A Yale Forum Extended ‘Chat’ with American University’s Matthew Nisbet

An extended and slightly edited transcript of American University ‘Climate Shift’ researcher Matthew Nisbet’s e-mail interview exchange with Yale Forum regular contributor John Wihbey.

As part of an exploration of the high-profile and controversial new report, “Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate,” Yale Forum regular contributor John Wihbey interviewed lead author Matthew Nisbet of American University. Wihbey’s report and analysis on Nisbet’s research is posted here. Below, we also post lightly edited extensive parts of their e-mail exchanges for those wanting more detail.

Yale Forum: You focused on five news outlets as a representative sample. Is it fair to say that including only one explicitly conservative source in there — the WSJournal — skews the representative sample, given the political divisions of the country and media consumption habits that put Rush Limbaugh and Fox News in top spots in their respective media areas?

Nisbet: In conducting any media analysis, as a researcher you have to make choices about which areas of the news media to focus on, basing these choices on past research, theoretical assumptions, and the types of popular arguments voiced about the media. In this regard, I chose for analysis the NY Times, WPost, WSJ, Politico, and CNN.com as representative of coverage among nationally trend-setting, mainstream media organizations. This decision was based on the following criteria:

PAST STUDIES. The most frequently cited study of news media bias in coverage of climate change both by academics and in popular debate is the 2004 paper by Max and Jules Boykoff that was featured by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. The “balance as bias” thesis from the paper remains frequently cited today when bloggers, scientists, and others assert that false balance remains a widespread problem, even among mainstream media.

In their study, the Boykoffs sampled approximately 1 out of 5 climate change-related articles (18 percent) appearing between 1998 and 2002 at the trend-setting newspapers the NYTimes, WPost, WSJ, and LA Times. Using content analysis procedures to assess media portrayals based on a narrow and therefore reliably measurable definition of bias, they found that across these years, 52 percent portrayed a falsely balanced view of the reality and human causes of climate change.

Yet as I describe in the chapter, advocates, bloggers, and others who cite Boykoff’s “balance as bias” thesis mostly overlook a 2007 follow-up study by Boykoff titled “Flogging a Dead Norm.” In this study, Boykoff sampled 1 out of every 6 articles appearing at the NY Times, WPost, WSJ, LA Times and USA Today between the years 2003 and 2006.

In this analysis, Boykoff found that across successive years the proportion of falsely balanced coverage decreased so that by 2006, 97 percent of coverage across the five newspapers reflected the consensus view on the reality and causes of climate change. (The findings across years were 61 percent articles portraying the consensus view in 2003; 90 percent in 2004; 92 percent in 2005; and 97 percent in 2006.)

Given the widely cited “balance as bias” thesis and the tendency to overlook the 2007 study by Boykoff, I decided to replicate his bias measure and his decision to sample from the national trend-setting news organizations examining coverage for 2009 and 2010, investigating whether or not his “balance as bias” thesis or later “flogging a dead norm” thesis was applicable to coverage at the national news organizations during this period.

NEWS ORGANIZATIONS THAT SHAPE COVERAGE ACROSS THE MEDIA. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were chosen for the analysis because they remain the trend-setting news outlets of record in the United States and their selection also replicates the three most influential U.S. newspapers analyzed in the earlier Boykoff studies.

As I review in the report, even in a world of blogs and fragmented audiences, the coverage appearing at these outlets strongly shapes the news decisions at other newspapers, at the broadcast and cable networks and informs the decisions of policymakers, stakeholders and other key influentials. These three news organizations also syndicate their content to newspapers across the country. In addition, these outlets are often the main targets of advocates on both sides of the debate, with a quote or op-ed at these papers symbolizing success. Moreover, as Pew has tracked, the content produced by these papers serves as a central basis for discussion and debate at blogs.

