Statements from large business associations and opponents of climate action are twice as likely to be included in climate change coverage by national newspapers than pro-climate action messaging, according to a new study. The findings suggest mainstream media bias favors entrenched economic interests and that journalistic norms of objectivity and balance have skewed the public conversation around climate change.
“I wanted to specifically look at which interest groups get a say in this debate, what voices are dominating the national conversation about climate change, and how is that reflected in media coverage,” study author Rachel Wetts, Assistant Professor of Environment and Society and Sociology at Brown University, told DeSmog.
Wetts examined over 1,700 press releases on climate change from a range of business, scientific and social advocacy organizations. The study used plagiarism-detection software to analyze which press release messaging matched news coverage of climate change in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today from 1985 to 2014.
The results, published July 27 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that 14 percent of press releases opposing climate action were cited in these major newspapers over nearly 30 years, compared to about seven percent of press releases advocating for action to address climate change. Messaging in support of climate action was much more prevalent among the press releases Wetts examined, yet messaging opposing climate action was included more often in climate news coverage.
The study also found that climate-related messaging from scientific and technical experts was least likely to be picked up in national news. Messaging from business coalitions and large businesses on climate change, on the other hand, received heightened media visibility.
“In terms of this question of whose voices are being heard and who gets to dominate the national conversation around climate change, I find that opponents of climate action and large business interests are the groups that are getting the most visibility, while organizations with scientific expertise are getting very low visibility,” Wetts said in an interview with DeSmog. “This says something about whose voices are being heard that could potentially help explain why we’ve been so slow to adopt any [national] policy to address this issue.”
Wetts said her study is “the most comprehensive data to date” on mainstream media’s representation of climate change, and specifically offers insight on which types of organizations in society are shaping that representation.
Wetts explains in the study that she finds “no indication that this disproportionate coverage of messages opposing climate action has declined or reversed since the mid-2000s,” which she said “suggests that journalists continue to provide ‘false balance’ on the issue of climate change.”
In other words, while outright denial of climate science may be shrinking, opponents of climate action still receive outsized media coverage.
The study notes that “heightened coverage of industry perspectives could lead to a dampening of political will to act on climate.” But as Wetts explained, support for addressing the climate crisis is generally widespread in messaging she examined even among some business interests, suggesting that the mainstream media is not accurately conveying this level of support.
“Whether we’re talking about social advocacy groups or businesses, I’m finding that most messages these groups put out are in favor of climate action,” she said. “Even among businesses upwards of 80 percent of these statements are in support of climate action. To me that indicates a strong sense of urgency and agreement on this issue among a vast array of groups in civil society. That’s something that is missing in the [mainstream] media’s portrayal of this story and something that’s very important.”