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Scientists slam media's treatment of climage change


By Jon Gingerich


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Dr. James McCarthy
Dr. James McCarthy, a Harvard University Professor and Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, stamps the phrase “Not Science” on a copy of a recent misleading Wall Street Journal editorial regarding global warming.

Photo by Desdemona Burgin

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit organization headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, released a report in September titled “Is News Corp. Failing Science?” UCS examined two popular news outlets owned by News Corporation — Fox News Channel and the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal — recording and analyzing every mention of the term “climate change” over a six-month period. The group’s findings concluded what many have suspected for a long time: that both outlets “heavily misinterpret” facts surrounding climate science more often than they make statements grounded in scientific fact.

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In all occurrences in which climate change was mentioned on Fox News during this period, 93% were misleading, or about 37 out of every 40 references, according to the report. Regarding the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section, 81% of occurrences mentioning climate change were misleading, or about 39 out of every 48 references.

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The study found that not only is it standard fare for News Corp.’s media properties to make misrepresenting or inaccurate claims regarding climate science, in many cases these outlets made claims designed to denigrate climate science or professionals who believe in global warming (according to the report: “The most common form of criticism regarding climate science on Fox News Channel was to broadly dismiss the scientific conclusion that climate change is occurring or human-induced.”). The study also found Fox News and the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal often frame the notion of climate science in terms of mere opinion or ideology, choosing to ignore an overwhelming corpus of evidence in scientific research that goes back decades. The study concludes that while it remains to be seen if some in-house policy is responsible for shaping opinion on climate science at these news organizations, the repeatedly incorrect information offered by these outlets could potentially misled a broad swath of the public on this issue.

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Not surprisingly, the UCS study is seen as a disturbing trend by members of the scientific community.

“It’s like they’re talking and writing about a parallel universe,” said UCS climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel. “Their viewers and readers simply aren’t getting an accurate story on climate science.”

On September 21, the UCS held a press conference and media panel at the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library to discuss the report’s findings. Joining them were James McCarthy, UCS Board President and a Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University, as well as Time Senior Writer Bryan Walsh.

Speaking to a room of scientists, reporters and curious members of the public, McCarthy said there is far more consensus regarding climate change in the scientific community that the public might be led to believe.

“If you look at any society that climate scientists belong to, you’ll find our statements on this issue are consistent. That’s why there’s a confidence on our end of the conversation. What we know about climate change is a lot clearer than it appears to be,” he said.

However, McCarthy believes one of the main problems in the debate surrounding climate change is that the science community isn’t particularly adept at sharing its findings with the public. Moreover, McCarthy noted there’s a discord between what the press wants in a story and the highly nuanced nature of science. Climate change is a complex issue, but because it’s also a divisive issue, the onus is on the scientific community to speak out.

“A lot of scientists won’t pick up the phone if there’s a reporter on the other end. There are a lot of uncertainties in science, and reporters don’t like uncertainties. Reporters want a quick quote, and as a result these issues are often put in stark arrangement,” he said. “But most of the public doesn’t get to have conversations with scientists. The people they do speak with are people close to them, who often aren’t terribly informed. As people, we’re just not very good at dealing with long-term issues. It’s not just climate change.  Look at the financial crisis. It’s hard for us to focus and respond to the long term.”

“Those who are the most skeptical tend to be the loudest,” said Walsh. “One of the things that complicates climate change is that it’s a chronic tradition. It’s long term and that’s hard to visualize. We still have to serve the public function by reporting while being sensational.”

McCarthy believes there are ways to change the conversation, and it involves discussing the benefits of climate change awareness: benefits to health, national security, appeal to religious convictions or  how lives could be saved by awareness of the harmful effects of pollution. Walsh believes both parties might find a broader base of agreement by aiming at business objectives, such as ideas of clean energy.

After the panel, UCS members and attendees convened in Bryant Park to participate in a “Stand Up for Science” rally. UCS staff handed out postcards addressed to News Corp.’s New York headquarters, with the words “not science” emblazoned across Fox News and Wall Street Journal logos. On the other side of the cards, the public could pen personal letters to the company, asking them to improve their standards for science coverage.

The panel was moderated by Angela Anderson, Director of UCS’ Climate and Energy Program.

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