Politico has become the paper of record for members of Congress and is the paper “the White House wakes up to,” as memorably headlined in a profile at The New York Times. Politico also strongly shapes the agenda of news at the cable networks and blogosphere, setting the tone for political reporting and commentary. CNN.com often serves as the basis for reporting at its partner cable news channel and syndicates its content to other news organizations.

Moreover, despite their prominence, no other analysis to date has examined coverage at these two influential outlets.

AN AUDIENCE OF INFLUENTIALS. These five news organizations are also the primary news sources for an attentive audience of influentials, opinion-leaders, decisionmakers, stakeholders, professionals, and concerned citizens nationally.

In addition, the websites of these organizations — with their print editions still serving as the central content — are among the most heavily-visited news outlets online. As tracked by Nielsen, The New York Times and The Washington Post rank No. 5 and No. 9 respectively among news sites in terms of traffic. Similarly, CNN.com is the No. 4 visited news site online, according to Nielsen. The website of The Wall Street Journal is the top source for public affairs information among business leaders, professionals, and by center-right influentials, and Politico is read daily by political leaders and staffers across partisan lines.

FOCUS OF DEBATE AND CLAIMS OF BIAS. As mentioned, outlets such as the NY Times and The Washington Post remain the subject of claims by bloggers and advocates that these news organizations engage in consistent patterns of false balance in coverage of climate change.

[Climateprogress.com blogger] Joe Romm, for example, often drawing on quotes from [Drexel University Professor] Bob Brulle, routinely singles out the NY Times and specific reporters at the paper for his annual “non-excellence in journalism awards,” even going so far as to feature Brulle calling the NY Times an “echo chamber for climate change disinformation.” In doing so, Romm often also draws upon Boykoff’s 2004 “Balance as Bias” thesis to back up his claims.

Advocates and bloggers also campaigned against The Washington Post in 2009 for running columns by George Will that were dismissive of climate change. Gawker for example asserted that the opinion page at the WPost had “gone completely off the rails” and was the “worst opinion section in America.” Yet this criticism and broad-brush critique of the Post focuses on a handful of columns by Will and op-eds by a few others, and overlooks the many other editorials, op-eds, columns, and letters-to-the-editor at the Post opinion pages that assert the consensus views on climate science. [See here for more discussion.]

Scientists and others have also strongly criticized the mainstream media for their handling of ‘Climategate.’ As I cite in the report, [Penn State climate scientist] Michael Mann, for example, claims that “normally responsible journalists fell hook line and sinker for a dishonest smear campaign.” And as quoted at Romm’s blog, Bob Brulle asserted that ‘The shift in public opinion about climate change is linked to the nature of mainstream media coverage of the so-called “climategate scandal.” [My emphasis added.]

As I discuss in Chapter 3, the WSJ opinion page is consistent with conclusions from other studies that finds that News Corp.-owned properties including Fox News tend to dismiss consensus views of climate science in their coverage. In addition, the WSJ opinion page is important relative to Fox News in that it often sets the agenda of coverage and discussion at the cable news channel just as the NY Times, WPost, and Politico shape the agenda of coverage at CNN and MSNBC.

In addition, as I describe in Chapter 4, a recent analysis by my colleague at American University, Lauren Feldman, finds that Fox News, in comparison to MSNBC and CNN, features a heavier proportion of dismissive claims about climate change than their cable counterparts.

So apart from basing my decision on what news organizations to analyze on the criteria listed above, to additionally analyze Fox News and talk radio would lead to relatively unsurprising findings, likely in line with those that I found for the WSJ opinion page or even more dismissive in focus.

More importantly, it is not clear how these unsurprising findings would help us to move forward since any level of engagement with Fox News producers or talk radio hosts is unlikely to lead to changes in their coverage patterns. We can complain about and criticize these outlets, but much of the criticism and anger, I would argue, often ends up distracting us from initiatives where we can make a difference with journalists, editors, and with different publics.

