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Black smoke and fire from chimney from burning of associated gas
Credit: Leonid Ikan/Shutterstock
2 February 2015 13:40

Newspapers’ skeptic views persisted in ‘Climategate’ aftermath, study shows

Mat Hope


Mat Hope

02.02.2015 | 1:40pm
Media analysisNewspapers’ skeptic views persisted in ‘Climategate’ aftermath, study shows

UK newspapers include skeptic viewpoints in a significant proportion of climate change coverage, even when there is questionable editorial justification to do so, a new study suggests.

The likelihood of reading climate skeptic views is also significantly affected by which newspaper you read, the study shows, with some newspapers including skeptic voices in as many as four times the number of articles of their competitors.

The research by James Painter from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Neil Gavin from Liverpool University’s department of politics, published in the Environmental Communication journal, concludes that such reporting can dampen public concern about climate change, and reduce the impetus for politicians to take action to tackle climate change.

Picking a moment

The number of articles and opinion pieces featuring climate skeptic voices varies depending on context, the study shows.

It looks at three time periods.

The first period, February to April 2007, includes articles on the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth major review of climate science. The second period, 19th November 2009 to 18th February 2010, includes coverage of two major climate news stories: the Copenhagen climate conference and the theft of emails from climate scientists dubbed ‘Climategate’. The third period, 19th November 2010 to 18th February 2011, was around the time of the Cancun climate conference, as well as an unusually cold winter.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the study finds that climate skeptic voices were most commonly included in the second period. During that period, about 21 per cent of climate change stories included climate skeptic views.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 10.55.34.png
Source: Painter and Gavin, Climate Skepticism in British newspapers, 2007 to 2011. Graph by Carbon Brief.

That’s because a lot of the coverage focused on the validity or otherwise of climate science. During that period, says Painter:

“You could argue there was some editorial justification. It was the time of Climategate and Himalaya-gate and various other ‘gates’. Indeed, there is considerable evidence from UK journalists and editors which suggests they felt it appropriate to include sceptical voices.”

This isn’t the case for the third period, however. By that time, much of the Climategate furore had passed, and the Copenhagen conference was largely forgotten. Despite this, 20 per cent of the climate change stories continued to include climate skeptic voices.

“When the amount of coverage of climate change in general had got a lot less, you could argue that there was less editorial justification compared to other periods,” notes Painter.

Reading choices

The persistence of climate skeptic voices after the Climategate controversy and high-profile Copenhagen conference was largely down to three publications, the study shows, highlighting the difference between particular newspapers’ coverage of climate change.

Some newspapers included climate skeptic voices much more consistently over all three time periods, the data shows:

Newspaper climate skeptic coverage.jpg
Source: Painter and Gavin, Climate Skepticism in British newspapers, 2007 to 2011. Graph by Carbon Brief.

In 2010/2011, the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express accounted for over 60 per cent of articles featuring climate skeptic voices.

It’s worth noting that the study doesn’t differentiate between different types of climate skepticism. Previous studies have broken views down into three categories: those that question whether climate change is happening, whether it is predominantly caused by humans, and whether it is a significant problem – known as ‘trend’, ‘attribution’ and ‘impact’ skepticism, respectively.

That shows “there’s definitely a correlation between the dominant political ideology of the newspaper and the amount of skepticism”, Painter says. But it’s difficult to generalise across a whole publication, he points out.

In many cases, climate skeptic voices appeared in opinion pieces or articles written by reporters that didn’t specialise in environmental journalism. The study finds that uncontested skeptic viewpoints are most likely to appear in such pieces.

A 2015 repeat?

Whether climate skeptic voices are included and are challenged matters, the study says, because media coverage can have a knock-on effect on public opinion and the politics around taking action to cut emissions.

The issue is whether newspapers fairly represent climate science, and correctly inform the public, Painter says. He elaborates:

“It’s fine to have a plurality of voices, but readers need to get a clear idea as to the extent outlier sceptical views found in some opinion pieces represent mainstream science, and what are the arguments or evidence that would put into question their views.”

Otherwise, it could lead to a misunderstanding about the urgency of addressing climate change and a public and political malaise, the study says.

So, as December’s major climate conference in Paris looms increasingly into view, are we likely to see a repeat performance? Probably, Painter says.

Coverage of last year’s fifth IPCC report gives some clue as to the tone of the next year’s reports. Painter says: “There are strong indications that the coverage of the IPCC reports in 2013/4 differed from paper to paper as to the amount and prominence of coverage they gave to the ‘climate pause’, for example.”

That means that in twelve months time it would be surprising “if right-leaning newspapers in the UK didn’t still have a significant amount of skepticism, although it will interesting to see what sort of skepticism this will be”.

Main image: Black smoke from burning of associated gas.
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