Is the Entertainment Industry Doing the Media’s Job When It Comes to Climate Change?

Created: 17 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
7 min read
In late October, Warner Bros. and two other studios premiered Interstellar, a blockbuster science-fiction film by award-winning director Christopher Nolan that chronicles the odyssey of a team of NASA astronauts in their search for a habitable planet as Earth succumbs to the death knells of crop blight, dust storms, and climate change.

What some critics say is extraordinary about the film — which RottenTomatoes.com called “thought-provoking” and “visually resplendent,” even if a little dense — was how closely Nolan and his producers followed the advice of Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist whom the studios saw fit to credit as an executive producer.

Such was the commitment to factually portraying scientific realities that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — known for bursting bubbles about science fiction films that stretch their science — reportedly felt comfortable with the movie’s premise, even tweeting that he felt “no other feature film” had come as close in accurately depicting Einstein’s theory of relativity.

If only the U.S. news media were as accurate in reporting on issues in science — like climate change. Just a week before the film debut and months after the release of another major UN climate change assessment, in October, Fox News aired an interview with Weather Channel co-founder John Coleman in which he called global warming “bad, bad science.” He then appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” sparring with host Brian Stelter in early November over the scientific consensus on climate change.

The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow questioned why either network would provide Coleman with a forum, especially since, as Samenow wrote, the TV meteorologist neither holds a Ph.D. nor ever “published a single peer-reviewed paper pertaining to climate change science.”

Studies show Coleman is more often the rule rather than the exception when it comes to climate change coverage in the United States. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus and five UN assessments that find global warming is real, unequivocal, and increasingly even irreversible, U.S. media outlets continue to address the issue through the lens of a political debate, frequently inviting questionable sources to their programs for the sake of balance rather than scientists or their research institutions.

In this way, networks like CNN, CNBC, and Fox News are embracing what Bill Kovach, author of “The Elements of Journalism,” an industry classic, once described as a “journalism of affirmation” over the media’s time-honored role in verifying information and telling the truth.

And the truth is telling. Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group, found in 2013 that CBS and Fox News provided skeptics with a disproportionate amount of airtime when the networks covered a major UN climate change report over August and September.

According to the survey, CBS afforded coverage to skeptics — many of whom, like Coleman, lack any background in climate science — that represented more than six times their weight in the actual report, which itself fielded a 97-percent consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real and the result of human activity.

By the same token, a majority of the guests who appeared on Fox News programs — about 69 percent — criticized the scientific consensus, despite the fact that nearly three quarters, including some of those who argued in favor of climate change, lacked any background in climate science entirely.

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The study found that other networks, like CNN, may have covered the report more often over the same period but likewise created a false balance between experts.

It wasn’t just cable news networks, either: the Media Matters study found the same outsized contributions from skeptics in half of all print publications, including Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Nor is the progressive watchdog the only group critical of the media’s approach: an environmental study group at the University of Colorado-Boulder, found that the media’s attention to climate change spiked in 2010 before leveling off sharply, despite increased risks observed in UN reports.

The inability of these media outlets to accurately portray a clear scientific consensus and the events around global warming, or even ferret out the agendas of self-styled climate experts, seems to betray dilemmas at the heart of journalism in the United States today.

As Andrew Revkin, a New York Times reporter, wrote in one essay on climate change coverage, journalists who report on the subject are often science illiterate themselves and will — assuming their goals and those of their media companies are strictly journalistic in nature — seek to pair one expert with another in order to tell both sides of the story.

However, this creates a false equivalency, inappropriate for a field like climate science in which the specialists themselves consistently report near unanimity. The focus on a false balance can also provide others with less journalistic aims with the opportunity to exploit media forums for private interests and perpetuate confusion in the minds of the public.

Revkin points to such a case. He said in his essay that a colleague of his with the New York Times revealed a memo in 1998 in which Joe Walker, a public relations professional with the American Petroleum Industry, wrote that the industry would achieve victory “when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom” for citizens and journalists alike.

Few other networks may seem to exemplify those doubts about global warming more than Fox News, which groups like Media Matters flagged in 2009 when Bill Sammon, the network’s Washington managing editor, recommended in an email that reporters “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period” without also portraying the scientific consensus as an unsettled debate.

Polls show Walker’s strategy may have worked. Although 6 out of 10 Americans think the world is warming, according to one 2014 Pew Research survey, most of the differences in opinion fall along partisan lines, with 9 in 10 liberals agreeing with the scientific community, compared with just 2 in 10 conservatives.

Those differences also seem to make the United States an outlier globally.

Another Pew Research survey found in 2013 that people in other countries, including those in regions like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, ranked climate change near or at the top of their lists when asked what they felt threatened their lives more. Out of eight possible threats, which included Islamic extremism, nuclear programs in rogue states, and financial instability, U.S. survey respondents notably ranked climate change sixth in that survey.

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Public uncertainty is particularly pernicious, some would say, since the United States ranks just behind China as the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. James Sickman, an environmental scientist at the University of California-Riverside, shared with me for a past story that he felt regressive public opinion and policy was tantamount to “Stone Age” thinking.

“There are only three existential threats to humankind: asteroid impact, nuclear war, or global warming,” Sickman said. “Those are the three things that could really wipe us out.”

Revkin doesn’t entirely lay blame at the feet of journalists for missteps in reporting on climate science. The essayist cites the tyranny of time — namely, deadlines — and space that so often work together to prevent journalists from canvassing more reputable experts.

However, he also suggests that reporters work hard to develop credentialed sources, disclose the political leanings of their experts, and try to capture a different balance: the one between human emotion and dispassionate analysis that could rivet a reader and still drive home the news value of a climate change story.

“Given the enormous consequences and irreversible losses from global warming should the worst projections play out, the time for improving the flow of information on this subject is clearly now,” Revkin concludes.

The timing may not be better for journalists to begin refining their science coverage, serious concerns about climate change notwithstanding. Tyson, whose 13-part “Cosmos” series earned praise last year from some critics for unapologetically addressing climate change, reportedly may not return to helm a second season. With Nolan and Thorne mum about a sequel to Interstellar, one would hope that the viewers who enjoyed those two productions, rich with scientific accuracy, would demand the same from their news sources.

Image: Neil deGrasse Tyson in "Cosmos"