In this regard, we should be thinking about media organizations that we can influence and which have audiences where we can make progress in terms of engagement with the goal of widening the scope of public concern and participation on the issue.

As I discuss in the report, the audience for Fox News and political talk radio tend to be strongly self-selecting with consumption of these media tending to reinforce the views of those already doubtful or dismissive of climate change (approximately 25 percent of Americans). In my work with Ed Maibach [of George Mason University] and Tony Leiserowitz [of Yale University], using their Six Americas audience segmentation scheme, we have argued that it is extremely difficult to engage these audience segments already ‘Doubtful’ or ‘Dismissive’ of climate change.

Instead of trying to change the minds of those strongly committed to a view on climate change, one increased focus of public engagement should be on influentials and opinion-leaders such as those that read, consume, recommend, and pass on information from elite, trend-setting national outlets that were analyzed in the “Climate Shift” report.

Engagement efforts should also importantly focus on audience segments that lay between those already ‘Alarmed’ by the issue and those tending to be ‘Doubtful’ or strongly ‘Dismissive’ — segments that constitute approximately 2/3 of Americans. These ‘Concerned,’ ‘Cautious,’ and ‘Disengaged’ segments for the most part do not have a strong political or partisan identity and rely mostly on local TV news, local newspapers and word of mouth for information and to form decisions about climate change, if they had even considered the issue much at all.

Yale Forum: If you expanded the study and had more time and resources for the next go-round, what else would you include? What other media areas might be worthy for testing the “death of a norm” thesis?

Nisbet: I have collected similar content analysis data for newspapers in Michigan, West Virginia, and South Carolina for the years 2009 and 2010. These papers are important because they are the main source of news and information about climate change for residents and voters in politically strategic states. The important considerations with these papers is to examine not only how much attention climate change received across these years but also how the fundamentals of climate science were portrayed, as well as other dimensions.

I am adding this regional paper analysis to the national news organization analysis for a study to be submitted to an academic journal this summer.

Local newspapers, as Pew has documented, remain at the center of the local media ecosystem, with the overwhelming number of regional/local issues covered by local TV news and at local blogs originating from local newspaper coverage. In this sense, on climate change and energy, we should think about local and regional newspapers as being part of the central communication infrastructure that regions and communities need to learn, connect, plan and make collective choices on the issue.

Regional newspapers are under tremendous financial distress, laying off environmental and science reporters, making an already challenging beat that much more difficult. In my analysis, I wanted to understand the gaps in the amount of localized and regional information about climate change impacts and decisions and to the extent that when these local newspapers are focusing on climate change it is via nationally syndicated coverage or through opinion page commentaries and editorials.

If there are indeed major gaps — especially in politically important or strongly vulnerable regions of the country — then it suggests several important implications:

1) These regions lack an essential part of the media infrastructure needed to participate in decisions about climate and energy, and we need to think about how to build up this infrastructure.

2) Instead of focusing the predominance of our attention and funding resources on improving the portrayal of science at national mainstream news organizations — or complaining loudly about presumed bias — we should be concentrating more on directly engaging with local and regional reporters and editors.

3) We need to think about this engagement process as more than just educating journalists or developing effective ways to translate science, we need to think about climate change communication and media coverage as a structural problem.

In this sense, we need to invest in regional nonprofit models of independently produced news and information about climate change and energy tailored to the information needs of these regions and communities. [This focus is inspired in part by the Knight Commission Report on the Information Needs of Communities.]

There are many models for doing this, but we have yet to think about this systematically on climate and energy apart from national outlets like Climate Central. As I have written, these nonprofit models — designed as digital news communities — can be supported by collaborations among multiple universities, foundations, and government agencies with the content produced and shared with local newspapers, public media organizations and local TV news. These digital news communities are also the ideal complement to efforts at public engagement structured around public meetings and the recruitment of every-day opinion leaders across communities.

