Thursday, March 19, 2015

How the Media Enable Climate Denial and Misinform the Public

The media have played a critical role in climate denialism.  In some cases it is overt, but in most cases the role is more subtle and a function of the differences between how the media works and how science works. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most media outlets have cut back on professional journalist staff, in particular on dedicated science reporters. Which means people who cover politics – or travel – one day are covering science stories the next. Thus, there is a tendency to have limited expertise in science topics, limited deadlines (so no time to learn), and an inclination toward “balanced” reporting (which, as we shall see, is not balanced at all).

Intentional denialism for ideological reasons

Let’s start with the role of media outlets that most easily fit into the meme – the intentional denialist media. For now, this does not include amateur blogs, though as we've seen, amateur blogs are the primary mechanism for spreading “the word” of thedenialist industry. What I mean in this section are the “mainstream media” outlets that have a decidedly denialist bent.  

There are some media outlets that intentionally push the denial of man-made climate change. They choose stories that have been placed in other outlets and ensure that they get disproportionate coverage on the most watched programs and most read online venues. The most obvious example of this is Fox News, which not only selects stories based on their “denial-appeal,” but employs pundits to feed the obfuscation machine. Suddenly some stolen emails are a constant drumbeat of largely false information in which a few words or lines are taken out of context and force-fit into the preferred narrative. And some obscure (and usually misrepresented) paper is suddenly the hot topic of conversation on every program from the sports guy in morning to the rabid political ideologue at night. Fox isn’t the only media that does this, though it certainly serves as the poster child for the practice. Joining Fox are other non-science news outlets around the world that, not surprisingly, often have a connection to the Rupert Murdoch media empire (e.g., NewsCorp, The Wall Street Journal, The Mail Online, The Daily (and Sunday) Telegraph, etc.). Bloggers and journalists on these and other venues seem to have a never ending supply of stories that just don’t pass the smell test when given even the most rudimentary scrutiny for factual, or even logical, content. But these media outlets run with them anyway and are even instructed to highlight anti-AGW viewpoints. Their intent is to present the science and scientists in the worst possible light. In other words, manufacture doubt.

Professional denial bloggers, e.g., James Delingpole (formerly of the Telegraph, now with Breitbart), Christopher Booker (Telegraph), and David Rose (Daily Mail), constantly beat the drum of false talking points fed to them by the denialist industry. They are part of the media collusion with denier lobbyists to mislead the public.

Accidental denialism

Not all media intentionally try to push the denial of man-made climate of course. In most cases the failure of the media is less about ideological bias and more about the way “journalism” works. To begin with, since most of the denialist industry comes from the realm of political lobbying, the media tend to treat climate science as if it were some sort of political philosophy. This is in direct conflict with how science itself works, where everyone’s goal is to advance our knowledge and taking that knowledge wherever the data will defensibly take us. So while science normally moves slowly and incrementally as scientists do studies to address small aspects of the bigger picture, the media are likely to treat each new paper as if it defines the science in a vacuum. The media then actively seek "the other side" to provide "balance."

This desire to provide balance almost always, in practice, leads to massive imbalance and misinformation

Consider a scenario in which a news anchor wants to discuss the state of climate science. The show's producer calls up a climate scientist well-known as an expert on at least some facet of climate. The producer will then call someone else willing to "debate the other side." Since virtually all climate scientists agree that 100+ years of published scientific data unequivocally demonstrate humans are warming the planet, the "other side" is usually some spokesperson for a lobbyist organization or one of its front groups.

You can can imagine how this debate goes. Normally the climate scientist will state the facts as have been defined by that 100+ years of science and summarized by thousands of climate scientists. Then the lobbyist spokesperson will rattle off a dozen sentences, all making false statements about a dozen topics. Since it's easier to misrepresent in bulk than it is to debunk each individually, the lobbyist will generally look more media-adroit to the viewing public. As such the viewers will 1) assume both "sides" are equally valid, and often 2) feel like the lobbying guy "did a better job" communicating than did the scientist.

And the public gets misinformed.

Lobbyists, of course, are very familiar with how to manipulate the media and the public. That's their job every day of the year. And they do it well. They don't worry about the fact that most of what they say isn't actually true; their goal is to reach the best result for their membership and swaying public opinion (and giving cover for political allies) is how they accomplish this goal.

Scientists, on the other hand, are good at science, but few scientists are as good communicating to the public. This isn't surprising since scientists historically communicate the science with other scientists through publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals. The information tends to be highly technical and hard to communicate to the public.

So the media actually aids and abets misinforming the public, perhaps not intentionally all the time, but routinely. This is exactly what the denialist industry wants.

Semi-accidental denialism

There is one more way the media misinforms the public. I've labeled this “semi-accidental,” for lack of a better word. What I mean is that the media give credence to the denial of the science simply by allowing deniers to fabricate the illusion of controversy. The creation of controversy itself isn’t accidental. Media outlets in the highly competitive 24-hour, insta-tweet “news” cycle are always looking for ways to boost ratings (which boosts ad revenues, which boosts profits). And controversy is the best way to boost ratings, even if the controversy has to be invented. Fox News has built its entire political-entertainment-oriented programming on the idea, and it has been a financial gold mine for them. Journalism be damned, we're getting ratings!

Creation of controvesy is often the primary motivation behind having two opposing views being interviewed at the same time. The interviewer intentionally seeks to create conflict so that the viewing public doesn’t doze off in the middle of the segment. While this may not reflect very well on the viewing public, it is the nature of our modern “give it to me in 140 characters or less” attention span. The media cater to it by setting the stage for conflict and ensuring that any controversial sound bites are played over and over as ticklers going to commercials. All day long.

And denier lobbyists use this to their advantage as they seek to manipulate public opinion. All day long.