It may have seemed hard to believe after attending COP17, when I’m sure that a word cloud of the proceedings would have shown “climate change” to be the dominant word, and there are many people who doubt its existence.
There were glimmerings of this when Lord Christopher Monckton and Sen. James Imhofe made their annual effort t garner attention for their positions that climate change does not exist and is, in fact, the product of some left-wing conspiracy.
Their goal: to gain coverage and sow uncertainty in readers or viewers’ mind about the trend that leading scientific body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is nearly 100 percent certain that is anthropogenic, or man-made, in nature.
While they may not have succeeded in this venue, they have done so in the past.
But the amount of attention these “merchants of doubt,” in former BBC Latin American bureau chief James Painter’s parlance, receive varies widely by country.
To his credit, Painter still keeps his hand in the journalism game. But he has transitioned largely to being the head of the journalism fellowship program at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In 2011, he authored Summoned by Science, an analysis of media coverage of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009. His most recent report is instructive, then, both on its substance and as an illustration of potential career trajectory during a highly turbulent period in the industry’s history (The latter is not an insignificant point.).
In Poles Apart: the International Reporting of Climate Scepticism, he’s concentrated his attention on the question of the frequency and context of climate skeptics like Imhofe in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, India and China. Painter does make a distinction, one of many in the work, between scientific skeptics who have legitimate questions about the scientific merits of the latest work, and outright deniers like Monckton and Imhofe for whom no standard of proof of global warming would ever be sufficient
The product of rigorous research-Painter told me he personally checked each of the close to 5,000 articles read to ensure data integrity and methodological consistency-the report has a number of key findings.
The first and most basic is that climate change coverage, specifically, the space and context providing for climate change skeptics, varies widely by country.
Developing countries like Brazil,India and China, tend to cover climate change skepticism less frequently than developed countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. This is likely because, he speculates, the developing countries are more directly and frequently experiencing climate change’s effects.
Pointer also points out that skeptics appeared close to half the time in the opinion pages. In the United States, for instance, where a majority of the Republican presidential candidates have said they don’t believe in climate change, conservative papers like The Wall Street Journal have a high percentage and quantity of stories in which there are uncontested skeptics (One of the many values of Painter’s report is its ability like a microscope to alter its focus to attend to the smallest detail, then, with another swivel, to provide a much larger perspective.) In Brazil, on the other hand, where the government has supported and is starting to implement a series of emission reductions programs and legislations, there is none.
On one level, this is not real surprising.
Neither is Painter’s finding that the paper’s ideology tends to be correlated, with right-wing papers tending to give more uncontested space to climate skeptics than their left-leaning counterparts.
Painter takes the conversation, deeper, though by examining the consequences of that additional space, finding that when there’s confusion about the science of climate change, people are less likely to push for policy change.
This last point is a critical one, for it speaks both to skeptics’ political objectives and the media’s role in either facilitating or working against it. Painter’s project gives us ample evidence to see the role media in general, and specific outlets in particular, play in the various countries.
There are limitations to, and legitimate questions about, the work.
As mentioned above, some may take issue with its not being peer-reviewed. The choice of period to look at coverage, while useful from the perspective of generating material to analyze, may not be representative of all coverage at all times. More basically, while Painter looks at six admittedly important countries who collectively account for more than half of global admissions, he does not have the entire story.
These points are well taken, and, from talking with Painter, are ones with which he would likely have little problem. At the same time, as community activist the Rev. Robin Hood once told me about an investigation I did about fatal police shootings, failing to have the entire story does not mean that you’ve said nothing (Note: This was actually Rev. Hood’s name).
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Painter’s content analysis is a valuable contribution on an important aspect of the palne’ts most pressing issue and a reminder of the role we journalists and our editors play in supplying a lot of the information on which people base their opinions.