Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias

Creating controversy where science finds consensus

A new study has found that when it comes to U.S. media coverage of global warming , superficial balance—telling "both" sides of the story—can actually be a form of informational bias. Despite the consistent assertions of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activities have had a "discernible" influence on the global climate and that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately, "he said/she said" reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views greatly amplified.

The current best climate research predicts that the Earth's temperature could rise by as much as 10.4° F by 2100. Studies show that this temperature increase could contribute to a sea-level rise of up to 35 inches by 2100—threatening to flood tens of millions of inhabitants of coastal communities. Warming on this scale would extend the range and activity of pests and diseases, and force land and marine life to migrate northward, thereby endangering ecosystems, reproductive habits and biodiversity.

Moreover, climate forecasts include more and higher-intensity rainfall in some regions, leading to greater flood and landslide damage. In other regions, forecasts call for increased droughts, resulting in smaller crop yields, more forest fires and diminished water resources. These climate shifts threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the globe, with a greater impact on the most vulnerable.

These gloomy findings and dire predictions are not the offerings of a gaggle of fringe scientists with an addiction to the film Apocalypse Now. Rather, these forecasts are put forth by the IPCC, the largest, most reputable peer-reviewed body of climate-change scientists in history. Formed by the United Nations in 1990 and composed of the top scientists from around the globe, the IPCC employs a decision-by-consensus approach. In fact, D. James Baker, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the Department of Commerce under the Clinton administration, has said about human contributions to global warming (Washington Post , 11/12/97) that "there's no better scientific consensus on this on any issue I know—except maybe Newton's second law of dynamics."

The idea of balance

In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists removed the term "objectivity" from its ethics code (Columbia Journalism Review , 7-8/03). This reflects the fact that many contemporary journalists find the concept to be an unrealistic description of what journalists aspire to, preferring instead words like "fairness," "balance," "accuracy," "comprehensiveness" and "truth." In terms of viewpoints presented, journalists are taught to abide by the norm of balance: identifying the most dominant, widespread positions and then telling "both" sides of the story.

According to media scholar Robert Entman: "Balance aims for neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention."

Balanced coverage does not, however, always mean accurate coverage. In terms of the global warming story, "balance" may allow skeptics—many of them funded by carbon-based industry interests—to be frequently consulted and quoted in news reports on climate change. Ross Gelbspan, drawing from his 31-year career as a reporter and editor, charges in his books The Heat Is On and Boiling Point that a failed application of the ethical standard of balanced reporting on issues of fact has contributed to inadequate U.S. press coverage of global warming:

The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present competing points of view. When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness—presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight—is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not.

We empirically tested Gelbspan's hypothesis as we focused on the human contribution to global warming (known in science as "anthropogenic global warming"). In our study called "Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press"—presented at the 2002 Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change in Berlin and published in the July 2004 issue of the journal Global Environmental Change —we analyzed articles about human contributions to global warming that appeared between 1988 and 2002 in the U.S. prestige press: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.

Using the search term "global warming," we collected articles from this time period and focused on what is considered "hard news," excluding editorials, opinion columns, letters to the editor and book reviews. Approximately 41 percent of articles came from the New York Times, 29 percent from the Washington Post, 25 percent from the Los Angeles Times, and 5 percent from the Wall Street Journal.

From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.

More specifically, we discovered that:

  • 53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.
  • 35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.
  • 6 percent emphasized doubts about the claim that human-caused global warming exists, while another 6 percent only included the predominant scientific view that humans are contributing to Earth's temperature increases.

Through statistical analyses, we found that coverage significantly diverged from the IPCC consensus on human contributions to global warming from 1990 through 2002. In other words, through adherence to the norm of balance, the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias.

Global Warming 101

Building on earlier climate science work by William Herschel, John Tyndall and Joseph Fourier, investigations regarding humans' role in global warming began in 1896, when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Svante Arrhenius examined contributions of carbon dioxide emissions to increases in atmospheric temperature. In the 1930s, meteorologist G.S. Callendar gathered temperature records from more than 200 weather stations around the world and attributed temperature increases to greenhouse gas emissions from industry.

In the 1950s, Gilbert Plass' research on atmospheric CO2 and infrared radiation absorption added to a growing scientific consensus that humans contribute to global warming. In 1956, Plass announced that human activities were raising the average global temperature.

Also, beginning in 1958, Charles David Keeling began to document atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. His findings of a dramatic increase in CO2—referred to as the "Keeling Curve"—are considered some of the most important long-term data relating to humans' role in global warming. Additionally, 1966 and 1977 United States National Academy of Sciences reports made clear links between human activities and global warming.

