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Reuters report finds cultural divide in coverage of skeptics

  • 11 Nov 2011, 13:00
  • Ros Donald

The large majority of press coverage of climate skeptic viewpoints occurs in the 'Anglo-Saxon' print media, according to a new study. In these countries, these views are most likely to be represented without criticism in the right-wing press.

Poles Apart, a report released yesterday by Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, charts the coverage of climate change in six countries in 2007 and between 2009 and 2010 - periods that include the UN Copenhagen climate summit and 'Climategate'. It finds that the UK and US print media represents more than 80 per cent of the times skeptic voices were quoted during the two periods.

The report examines representations of climate science in 12 newspapers in the UK, US, France, China, India and Brazil.  It looks at one left- and one right-leaning paper for each country so, for example, in the UK it analyses climate change coverage in the Guardian and Observer and that of the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.

"Poles apart" refers to the marked difference in the coverage of climate skepticism in Anglo Saxon countries as compared the rest of the world. The media coverage of climate change in India, Brazil and China "seems to be the polar opposite of that found in parts of the media in the USA, the UK and Australia." It says:

"The issue - and science - of climate change has become contested, polarised and politicised - at least in the Anglo-Saxon world."

But in contrast  "climate skepticism is seldom seen or heard in the media in newly emerging power houses like Brazil, China and India," and is also "in general thinner on the ground" in France and continental Europe.

Why is this? The report suggests several reasons, including that:

"The presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate skepticism, the existence of organised interest that feed skeptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message, all play a particularly significant role in explaining the greater prevalence of skeptical voices in the print media of the USA and UK. In these two countries climate change has become - to different degrees - more of a politicised issue, which politically polarised print media pick up and reflect. This helps to explain why Brazil, India, France and other countries in continental Europe have - to different degrees - a politically divided print media, but do not have the same prevalence of skeptical voices." 

According to the report, climate skeptic voices are most often manifest in newspapers' opinion pages, with UK and US newspapers containing significantly more uncontested skeptical opinion. In 2009/10, the Guardian had 11 opinion pieces that included skeptical voices - but nine of them were dismissive of skeptical views. Meanwhile, the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph between them had 24 opinion pieces about climate change, of which over half expressed a skeptical viewpoint.

The sources of the quotes also reflect the politicisation of climate science in the English-speaking Western world. While one third of skeptic sources quoted overall were politicians - skeptical climate scientists only represented one fifth - almost none of the skeptics quoted in India, China or Brazil were politicians.

The skeptic scientists mentioned in the newspapers studied tend to come from the US, according to the report. It says: "many skeptical climate scientists, some with links to think tanks and lobby groups, are based [in the USA and] Canada, but they have an international reach way beyond their borders." Eleven out of 18 skeptic scientists quoted in the UK media in the two periods were based in the US and Canada.

The UK

To get a better idea of how ideology and climate skepticism are linked, the researchers also studied climate coverage in ten UK newspapers, where they found a "strong correspondence" between the title's political leaning and the prevalence of skeptics quoted.

According to the report, "there was an increase in all 10 newspapers over the two periods of articles with skeptical voices in them. The increase was most marked for the right-leaning Express, Mail and Star."  Out of all of them, the Express published most of these - 50 per cent of its articles between 2009 and 2010 quoted skeptics. Right-leaning newspapers were also most likely to publish skeptic viewpoints without contesting them, according to the research.

While many of the skeptical climate scientists that made it into the papers are from the US, one skeptic organisation outdoes all others in the UK press. Lord Lawson's climate skeptic think-tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation far outstrips other skeptic sources across the ten newspapers studied in the UK:

"The two most quoted skeptics by far in the second period were Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser - more than 80 times between them. This compares with 13 times for the most quoted climate skeptic scientist, Professor Ian Plimer."

But while skeptics have gained a voice in UK media, the split between left and right on climate change is not as clear-cut as  in the US. The UK's right-wing newspapers reflect divisions in Conservative  attitudes toward climate change, the report says:

"Despite powerful skeptical voices on the fringes, the main body of the Conservative Party leadership publicly supports climate science. This may help to explain why the Sunday Telegraph regularly gives space to the columnist Christopher Booker to appeal to disenchanted Conservative and UKIP voters […]. In contrast, the more mainstream treatment of the science in The Times and Sun, both of them right-leaning, is more in tune with mainstream Conservative Party thinking."

The study also draws links between the coverage of climate skepticism in the media and other trends. Interestingly, it points out that the US, Australia and Britain all have "…the presence of large, privately owned oil, coal and mining companies which have much to lose - arguably the most - by international or national legislation enforcing cuts in carbon emissions or a major switch to renewable sources of energy" - something that is much less prevalent in Brazil, India and France. (US fossil fuel interests have links to climate skeptic lobbyists in the US and Australia, although in the UK such links, if they exist, are yet to be demonstrated.)

The UK's competitive tabloid culture "with a strong political or quasi-campaigning agenda" also plays a part, it says. In contrast, Brazil has a "strong tradition of trained science journalists". Neither India nor Brazil have lobby groups linked to the fossil fuel industry as found in the US and Australia, and France, meanwhile, has a "strong 'pro-science' or rationalist culture" that the study says might influence reporting in the country.

Poles Apart was part-funded by the European Climate Foundation, who also provide our funding. 

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