It may seem that the days of false equivalency in climate change journalism are behind us. It’s rare to see a climate change denier or skeptic framed as an “expert” in an article. And that’s for good reason—their opinions run counter to the overwhelming weight of evidence that climate change is real, happening right now, caused by human activities, and that urgent action is needed to avert its worst consequences.
But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the media still disproportionately amplifies the views of businesses and coalitions pushing back on climate action. So while major publications may not necessarily be sowing doubt on climate change, they are still allowing a few powerful and wealthy groups to define the debate on how to address it. “Opponents of climate action are getting twice as much airtime as proponents of climate action,” says Rachel Wetts, a sociologist at Brown University and author of the study. “This suggests that this phenomenon of false balance is alive and well.”
Journalists try to achieve a balance of viewpoints in their stories, which is generally a wise goal, but doing so without context can cause trouble. In climate change reporting, including a skeptic or someone opposing action runs the risk of creating a “false equivalency,” framing climate change as having two sides when really the evidence shows there’s only one. In their writing, journalists try to frame the whole debate for the reader’s benefit, and by including climate denier sources they can legitimize fringe views that don’t accurately reflect scientific consensus. Researchers have pointed out that this can hinder public understanding and policy decisions.
Wetts wanted to see if she could track the influence of different organizations through press releases. She used plagiarism software to see which messages from press releases journalists were citing in articles. The software even picked up paraphrased language, or if someone from a press release was interviewed by a journalist on the same topic. Wetts analyzed almost 2,000 press releases on the topic of climate action from business, government, and advocacy organizations between 1985 and 2014, and whether those releases were picked up by three newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today (chosen for their large readership and range in political leanings). In total, the analysis included over 30,000 news articles.
Her findings reveal big business seems to hold a lot of power in defining the debate around climate action. Press releases opposing climate action were twice as likely to be cited as those supporting action, even though they only made up 10 percent of all the press releases studied. The largest businesses and business coalitions had a greater chance of their press releases being reported on, while advocacy groups received much less attention. Science and technical organizations were the least likely to have their messages make it to the media. “I would think that natural scientists would be one group that people would think of as having well-informed legitimate opinions on this issue,” says Wetts. “I was expecting that they would receive more news coverage than other groups who might be seen as less legitimate and authoritative. But in fact, I found quite the opposite.”
Wetts says it’s not bad that reporters include the perspectives of businesses. But, when those perspectives dominate coverage, it gives the public a distorted sense of what the opinions around climate action out there are. “Large businesses and opponents of climate action get to frame the debate, so their interests are seen as the ones that are more relevant,” says Wetts. As a result, “the public will come to understand climate action as being a threat to business.”
Maxwell Boykoff, an environmental studies professor who wasn’t involved in the study, was surprised that the anti-climate action press releases had so much resonance. This can make it hard for the reader to get “a good and accurate picture of what’s going on,” he adds. “That can then contribute to an atmosphere of delay.” Boykoff doesn’t put the blame on individual journalists, though, who are under pressure to meet deadlines and aren’t always in control of the topics they cover.
Both Boykoff and Bruno Takahashi, an environmental journalism professor at Michigan State University, point out that one thing this study doesn’t consider the context in which the press releases were cited. It may be that a quote from a business source was cited critically, or at least put into greater context. In the future, Takahashi says follow-up studies should consider this context, and well as how the sources are placed in the story. “Most people will probably just read the first two or three paragraphs of the story,” he says, which gives individuals quoted higher up greater prominence.
In future work, Wetts plans to study the content of the press release messages to better understand what sort of language is influential. She agrees that context is important, but also adds that just including the sources, whatever the context, can have an effect on how the public frames issues. “The context tends to slip away [from people’s memory],” says Wetts. “So the fact that these voices are being put out there is important, even if it’s appropriately contextualized.”
This skewed coverage can cause readers to see the issue as more polarized than it is. But, in fact, the study found that most of the climate change press releases by businesses were supportive of taking action, despite the fact that news coverage often paints businesses as being against it. “Seeing this kind of coverage could lead people to think that there are many people opposed to action on this issue,” says Wetts.