NASA scientist James Hansen's 1988 testimony to the U.S. Congress marked solidified scientific concern for human-caused global warming. He said he was "99 percent certain" that warmer temperatures were caused by the burning of fossil fuels and not solely a result of natural variation and that "it is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here."

Since the formation of the IPCC in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization, a steady flow of IPCC reports have continued to support the notion that humans are contributing to global warming. For example, in 1990 at the World Climate Conference in Geneva, over 700 scientists from around the world gathered to review the IPCC First Scientific Assessment Report in order to set the stage for the crafting of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After their review, they released the Scientists' Declaration, which focused on human-caused global warming, and read: "A clear scientific consensus has emerged on estimates of the range of global warming that can be expected during the 21st century.... Countries are urged to take immediate actions to control the risks of climate change." Another salient assertion regarding human contributions to warming manifested in the Second Scientific Assessment Report, released in 1995. The consensus statement strongly asserted that there has been "a discernible human influence" on the global climate.

Balanced to a fault

Specific examples abound that demonstrate a contrast between "balanced reporting" in newspaper coverage and this scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. For example, an article that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times (12/2/92) reported:

The ability to study climatic patterns has been critical to the debate over the phenomenon called "global warming." Some scientists believe—and some ice core studies seem to indicate—that humanity's production of carbon dioxide is leading to a potentially dangerous overheating of the planet. But skeptics contend there is no evidence the warming exceeds the climate's natural variations.

Pitting what "some scientists believe" against what "skeptics contend" implies a roughly even division within the scientific community. And putting the term "global warming" in scare quotes serves to subtly cast doubt on the reality of such a phenomenon.

Another front-page Los Angeles Times article (2/8/93), "An Early Warning of Warming: If the 'Greenhouse Effect' Exists, the Arctic Will Be the First to Experience It," provides another example of balance as bias. After stating that "many climate experts are convinced that the world is warming up, probably because of increased atmospheric levels of 'greenhouse gases' given off by the burning of fossil fuels," the article goes on to imply a roughly even division within the scientific community:

Such a weather log [for the Arctic] will be of tremendous help to the many scientists who are trying to find out whether the current warming trend is merely part of the natural variation in climate—or whether it is the more worrisome result of runaway fossil-fuel consumption. For those caught up in the global-warming debate, this is the threshold question. The evidence so far is inconclusive.

Scientists agree that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by about 25 percent over the past century. And credible statistics support a finding that not only is the Earth warming but that the past decade was, on average, the warmest since record-keeping began in the latter part of the 19th century. . . .

But is there a clear connection between the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations and the warming temperature? That's where many competent researchers admit they are stumped. They point out that the Earth has gone through other warm spells down through the eons, none of them brought on through human deeds. Today's rising temperatures, they say, may just be another one of those natural fluctuations.

Aside from the title's insinuation that the greenhouse effect, as a scientific process, may not exist—even though this is a completely uncontroversial piece of science that explains why atmospheres tend to warm planets—the article also portrays a balanced debate on whether global warming is caused by fossil-fuel emissions.

Yet another example of this balance-as-bias phenomenon comes from a 1995 Washington Post article (3/28/95) that previewed the First Conference of the Parties (COP1) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Berlin. The article described "the lack of international consensus on the causes and hazards of global warming" before turning to the concerns of residents of the Maldive Islands, a low-lying country that could be submerged if rising tides from global warming continue. After citing the distress of the Maldive president, the article closes by saying:

On the other hand, some skeptical meteorologists and analysts assert that global warming reflects a natural cycle of temperature fluctuation and cannot be decisively tied to human actions. "As far as we are concerned, there's no evidence for global warming, and by the year 2000 the man-made greenhouse theory will probably be regarded as the biggest scientific gaffe of the century," Piers Corbyn, an astrophysicist at London's Weather Action forecasting organization, told the Reuters news agency.

As a final example, a Los Angeles Times article from 2001 (4/13/01) stated:

The issue of climate change has been a topic of intense scientific and political debate for the past decade. Today, there is agreement that the Earth's air and oceans are warming, but disagreement over whether that warming is the result of natural cycles, such as those that regulate the planet's periodic ice ages, or caused by industrial pollutants from automobiles and smokestacks.

These articles all demonstrate that adhering to the journalistic norm of balanced reporting can, in the end, lead to biased coverage.

