The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Phone: (202) 588-1000

Coverage of Climate Denial by Conservative Think Tanks Has Increased

Deniers to Be at Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., Today


Media coverage of climate denial by five prominent industry-funded think tanks has risen over the past five years, with conservative media and even some mainstream media providing an uncritical platform for them, a new Public Citizen analysis shows.

Public Citizen released the analysis as the conservative Heartland Institute prepares to hold its annual "climate conference" at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. today. Public Citizen analyzed the extent to which the five think tanks associated with the Heartland event were covered from 2014 through 2018 by the top 50 U.S. newspapers and by national television news networks.

The think tanks are the American Enterprise Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

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 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. Allison Fisher, outreach program director for Public Citizen's climate program

In addition:

  • From 2014 through 2018, the five think tanks were cited or published 528 times in newspapers on issues related to the climate crisis and were featured 62 times on national television news networks. Only 92 of the newspaper pieces (17%) noted the think tank's relationship to fossil fuel interests.
  • Of the newspaper mentions, 315 (60%) presented arguments or comments by think tank representatives as legitimate views, were op-eds or columns by or supporting the positions of the think tanks or were editorials citing research by the think tanks.
  • Newspapers published 84 op-eds by one of the five think tanks. The Wall Street Journal published the most (18). Only one of the 84 op-eds, published by USA Today, identified the think tank's financial relationship to the fossil fuel industry.
  • More than half of the newspaper articles, excluding opinion pieces, used a denier argument or comment to provide false balance with the scientific understanding of the climate crisis.
  • The New York Times had the most mentions of the think tanks, with 84 pieces. 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 made 44 mentions of the think tanks over the five-year period. Of those, only one piece acknowledged the relationship between the think tank and fossil fuel industry.
  • Eighty-one percent of TV segments featuring one of the five think tanks either presented its views unopposed or featured its views as a "balance" to climate science or solutions.
  • Fox News Network and CNN accounted for 89% of segments featuring the think tanks.
  • All of the 28 segments that aired on Fox legitimized denier arguments.
  • Fifteen of the 27 CNN segments used deniers to provide "balance." CNN employed Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation as a correspondent from early 2017 until his nomination for the board of the Federal Reserve on March 22, 2019.

"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," said Allison Fisher, outreach program director for Public Citizen's climate program. "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. 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."

For the analysis, Public Citizen accessed transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC) and articles from the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation. As a result of this methodology, the analysis does not include some significant midsized papers, Capitol Hill dailies or trade publications.

Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.

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