Opponents of Climate Action Get More News Coverage Than Supporters, Study Finds

An analysis of reporting from major newspapers shows press releases from opponents of climate action were cited about 14% of the time, compared to 7% for supporters.

Protesters gather outside the White House on June 1, 2017, opposing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CN) — Large businesses and organizations that oppose taking action on climate change are being given an outsize opportunity to spread their message in the news media in what amounts to a failure of traditional both-sides journalism to accurately portray the climate debate, a new study finds.

The idea that news outlets inaccurately amplify the voices of climate change deniers is not a new criticism, but Monday’s study from Brown University offers a new level of detail on just how much room those voices are being given on the pages of America’s largest newspapers.

In the study, sociologist Rachel Wetts analyzed how frequently messages in press releases from groups that support taking action against climate change and from those that oppose such action showed up in thousands of articles about the issue over the past three decades from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today. The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings were stark: press releases from opponents of climate action were cited in the articles about twice as many times as those from groups that pushed for action, even though the opponents’ press releases made up just 10% of all the releases that were analyzed for the study.

In other words, the opponents were given a larger opportunity to spread their messages, even though they only made up a fraction of voices involved in the overall climate debate.

“To me, the sort of big takeaway is that media representation of what different groups in society think of this issue is distorted,” Wetts said in an interview. “The views of opponents of climate action, as well as the views of large business interests, are being given a disproportionate opportunity to sway the climate debate.”

For the purposes of the study, Wetts defined climate “action” as either specific policies and practices that could address the problem or simply an acknowledgement that the problem exists and is manmade. So, groups that falsely claim climate change isn’t real or isn’t caused by humans were included alongside those that more specifically oppose taking action to fight the problem.

Using plagiarism-detection software, Wetts compared the text of about 1,800 press releases from a variety of organizations across the business, advocacy, science and technology sectors with almost 35,000 climate change stories the major newspapers published between 1985 and 2014.

Press releases from opponents of climate action were cited about 14% of the time, compared to 7% for supporters.

Business coalitions and pro-business trade groups were cited about 16% of the time, compared to 9% for other types of groups, while releases from groups focused on the issue from a science and technology perspective were cited the least amount, just 2.9% of the time, a finding Wetts said she found particularly surprising.

“I would have thought that organizations that have greater scientific expertise would have greater authority on this issue,” she said.

The findings, Wetts said, are particularly significant because of suggestions from previous researchers that news outlets can distort the public’s perception of climate change by engaging in a kind of “false balance” that lends equal weight to viewpoints that are in fact in the minority.

Wetts said another key takeaway from Monday’s study was that the practice of news outlets giving a larger share of attention to opponents of climate action continued into the 2010s, despite growing criticism and self-reflection within the industry on the issue.

“There have been claims that journalists have sort of learned their lessons, so to speak, about the balanced norm and have just stopped giving opponents of climate action more airtime,” she said. “But in fact, I found that that phenomenon continued even into [the] last decade.”

Still, one of the study’s findings suggested that journalists have become more attuned to the power and influence that certain sectors hold in the debate – namely, fossil fuel companies.

Part of the analysis found that press releases specifically from “extractive and highly polluting industries” were not more likely to be cited in news articles.

“I think that one potential reason for that is that they’re just not seen as disinterested parties,” Wetts said. “Their stake in this debate is seen as so high, that they’re not necessarily trusted to give us an objective assessment of the issue anymore. They’re seen as somewhat compromised.”

The study also found that a given company or group’s size was more influential than its bank account in gaining media attention, a finding Wetts chalked up to “structural power.”

“It’s not about how much money you have to throw around, but sort of, how important your views are seen as being to the overall economy,” she said. “I’m finding that these large employers are being given more media visibility, and I think in part because the media and policymakers have to take their opinions into account when they’re debating and crafting policy.”

Surveys from the Pew Research Center have suggested that a majority of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the impacts of climate change, while similar surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication have found that 60% of Americans believe climate change is happening and caused by humans.

News outlets should strive to more accurately reflect that kind of broad-level agreement that climate change is a problem, Wetts said.

“These kinds of issues of whose voices are making the news can potentially affect overall public opinion about climate change and our ability as a nation to address this issue,” she said.

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