Though numerous media surveys and studies have shown that mainstream news outlets have consistently ignored or underreported the crisis of climate change over the last two decades, a new analysis released Monday shows that even when the top cable news channels do cover the issue, they consistently misinform their viewers on the facts.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the scientific accuracy of climate change coverage varies significantly across the three major cable news networks—CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
Of the three—not surprisingly—Fox News was the least accurate in its coverage of global warming and climate change issues during 2013, in which 72 percent of the segments contained misleading statements.
CNN came in second in terms of accuracy, with about a third of segments featuring misleading statements. And MSNBC beat them both, with only eight percent of segments containing misleading statements.
“Sometimes, it’s like the networks are covering different planets,” said Aaron Huertas, a science communications officer at UCS who led the analysis. “Unfortunately, too many politicians, interest groups, and pundits continue to dispute established climate science and cable shows sometimes give them a platform to do so.”
The problem, according to Huertas and his colleagues, is that scientific and factual inaccuracies cripple the society's ability to have a rational debate on the subject, because even if "hosts, guests, and audiences express varying attitudes, beliefs, and values around questions of climate policy," the facts should remain sacred in terms of informing their viewers.
""Climate science can be complex and difficult to cover," the group admits, but "each of the major cable news networks, regardless of its overall performance, has shown that it can get the science right. Each can — and should — do more to achieve higher levels of accuracy."
From the UCS analysis:
CNN: Two-Thirds Accurate, One-Third Misleading
- CNN covered climate science 43 times in 2013. Of these segments, 70 percent were entirely accurate, while 30 percent included misleading portrayals of the science.
- Most of CNN's misleading coverage stemmed from debates between guests who accepted established climate science and other guests who disputed it. This format suggests that established climate science is still widely debated among scientists, which it is not, and also allows opponents of climate policy to convey inaccurate statements about climate science.
- The biggest step that CNN could take to increase accuracy is to stop hosting debates about established climate science and instead focus debates on whether and how to respond to climate change through climate policy.
Fox News: Misleading Most of the Time
- Fox News covered climate science 50 times in 2013. Of these segments, 28 percent were entirely accurate, while 72 percent included misleading portrayals of the science.
- More than half of Fox's misleading coverage (53%) was from one program, The Five, where the hosts often instigated misleading debates about established climate science. In general, Fox hosts and guests were more likely than those of other networks to disparage the study of climate science and criticize scientists.
- Fox News did show an improvement from a UCS snapshot analysis of Fox News coverage in 2012, in which the network's coverage was entirely accurate in only 7 percent of segments, while 93 percent contained misleading statements. To further improve accuracy, the most productive step Fox News could take would be for hosts and guests to better differentiate between scientific facts about climate change and political opinions about climate policy.
MSNBC: Mostly Accurate, with Some Overstatements
- MSNBC covered climate science 132 times in 2013. Of these segments, 92 percent were entirely accurate, while 8 percent included misleading portrayals of the science.
- The handful of misleading statements were inaccurate in the same manner: all overstated the effects of climate change, particularly the link between climate change and specific types of extreme weather, such as tornadoes.
- MSNBC generally accurately represented nuanced findings around climate change and extreme weather, but they could do so more often to achieve even higher levels of accuracy.