Dueling scientists

As we have seen, the "dueling scientists" became a common feature of the prestige-press terrain in the United States. Late in 1990, a coherent and cohesive group emerged to challenge the claims that were made in the IPCC reports. S. Fred Singer, Don Pearlman, Richard Lindzen, Sallie Baliunas, Frederick Seitz, Robert Balling Jr., Patrick Michaels and others began to speak out vociferously against the findings of the IPCC. This group is what Jeremy Leggett's book The Carbon War dubbed the "Carbon Club," describing them as "the foot soldiers for the fossil-fuel industries."

Scientists from the Carbon Club consistently found their way into the news. For example, in a Washington Post article headlined "Primary Ingredient of Acid Rain May Counteract Greenhouse Effect" (9/17/90), the skeptics were afforded prominent billing. Discussing the relative role of sulfur dioxide, the article stated:

If the role of sulfur cooling proves to be large, and this is still far from certain, some researchers say it could be necessary to continue burning fossil fuels in order to produce sulfur dioxide to fight the carbon dioxide-driven warming. "I would not be surprised if somebody suggested concentrating fossil fuel power plants on the eastern margins of continents, which would put a lot of sulfates into the atmosphere, which would rain out over the oceans, which have a tremendous capacity to absorb acidity," [Patrick] Michaels [of the University of Virginia] said. "This plan would make sense because the prevailing winds blow from east to west."

In another article from the New York Times (4/22/98), another global-warming skeptic, Dr. Frederick Seitz, was portrayed as supporting a supposedly scientific study pushing the idea that carbon dioxide emissions were not a threat to the climate, but rather "a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution."

These global warming skeptics deflect attention away from the IPCC's consensus on the human contributions to global warming, thereby providing space for politicians to call for "more research" before tinkering with the status-quo consumption of fossil fuels. Through "balanced" coverage, the mass media have misrepresented the scientific consensus of humans' contribution to global warming as highly divisive, what the Washington Post (10/31/92) once referred to as "the usual fickleness of science." Such coverage has served as a veritable oxygen supply for skeptics in both the scientific and political realms.

Time for a currency transfer

To the surprise of many, the George W. Bush administration released a report in late August 2004 stating that carbon-dioxide emissions and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases are the most plausible explanation for global warming. Contrary to previous presidential proclamations, the report indicated that rising temperatures in North America were attributable in part to human activity and that this was having detectable effects on animal and plant life. New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin (8/26/04) dubbed this "a striking shift in the way the Bush administration has portrayed the science of climate change."

Yet despite this recent report, the Bush administration did not flinch in its stance on the issue of global warming. It continued to spurn the Kyoto Protocol, oppose actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and emphasize uncertainties in the underlying climate-change science, calling for more research before taking action to curb human contributions to warming (New York Times, 11/13/02). In fact, John H. Marburger, Bush's science adviser, said (Washington Post, 8/27/04) that the most recent report has "no implications for policy." Marburger asserted, "There is no discordance between this report and the president's position on climate."

So why has the United States government—from President George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush—been so reluctant to seriously address global warming? A number of factors have contributed to this spectacular inaction: the oil and coal industries' tanker-load of annual campaign contributions to national politicians, these industries' well-connected cadre of lobbyists working Capitol Hill with aplomb, the crucial disjuncture between a scientific community that deals in a language of uncertainty and probability and a political culture that barks "If it ain't certain, it ain't real," the Bush administration's long-standing relationship with the energy industries, and so on.

But a much subtler mechanism is also at work: the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, widely considered one of the traditional pillars of good journalism. By giving equal time to opposing views, the major mainstream newspapers significantly downplayed scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Certainly there is a need to represent multiple viewpoints, but when generally agreed-upon scientific findings are presented side-by-side with the viewpoints of a handful of skeptics, readers are poorly served. Meanwhile, the world dangerously warms, conservative think tanks gut the precautionary principle, and humankind—from the Carbon Club to the Boys and Girls Club—faces a dire future.

This critique is not meant as a personal attack on individual journalists. In fact, adhering to the norm of balance is a sign of professionalism, and, let's not forget, approximately 35 percent of the articles in our sample got the story correct. There are a number of journalists, such as Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, who are providing sound coverage of this important issue. We are more concerned with the institutional features and professional norms and practices of the mass-media system than we are with naming names of questionable journalists. Of course, these features will change when individual journalists, editors, publishers, scientists, policy makers and citizens work effectively to change them.

Clearly, the notion of balance is much more complex than it appears on the conceptual surface. Journalists have already begun the appropriate excavation of the term "objectivity." Similar archaeological work should also be carried out on "balance."