Media give climate contrarians visibility

Both social media and old-school media values are contributing to the high visibility and emergence of perceived authority for climate change contrarians who deny science, a new US study suggests.

When researchers from the University of California, Merced, analysed around 100,000 articles and blogs they found that contrarians appeared in 49% more of them than scientists who support the consensus view that climate change has an anthropogenic origin.

However, this fell to just 1% when they looked only at 30 mainstream media sources “that implement quality control through traditional editorial standards”.

Even here, though, contrarians get “disproportionate visibility”, Alexander Petersen and colleagues suggest, because of the mainstream media’s ingrained tendency to always seek counter positions when writing on contentious issues.

“Indeed, communication scholars have noted that, in the case of CC [climate change], such disproportionate visibility – or false balancing – is likely to mislead public perception, suggesting falsely that within the scientific community there is parity in the number of scientists who do and do not agree on the fundamental issues of anthropogenic CC,” they write in the journal Nature Communications.

The authors tracked the digital footprints of 386 climate change contrarians (academics, scientists, politicians and business people) and 386 climate scientists between 2000 and 2016. They did so by analysing articles and blogs from sources based primarily in North America and Europe. 

They acknowledge the limitations in their study, notably that it did not account for the diversity of professional backgrounds and levels of scepticism, and that they studied equal numbers of contrarians and scientists – a balance that doesn’t reflect real life.

Nevertheless, they say their results demonstrate why climate scientists should increasingly exert their authority in scientific and public discourse, and why professional journalists and editors should adjust the disproportionate attention given to contrarians.

Sending uniform and authoritative messages is challenging at the best of times, they suggest, because communication about climate change “often requires strategically paring down this wicked problem for non-expert audiences”.

That is exacerbated, they add, by the diminishing demand for expertise in scientific discourse aimed at the public.

“Even in the case where individuals have complete control in choosing their sources of information, they are nevertheless susceptible to significant disparities in content production in addition to being susceptible to media coverage that is disproportionate to the authority and number of scientists holding the consensus viewpoint,” they write. 

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