Framing Science

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Yesterday, Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Committee on Public Works & the Environment, issued a challenge to journalists to stop what he called the “media hype” over global warming. Inhofe compiles a list of what he considers exaggerated distortions of global warming from recent and past news coverage. Of course, Inhofe’s tactic is all too familiar. Conservatives have long complained about a “liberal media bias” generally, relying heavily on anecdotal evidence to back up their claims. When news reports don’t favor preferred policy positions, whether it is election politics or scientific topics like global warming, conservatives attack the messenger.

For conservatives, the effort to undermine public concern over global warming by attacking journalists is especially important with the November elections coming up and the 2008 Presidential race looming. The GOP coalition is split on global warming, with conservative deniers like Inhofe and Bush continuing to downplay the threat and opposing any major policy action, while moderate Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger take a lead on the issue. And the GOP has more to fear, as it becomes increasingly clear that Al Gore is a potentially viable candidate for President in 2008.

Yet when it comes to attacking the messenger, selective anecdotes don’t make for very good evidence. Researchers, using the best scientific tools available to them, have difficulty finding systematic patterns of liberal bias in political coverage generally. And scholars have had equal trouble in finding systematic evidence of media exaggeration on the topic of global warming. In fact, when it comes to global warming coverage, one content analysis finds that journalists are much more likely to downplay consensus expert views on the topic, while giving equal weight to the opinions of a handful of “climate skeptics” affiliated with industry groups.

But what does the public think about the media’s performance on the issue of global warming?

For a study I have under review, I recently sifted through hundreds of polling questions about global warming culled from more than 70 surveys conducted over the past twenty years. Poll results on global warming often become an ideological Rorschach Test, with one side in the policy debate citing polls as reflective of a public demanding action, while the other side claiming that polls reveal an American citizenry unwilling to bear the economic costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. A systematic, peer-reviewed summary of the available public opinion evidence might help guide journalists, scientists, and policymakers in figuring out exactly what Americans think about the topic.

For example, since 1997, Gallup has consistently asked the public what they thought about media coverage of the global warming debate. The public appears split, with approximately a third believing that news coverage is “generally exaggerated,” approximately a third believing that news coverage is “generally correct,” and a final third believing that in news coverage the problem is “generally underestimated.” In this final category, however, there does appear to be some significant change over the past ten years, with the proportion of Americans believing that news reports generally underestimate the global warming problem shifting from 27% in 1997 to 38% in 2006.

The question wording and results follow below:

Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming–generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?

Dates: 11/97,03/01,03/02,03/03,03/04,03/05,03/06,

Generally exaggerated % 31,30,31,33,38,31,30

Generally correct % 34,34,32,29,25,29,28

Generally underestimated% 27,32,32,33,33,35,38

Don’t know/Refused% 8,4,5,5,4,5,4

N 1,003,1,060,1,006,1,003,1,005,1,004, 1,000