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While Global Temps Soared, Study Shows US Media Coverage of Right-Wing Think Tanks' Climate Lies Actually Rose Over Past 5 Years

"The media should not give these organizations a platform, and if they must cover them, do a better job of alerting readers and viewers who is funding them."

Trump hotel

In April of 2017, a demonstrator carries a sign labeling President Donald Trump a "climate denier" outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Oil Change International/Twitter)

A new Public Citizen analysis shows that over the past five years—as rising global temperatures repeatedly set records—national television news networks and the 50 most widely circulated newspapers in the United States increased their coverage of right-wing think tanks denying the climate emergency or that the global crisis is the result of unsustainable human activity.

"The mounds of scientific evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is overheating our planet, coupled with the knowledge that the fossil fuel industry has funneled money to think tanks to manufacture doubt about the crisis should lead to a radical decline in the influence of climate deniers in the media."
—Allison Fisher, Public Citizen
"Amazingly, coverage of the deniers' messages has risen over the past five years as the climate crisis has worsened, with much of it being uncritical," Allison Fisher, outreach program director for Public Citizen's climate program, said Thursday. "The media should not give these organizations a platform, and if they must cover them, do a better job of alerting readers and viewers who is funding them."

The consumer advocacy group released its new study ahead of the 13th annual conference of the Heartland Institute—the self-described "leading think tank promoting skepticism of the theory there is a human-caused climate crisis"—which kicked off at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

The study focuses on coverage of the Heartland Institute and the four other think tanks associated with the conference—the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation—from 2014 through mid-June 2019.

According to Public Citizen:

The number of media mentions featuring the think tanks and published op-eds by them rose over the five years, hitting a peak in 2017 (in the wake of President Donald Trump's inauguration) and remaining steady over the course of 2018, Public Citizen found. Many outlets cited the deniers to provide "balance"—even though the deniers' positions have been widely debunked. Most outlets didn't inform viewers or readers that the think tanks receive fossil fuel money.

"The mounds of scientific evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is overheating our planet, coupled with the knowledge that the fossil fuel industry has funneled money to think tanks to manufacture doubt about the crisis," Fisher said, "should lead to a radical decline in the influence of climate deniers in the media."

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Public Citizen analyzed transcripts from six television networks—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and NBC—as well as articles and op-eds in newspapers that included the Atlanta Journal‐Constitution, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun‐Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the New York Post, The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today,The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

The analysis shows that across all 50 newspapers, the right-wing think tanks were cited or published a total of 528 times on the climate crisis. Only 17 percent of those mentions included an acknowledgement of the think tank's ties to the dirty energy sector, and 60 percent "presented arguments or comments by think tank representatives as legitimate views."

Of all the reviewed papers, The New York Times mentioned the think tanks the most—in 84 pieces over the five-year period. However, Public Citizen pointed out, "while 34 of those pieces provided false balance, the paper also published 17 pieces exposing climate denial and didn't publish any op-eds by the think tanks or by those citing the work of the think tanks."

The Wall Street Journal published the most op-eds of any newspaper—18 of the collective 84—and mentioned the think tanks 44 times. Public Citizen found that the majority of the mentions supported the think tank's position and only one Journal article acknowledged ties to the fossil fuel industry.

On the television side, Public Citizen documented 62 segments that featured the positions of or a representative from one of the think tanks. The large majority of segments—89 percent—aired on Fox News Network and CNN.

While all Fox segments "legitimized denier arguments," according to Public Citizen, more than half of CNN's segments included the denier perspective for "balance."

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