Science has done a good job of documenting the great divide between liberals and conservatives on the issue of climate change. Several studies have found that watching conservative media outlets, particularly Fox News, makes viewers less likely to accept that global warming is occurring or that it’s caused by human activity.
A recent study from the journal Public Understanding of Science probes the underlying factors behind this, finding that conservative media like Fox News undermines viewers’ trust in scientists, leading to weaker beliefs in the science of global warming.
Led by University of Arizona communication professor Jay Hmielowski, the paper explains that “different media outlets help to cue audiences as to whether a particular institution or set of institutional actors, such as scientists, share a person’s values and are thus trustworthy.” These cues come from both the direct reporting the outlet does on scientific data and controversies, as well as the way those stories are framed to, say, give more weight to climate skeptics’ views.
The study polled a nationally representative panel of 2,497 people in the U.S. in 2008, and re-interviewed 1,036 of them in 2011, asking about things like media use, global warming beliefs and trust in climate scientists. “[C]onservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening,” the researchers found. “By contrast, use of non-conservative media increases trust in scientists, which, in turn, increases certainty that global warming is happening.”
People use trust as a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that makes it easier to judge complex issues like climate change. Because many people don’t have an intimate knowledge of climate-change science themselves, they chose to listen to information from the experts they feel they can trust. And when media accounts portray the scientists who study climate change in a certain light, it affects the trust people place in them.
Since Fox News “airs significantly more stories that question the existence of human-caused climate change than stories that accept these scientific claims,” as the paper notes, that negatively affects whether or not its viewers believe in human-driven climate change.
Previous studies had also found that political ideology affects the degree to which people trust scientists. Liberals, for the most part, are more trusting of scientists than their conservative counterparts.
The researchers note that this effect has broader implications for political polarization. “The increasing fragmentation of audiences across diverse media outlets likely inhibits consensus-building and compromise on important issues,” they conclude.
But, as Mother Jones points out, it could be a chicken-or-the-egg kind of situation. Conservatives have been losing faith in science since before Fox News launched in 1996. The models used in the study only measured change in trust and beliefs as a result of media use, so the researchers believe it is not just a case of people who already don’t trust scientists tuning into conservative news, but they acknowledge some self-selection bias could be involved.