As the world’s governments sat down in Rio last week for the Earth Summit on sustainable development, the future of the planet once again made it into the newspapers. Sadly, it’s quite likely that the newspapers were getting plenty of their coverage wrong.
Research at Oxford University has shown that the world’s media, especially in the English-speaking world, routinely misrepresents the state of scientific consensus on climate change, giving greater weight to sceptics than is warranted by the science. Given the stakes – that if we don’t take action on climate change we are threatened with trillion dollar consequences, millions of lives lost, and entire countries swallowed up by rising seas – this is a big deal, and it’s an issue that goes to the heart of the role of media in society: to seek truth and to speak that truth. So why does our media so often get it wrong?
The first possible answer is an obvious one: fossil fuel companies are believed to spend a lot of money ensuring that the public debate is misinformed. It’s certainly true that millions of petro-dollars have been pouring into organisations like the Heartland Institute, whose very aim is to sow doubt in the public mind about the issue. And it’s probably true that in many cases journalists have been too busy to check all the stories that Heartland and others peddle around Fleet Street. There’s good evidence that plenty of climate-scepticism stories get picked up without fact-checking with scientists, particularly if the story aligns with the political leanings of the paper or broadcaster in question. But there are deeper reasons why the media struggles to engage effectively with such a critical field.
Professor Chris Rapley at University College London knows more about this issue than most. With a PhD in rocket science (yes, really), he became one of the UK’s leading climate scientists, heading the British Antarctic Survey and directing the Science Museum. He has been at the sharp end of these debates for years, and has experienced the best and the worst of dealing with the media’s approach to scientific controversy.
His experience reflects what the Oxford researchers have found: that many news organisations give too much weight to climate sceptics in an attempt to achieve balance; to ensure, as the BBC Editorial Guidelines put it, a breadth and diversity of opinion. To illustrate the point, Rapley tells an anecdote from his time as Director of the British Antarctic Survey. He hosted the BBC News at Ten team, who ran a special edition on climate change broadcast from the Antarctic. “The first thing they did was an interview with Tony Blair at number ten, who said climate change is the biggest threat, bigger than terrorism. Then they turned to me, with ice in the background falling into the ocean, and asked me if I thought it was a problem, and of course I did. And then they turned to Bjorn Lomborg, and basically said ‘why is Professor Rapley an idiot’”. Lomborg, of course, is a noted opponent of action on climate change, but is not himself a climate scientist. He was only too happy to do as the interviewer implicitly wanted, to present an opinion that contradicted that of Chris Rapley. In the bar afterwards, Rapley said to the news anchor, “Why do you do that? You know that Lomborg is expressing at best mischievous opinion”. And he said ‘we have to, it’s in our charter, we must have balance.’“
Seeking balance is a foundation of unbiased reporting on controversial issues of public affairs. But when it comes to science stories, the approach is fatally flawed. “There’s a material difference between something that emerges from the science process and opinion”, Rapley says. “What is it that you’re balancing? You’re balancing opinion against the outcome of the scientific enterprise, and the two things are different.” He goes on to say, “The media are often very poor at distinguishing between these two. In doing so they misrepresent the content to their readership, and I think that’s an ethical issue. Particularly if they’re knowingly doing it, it’s a professional misdemeanour.” Tough words, perhaps, but they do acknowledge that it’s not always easy. “What muddies the water is when someone expressing an opinion or an agenda seeks to justify it on the basis of cherry-picked science, so that they sound like they’re drawing from evidence too. This is very subtle, and it requires some expertise and judgement on the part of the adjudicator in the media”.
Fortunately, there are signs that news organisations are raising their game. The BBC, pressed on its coverage of science stories in recent years, commissioned a major review into its coverage of science, led by the geneticist and writer Steve Jones at UCL. In response, it has appointed a senior science editor for the first time, who took up his post in February, with a mandate to ensure that stories addressing scientific issues address them as science, not as opinion.
Changes like this are happening elsewhere too. Earlier this year, the US public service broadcaster NPR News revised their ‘ethics in journalism’ handbook. In a move welcomed by climate change activists, the wording has been changed to give greater emphasis on the weight of evidence in reporting controversial issues, and less emphasis on balancing competing opinions: “Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth…. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.”
These are positive signs, but they’re unlikely to solve the problem even in those organisations that are implementing change. Ultimately, getting it right comes down to professionalism and professional integrity.
Rapley shies away from demanding stricter oversight of professional standards in science journalism. “I don’t think it’s much use beating up on journalists”, he says. “Scientists need to engage better too”. The climate-gate emails revealed how much scientists need to change. They revealed scientists doing sound scientific work, but hopeless PR. The resulting scandal has badly undermined trust, and the lesson is that scientists need to be more intelligent in the way that they engage with those outside the science community.
Ultimately both scientists and journalists need to remember that this stuff is important in a way that many other news stories simply aren’t. It is possible – perhaps likely – that the atmosphere is sensitive enough to carbon emissions that success or failure in dealing with climate change will be as significant in the course of human history as the invention of agriculture or the industrial revolution. Success means that humanity has reached a stage of social and political development that we can, as a species, solve a problem that is invisible to each of us, yet which affects us all, and to which we all contribute. Failure could mean that by the middle of the next century some parts of the globe become uninhabitable, that coastal metropolises like New York, London and Shanghai are ultimately abandoned, and that the already very high levels of poverty, malnutrition and squalor so common in the developing world become more common, more widespread and more acute. That matters infinitely more than the issues about which we have become most exercised recently – the invasion of the privacy of the rich and famous.
William McDowall is a Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute.