Climate change scepticism and the media

Climate change scepticism and the media download PDF

The media are very important players in climate change communication – most people do not read scientific reports, specialist websites and blogs, or the reports of the IPCC. Although in theory, the ‘facts’ of climate change science should be reported in a straightforward way by newspapers and television networks, considerable differences exist between the editorial lines taken by different media organisations about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong relationship between the political perspective of a media organisation and its position on climate change (Painter, 2011). The website of the left-leaning UK newspaper the Guardian, for example, is known internationally as a hub of climate change and environmental reporting and opinion – and sceptical opinions are rarely to be found. In comparison, right leaning media (such as the US Wall Street Journal) are far more likely to carry sceptical opinion and editorials. Although it is difficult to establish cause and effect, it seems highly likely that the position of right and left-leaning media is one of the key influences on public perceptions (which display a similar split along ideological lines), and media-generated controversy is also often cited as a reason for scepticism about climate change (Poortinga et al., 2011). But interestingly, media ‘exaggeration’ of climate change is also one of the measures that has been used to indicate scepticism in public attitudes – so there is a complex relationship between public perceptions and media reporting of climate change (Whitmarsh, 2011).

Several analyses of media coverage of climate change have concluded that a discourse of uncertainty is unsuited to the typically adversarial style of English language journalism (Boykoff, 2007; Ward, 2008). Radio, television and newspaper reports have been criticised for interpreting too simplistically the notion of providing a ‘balanced’ set of views (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004), which can lead to competing points of view on a scientific issue being presented as equally supported, when in fact they are not (the concept of ‘balance-as-bias’).

In 2011 the BBC Trust commissioned a report that analysed the way that three scientific topics – including climate change – were reported by the BBC. The report – authored by Professor Steve Jones – found that climate change ‘deniers’ continued to find an often prominent place in BBC reporting, despite occupying a marginal position in scientific debates. Referring to the ‘balance as bias’ concept developed by Boykoff & Boykoff in 2004, the report argued that the BBC – in an attempt to deliver ‘balanced’ coverage of climate change – were actually biasing their coverage by including an excessive amount of sceptical voices. Because the weight of scientific evidence on climate change is so heavily against sceptical positions, the reporting of their views should reflect this.

There is some evidence that this trend is slowly changing (in the US and the UK – Boykoff, 2007), but Butler and Pidgeon (2009) have shown that people continue to view the media as offering a range of viewpoints on climate change, creating the impression that the causes of climate change are more controversial than they actually are.

A report from the Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (Painter, 2011) looked specifically at the reporting of climate change scepticism in six different nations (UK, US, Brazil, China, India and France). Analysing the content of a selection of the newspapers in each of these countries, a remarkable finding emerged: sceptical voices were much more likely to be reported in the English-speaking UK and US than in Brazil, China, India and France. In fact, more than 80% of the sceptical voices reported in the study were found in the UK & US papers – suggesting that scepticism about climate change in the media is to some extent an ‘Anglophone’ phenomenon. The authors of the report suggested that part of the reason for this disparity between different countries is the presence of organised lobbying interests in the US and the UK, who actively shape the media agenda.

One of the best resources for understanding the way climate change is reported in the media (especially but not exclusively the UK media) is The Carbon Brief, a website which fact-checks stories about climate change by cross-referencing them against peer-reviewed literature. As their website states, distortions of climate science occur regularly, partly because climate science is a complex area, and partly because various interests, motivated by finance or ideology, have sought to confuse the issue. The rapid-responses they post to articles that appear about climate change are an essential resource for anyone interested in finding the truth behind media reporting of climate change.

In the UK, the Science Media Centre exists to ensure that accurate and timely scientific information reaches the media: they cover all science (not just climate change), but if you are a journalist or press officer looking to write an accurate story (or obtain a quote from a suitably qualified climate scientist) they are a good place to start. In the US, the Climate Science ‘rapid response’ team are a group of climate scientists who will respond to media enquiries through their website.


Boykoff, M. & Boykoff, J. (2004). Balance as Bias: Global warming and the US Prestige Press. Global Environmental Change 15 (4) 125-136.

Boykoff, M. (2007). Flogging a Dead Norm? Media Coverage of Anthropogenic Climate Change in United States and United Kingdom, 2003-2006. Area 39(4) 470-481.

Butler, C. & Pidgeon, N. (2009). Media Communications and Public Understanding of Change – Reporting Scientific Consensus on Anthropogenic Climate Change. In T. Boyce & J. Lewis (Eds). Climate Change and the Media (pp.43-58). Peter Lang: New York, USA.

Painter, J. (2011). Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate change scepticism. Oxford University, Oxford: RSIJ.

Poortinga, W., Spence, A., Whitmarsh, L., Capstick, S. & Pidgeon, N. (2011). Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Global Environmental Change 21, 1015-1024.

Ward, B. (2008). A higher standard than ‘balance’ in journalism on climate change science. Climatic Change 86, 13–17.

Whitmarsh, L. (2011). Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change, 21, 690–700.

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