When being right is wrong

One of the most debated areas in the media representation of science is the coverage of climate change. Accusations of false balance, sensationalism of uncertainties, downplaying of certainties, and ideologically-biased reporting have all been thrown at the media when covering climate science. Given the significant implications, and the need for public support to drive policy change, media coverage of this issue is something which needs to be taken seriously.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its fifth assessment report, Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis. I decided to look at how the IPCC report was covered by the UK newspapers, and conducted a (beginner’s) content analysis of the print media coverage over the two days surrounding its release.

Let’s start with the good news. Eight of the nine papers* I sampled covered the report’s release (the Daily Star being the only paper not to), with The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph devoting front-page space to this relatively important scientific story. There was generally a good use of figures and statistics from the report, and there weren’t any obvious factual errors. So far; so promising.

However, the difference in tone of the articles, which were all covering the release of the same document, is where things become interesting. The IPCC report, a document put together by 259 scientists and experts, declares that they are now 95% certain that the majority of warming of the climate system since the 1950s is man-made. Despite this, 10 of the 28 articles I analysed expressed a sceptical opinion towards climate change. All of these articles were from the traditionally right-leaning newspapers. Only one of the seven articles in the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, the most right-wing publications in the sample, did not report the issue of climate change in a sceptical way.

And that’s just when considering the journalists’ own coverage of the story, without taking into account the use of external sceptics’ opinions. Five of the articles quoted a source expressing a sceptical opinion, with all of these articles coming from the right-wing papers. Overall, six of the 25 quotes used by the right-wing papers were sceptical of anthropogenic climate change, a figure which is completely misrepresentative of the level of scientific consensus.

Of the sceptical quotes, the majority were from the same source: Dr Benny Peiser of the sceptical thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Dr Peiser was always referred to by his academic title, giving authority to his views on the report, though it’s worth noting that his PhD is in cultural studies, not climate science. The fact that the same name kept coming up when articles were presenting sceptical opinions suggests that there might be a well-known stock of climate change sceptics who journalists turn to for ‘balancing’ opinions.

Another worrying issue was the cherry-picking of data used by some articles to support a sceptical stance. In a Daily Express article by (Dr) Benny Peiser, he states, “In the past 16 years, temperatures have not risen at all, that is a fact, and before 1980 we had 30 years of cooling.” While this statement is factually accurate, the data set considered as a whole clearly suggests a warming trend, and these specific figures have been chosen very carefully in order to support Peiser and the Express’ ideological stance.

Specific details of the report were also selected and repackaged to suit the newspapers’ ideologies. The IPCC report mentions that the rate of warming over the past 15 years has been lower than that since 1951, using the example to illustrate that short-term figures generally fail to reflect long-term climate trends. However, nine of the articles, all from the right-wing papers, used this so-called warming ‘pause’ to suggest that global warming is less of a problem than was previously thought.

Even this very basic analysis clearly suggests an ideological bias among the newspapers sampled, with the right-wing publications being responsible for all of the sceptical coverage of the IPCC report and the wider issue of anthropogenic climate change. The presence of false balance – evidenced by the fact that nearly a quarter of the quotes used by the right-wing papers were from climate sceptics – is worrying. By overlooking the broader results, and emphasising minutiae which support their own sceptical stance, the right-wing press are creating a different picture of the IPCC’s findings.

Given the pressing need for action among policymakers, and the substantial influence of the right-wing newspapers, results such as these suggest that media coverage of climate change is still a cause for concern.

(*The publications sampled were the left-leaning newspapers, the Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Independent; and the right-leaning newspapers, The Sun, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and The Times.)
 Laura Childs  is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.
Image Credit: sweis78 (via Flickr)
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