Climate Change and Balance in the Media

What role does information bias play in public opinions about climate change?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

Accusations regarding the media’s political stripes— that it taints everything with a liberal bias or, conversely, that it adheres to the agenda of its big business parent-companies—have been dueling metronomes in the background of many political debates. These polarized assessments are how we typically think of journalistic bias. With matters of science though, the landscape should be different because science’s objectivity, theoretically allows less room for divisiveness and discourse hijacking. This has not been the story, however, when it comes to climate change.

Assuming that science succeeds in being objective (or mostly objective), then it is somewhat strange the climate change controversy exists at all. With nearly 100% of scientific bodies of good standing declaring that climate change is not only real but an imminent threat, the disproportionately large segment of the population who question it is staggering. Ongoing research about the media’s coverage of climate change ranges in focus and scope, but today’s post is primarily concerned with research done about a less talked about form of media bias.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you may recall the term ‘information bias.’  Simply put, information bias describes the process by which people mis-evaluate a situation due to less relevant information clouding their ability to focus on the more pertinent information. This excess of generally irrelevant information tends to alter one’s opinion or course of action. With this in mind, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff, two American researchers, looked at climate change articles (discounting opinion pieces, letters to the editor, etc ) from four major U.S. newspapers. Their study, which tracked articles from 1988 to 2002, analyzed the extent to which news articles balanced (or didn’t balance) both sides of the climate change debate.1

What Boykoff and Boykoff found was that the media generally did provide a balance of opinion, with just over 52% of articles evenly representing both sides of the debate, and just under 6% providing exclusive coverage of climate change’s anthropogenic origins. At first glance, these results may not seem noteworthy. In fact, they may seem encouraging in their apparent contradiction of the notion that the media is wildly biased. The key to all of this, however, is the fact that the majority of articles presented the views of an overwhelming majority as though they were equal in weight to a very small minority. That is to say, the dominant scientific consensus becomes conflated with the opinion of a much smaller group. The problem with this, obviously, is that the two opinions are not equal in authority or sheer number.

According to Boykoff and Boykoff, this attempt at journalistic neutrality has actually skewed public understanding and provided a false sense that the issue is a 50/50 split in scientific opinion, which is absolutely not the case. Thus, when it comes to science (and a dominant scientific consensus, no less), the idea of balancing the views of scattered outliers with a very solid majority is an instance where ‘fair and balanced’ makes little sense. Further, if we assume those who study an issue have a better understanding of its complexities, and if the vast majority of people who study that issue have reached one conclusion, does it makes sense that their scientific opinions should be balanced with a vocal minority?

Information bias is not exclusive in its influence on the public’s perception of climate change. The role of the media will continue to play a role in how society understands climate change, and it’s important for society as a whole to understand all the forces at work in the news they consume. Next week’s post will continue looking at the media’s role in climate change, exploring other ways in which the media has shaped the climate change debate.

1. Boykoff, Maxwell T. and Jules M. Boykoff. 2004. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change 14:125-136.

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