A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows that global warming science is often misreported by cable news networks. Aaron Huertas, a science communications officer at UCS lead the study, which was published online earlier this month.
Misinformation about climate science is common on cable news, the study found. In 2013, 30 percent of CNN’s climate science segments were misleading, 72 percent for Fox News, and 8 percent for MSNBC. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 38 percent of US adults watch cable news. This makes cable news a good place to look for influences on those who doubt climate science.
The study looked at 600 segments on the three networks in 2013. Any segment that contained any inaccurate or misleading presentations of climate science in computing those percentages.
CNN usually aired accurate climate science reports, the study found. The network did air interviews and climate change discussions with climate change deniers skewed their results. Without giving time to climate change deniers, CNN would have been much more accurate.
Guests and hosts at Fox News most often accused scientists of manipulating or hiding climate data, and the hosts often misrepresented scientific findings. The misrepresentations included several claims that global warming was not happening.
Fox News did have some accurate segments, including interviews with policymakers and fact-checking segments that targeted celebrities and liberal public figures. Special Report with Bret Baier and The O’Reilly Factor provided almost all of the network’s accurate coverage during the study period, though the shows had segments that included inaccurate information.
The findings relative to Fox News echo the results from a 2012 UCS report found that Fox News was accurate on climate science only 7 percent of the time over the six-month study period.
A large fraction of inaccurate reporting on Fox News came from discussions on one talk show, The Five.
MSNBC had the best record, sullied by a few inaccurate statements. Most of the inaccuracies came from guests or hosts overstating the effects of climate change.
Still, the results show that global warming science is often misreported or misrepresented on cable news shows. Huertas said that the hosts, guests, and producers for those networks have shown they can get the science right, in spite of political differences. This is increasingly important as the effects of climate change add up, he went on to write.
An online summary of the results lists another way in which the cable news networks can contribute to an effective discussion of climate science. Networks can contribute to the public understanding of climate change and its implications by always accurately presenting the scientific facts. The report also notes that mutual acceptance of certain facts is vital to having a productive debate about how to respond to the risks that climate scientists have identified.
The report authors include advice on improving the scientific accuracy of each network’s coverage of climate change. CNN hosts and guests could focus on policy debates, rather than on debates about science. Fox News needs to try harder to differentiate between fact and opinion on climate science. MSNBC should avoid overstating the effects of climate change.
The UCS study result gives a mixed picture of how well cable news outlets handle climate science, so that global warming science and the implications of climate change are often misreported, more by some networks than by others.
An August 2013 study in the journal Public Understanding of Science looked at how conservative news outlets may undermine public acceptance of science, specifically climate science. That study found that listening to conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News correlated with increased distrust of climate scientists.
Science or Spin? Assessing the Accuracy of Cable News Coverage of Climate Science is available online from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
This study from the Union of Concerned Scientists points out a significant weakness in how cable news handles coverage of climate change. That global warming science so often gets misreported on Fox, CNN and less so on MSNBC is a cause for concern at the UCS. Thirty-eight percent of Americans watch cable news, and many of them rely on conservative-leaning Fox News, the worst performer of the three networks studied.
By Chester Davis