Free press is an vital part of the American democracy. The constitution prevents the Congress from making laws that abridge the freedom of the media. What the media publishes relies upon on many factors including the newsworthiness of the narrative, timeliness, space constraints and the closeness of the story to the reader in a cultural as nicely as geographical sense. Since it is nearly impossible to detail everything, selectivity is commonly unavoidable. Nonetheless, reputable news outlets ought to always be objective in which narrative they report and how it is reported. The lookup by Saez-Trumper, Castillo, and Lalmas (1) confirms that bias is still prevalent in social media information communities. One often misinterpreted topic is climate change. Journalists have the unique capacity to accelerate climate action via education and advocacy, but their potential in shaping the public perception and attitude towards the issue remain one of the greatest challenges facing media coverage.
Media misrepresentation of facts can be traced back to the 1980s. The fact that the generation of that time and the following ones have grown up in a world were where calamities are imminent makes them susceptible to misinterpretation of facts and hence misrepresentation. For instance, the first media coverage of global warming was initiated not by the fact that long-lived emissions from automotive tailpipes and industrial smokestacks could affect the climate. Instead, Revkin argues that it started when the public experienced an exceptionally hot summer in 1988 (144). During that time, the space shuttle and satellites were reporting thousands of fires at the Amazon which were unleashing high levels of carbon dioxide that were wrongly perceived as perilous. Indeed heat-trapping gasses like carbon dioxide, methane and ozone can raise the global temperatures, but the effect is gradual unlike how the media portrays it.
Misinterpretation of facts by the press can mainly be attributed to lack of the necessary expertise by scientists. When addressing the media, some scientists are usually tempted to push beyond the scope of science by focusing high-end projections like giving scary scenarios for Greenhouses Gases (GHGs). For instance, during Florida’s catastrophic 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, environmental groups and some scientists linked the calamity to global warming even though the inherent variability in the frequencies precluded such a link. Such press statements were made by climatologists who were inexperienced in matters regarding great storms. According to Segal, such unfounded narratives can be corrected by introducing new climatic conversations that touch beyond facts, mechanisms, and procedures (123).
Journalism has in various instances relied on the technique of finding contradicting arguments to frame issues regarding climate change. The approach is an easy way for journalists to prove that they are not biased but when addressing complex environmental problems, the technique becomes an effective tool for perpetuating confusion in the mind of the reader. When overused, the format highlights the opinions of people at polarized edges of the debate rather than in the middle where consensus can be achieved. Segal claims that such narratives tend to be useless and often leave the public guessing between extremes (126). According to Revkin, writers can solve this tyranny of balance by involving scientists whose expertise and motive are well established (152). This false balance can also be avoided by focusing on peer-reviewed research rather than on unsubstantiated press releases.
Different companies have for long exploited this form of reporting. In the 1990s, for instance, prominent organizations with profits tied to fossil fuels realized that they could apply this journalistic practice to maximize the various uncertainties in climate projections in an attempt to delay cuts in emissions from using those fuels. In this regard, Revkin gives the most compelling evidence of the strategy which includes a memo written by Joe Walker, who was a public relations employee at the American Petroleum Industry (152). Ideally, the norm of journalistic balance introduces bias into reporting of climate change. Although journalists like every other citizen have the right to challenge scientific knowledge, presenting dubious claims or simply challenging science for the sake of balance can misrepresent the debate on climate change against the public interest.
One way to improve media coverage of issues related to the climate is by employing truth in labeling. Broadcasters should determine and present the motivations of those cited in the story. For example, for a meteorologist working in an organization that challenges many environmental policies, then the reporter should determine such a connection and mention it. Another effective practice is to pay close attention to what others are saying regardless of their affiliations.
Space is another issue that affects the work of journalists. In science, reporters are required to assume that the readers are not familiar with the basics especially on complex matters like climate science. Research shows that whereas virtually everyone in the United States knows the rules governing politics, business, and sports, most people have little knowledge about global warming and climate change (Revkin 155). It implies that more explication will somehow fit into the same size of space devoted to matters of less importance like stock splits, ball games or a primary vote. Segal agrees that scientific narratives are some of the most valuable stories because they provide people with more than facts, mechanisms, and procedures for dealing with various issues (123). With limited space, precision matters in such stories. According to Revkin, the problem of space can be resolved by educating editors on the importance of context as well as precision in stories about basic science or research on impending risks like climate change (155).
Journalists reporting matters pertaining climate science should focus more on areas of deep consensus if they are to generate narratives that illuminate instead of confusing the reader (Weber, and Stern 321). Revkin argues that one way to achieve this is for journalists to familiarize themselves more with scientists, researchers, climate modelers, ecologists and the ways of science (157). By getting a better understanding of scientific breakthroughs, reporters are less likely to forget that the state of knowledge about climate is constantly changing. From Segal’s research, it is evident that such an understanding can help reporters improve how they treat scientific discoveries (124). Indeed, the more journalists and scientists talk, the more likely it becomes for public to appreciate what the different facets of science can offer to the society.
As can be seen from this discussion, biases in social media have always been a major concern when in addressing issues regarding climate change. Media has always been criticized for misinterpreting facts since the 1980s. This issue is mainly due to lack of the necessary expertise to handle a broad range of topics in climate science. One way to improve how the media covers climate change is by truth labeling. Educating editors on the importance also goes a long way in ensuring context and precision in narratives. Lastly, focusing on areas of deep consensus can help science journalists to illuminate readers on the subject matter. Given the adverse impact that global warming and other aspects of climate change present should the worst prediction play out, the time for time for improving media coverage on the subject is clearly now.
Weber, Elke U., and Paul C. Stern. “Public understanding of climate change in the United States.” American Psychologist 66.4 (2011): 315.
Revkin, Andrew C. “Climate change as news: Challenges in communicating environmental science.” Climate change: What it means for us, our children, and our grandchildren (2007): 139-60.
Segal, Michael. “The Missing Climate Change Narrative.” South Atlantic Quarterly 116.1 (2017): 121-128.
Saez-Trumper, Diego, Carlos Castillo, and Mounia Lalmas. “Social media news communities: gatekeeping, coverage, and statement bias.” Proceedings of the 22nd ACM international conference on Conference on information & knowledge management. ACM, 2013.