cause of it (Type 2), or even whether it will be such a bad thing to have global warming (Type 3).
Reporting the news seems so much harder than it used to be. At least when it comes to reporting in a fair and balanced manner. I think most people believe that in bygone days—when there were only three television networks in the US, for example—the news was reported more honestly and impartially. Reporters and news anchors tended to report the facts without putting their own personal stamp on it.
Those days seem long gone. And there are a few reasons why that is:
- News stations more often reflect the ideologies of their owners and supporters than reality. Rupert Murdoch who owns many sources of news media around the world is an excellent example of that. Fox News was created in large part because its owner perceived—as did many conservatives in the US—that mainstream media was actually left-wing rather than centred. So they started to report the news from their right-wing perspective to offset that.
- Journalism is a profession that has been hard hit by the global recession and the advent of modern communications technologies. Print journalism is slowly dwindling, with fewer and fewer people getting their information from thoroughly read articles. Now everything depends on simple and catchy headlines, much of it on the internet. All style, no substance.
- Because news media have to save on costs, they frequently cut the most expensive staff which often means the most specialized. As one example of this, I remember when Science and Technology Correspondent Miles O’Brien left CNN in December 2008 because the news network was cutting most of its science and technology unit. And what happens when less specialized reporters take on stories? They lack some of the perspective more senior reporters could bring to the table. That’s why less experienced journalists will frequently offer a more skewed perspective on issues without necessarily having any bad intentions on the part of the journalist covering the stories. As an example, if a journalist wants to cover an article on climate change, he or she might feel the need to tell both sides of the story, so that equal time is given to the science and the scientists who state that climate change and global warming are real, as well as the skeptics and deniers who disagree with what the vast majority of experts agree on. In this way, 97 percent and 3 percent can look more like a 50:50 split to an uneducated reader.
- And of course, there are those who use the mainstream media sources to advance their own agendas usually tied to industry and sometimes government. Scientists generally publish in journals that aren’t read by anybody apart than other scientists. So if you want to try to discredit what science and evidence and experts are saying, you make sure your perspectives are out there for John Q. Public to read about. That way, the public can be swayed to think contrary to what the world’s experts think on the matter. Usually there are a few rogue scientists who help give this approach some credibility. We’ve actually seen this many times before with smoking, acid rain, the ozone layer, and secondhand smoking. And now we’re seeing it with global warming and climate change.