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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