[On this, see a commissioned white paper I wrote for the National Academies Roundtable on Climate Change Education. Also see this blog post written the day after the 2010 Midterm election.]

Yale Forum: You note in your conclusion that “It is more difficult to assess other forms of false balance relative to the climate debate.” Since the thrust of your report is about the fight over cap-and-trade, isn’t it more important to assess the fairness, albeit admittedly more difficult, of coverage on that issue — e.g., exaggerated alarmism over potential energy price spikes, etc. — than whether consensus science was reflected? If not, why?

Nisbet: The focus of the report was not to systematically assess what went wrong in the cap-and-trade fight. I think this has been a misperception driven by the blog attacks from Romm and others.

As I write in the Introduction section, titled “Research and Analysis to Inform Decision Making,” by gathering data across recent years, the report examines several considerations that remain the focus of much discussion and that are currently the subject of planning and decisions. These included:

  • the financial resources and spending of environmental groups and their opponents;
  • the planning efforts and investment strategies of major foundations;
  • the patterns in news attention and media portrayals of climate change;
  • the factors shaping the recent decline in public concern and belief in climate change; and
  • the factors influencing how scientists and environmentalists interpret and make sense of climate change politics.

As discussed earlier and in the report, given that mainstream news coverage of the fundamentals of climate science remains a hotly debated topic — and the suggestion that we need to invest more resources in improving the portrayal of climate science at these outlets — the media analysis evaluates this question, applying the methodology employed previously by Boykoff. The results suggest that focusing on the fundamentals of climate science at the national outlets might simply be throwing more money at a dimension that appears to have self-corrected, and that we need to shift much of our focus to initiatives, for example, at the regional and local media levels.

As I describe though, how the news media have covered the economic costs associated with different policy proposals also remains an important subject to evaluate, study, and to engage journalists and editors on. From a technical side, however, it is much more difficult to reliably, validly, and statistically measure bias relative to how economic costs are portrayed since consensus is still emerging in this area. [See section on defining and evaluating bias.]

So I do have plans to develop a study in this area; the measurement, however, will be more challenging. In the meantime, I believe it should be a priority to invest in journalism education and engagement efforts on covering the economic dimensions of climate change and energy. This is not only the case for national journalists but also importantly for regional and local journalists as well. We should also be training economists and providing them resources so that they can more effectively explain the issues and research relative to costs of action.

I see several other areas where it is important to understand the nature of patterns of media coverage and based on these findings engage journalists, editors and media producers:

UP AND DOWN SWINGS IN NEWS ATTENTION. As the ‘Climate Shift’ report finds, as has been the case historically, news attention at the five national news organizations peaked around the Copenhagen meetings, then dropped appreciably across 2010, even as cap-and-trade was being debated in the Senate. This episodic focus to climate change makes it very difficult to build political and public momentum for action. The challenge then is not so much to improve how the science of climate change is portrayed when journalists do feature it in their coverage, but rather to “break the tyranny of the news peg,” as [Dotearth blogger] Andrew Revkin has put it, and to understand ways to make it easier for journalists to cover climate change and related policy questions on a more consistent and frequent basis.

THE WINNOWING OF POLICY IDEAS AND VOICES. It is also important to understand the role that the media played in what appears to be a strong path dependency that built up around cap-and-trade legislation,making it the only option on the table. When did other policy paths for increasing the price of carbon — such as an upstream carbon tax or cap and dividend — drop from serious attention, consideration, and perceived political viability? Apart from a policy to price carbon, why, only until recently, has the media supported the assumption that we had all the technology we needed for the challenge, and why only now has there been meaningful attention to the role of government in fostering innovation? What factors related to media coverage contributed to this? What were the sourcing patterns that journalists used in discussing policy options, and how did these sourcing patterns contribute to closing off debate about other proposed policy solutions or needed actions?

UNDERSTANDING THE EVOLUTION OF THE ENERGY BEAT. What constitutes the “energy beat” across national news organizations and at regional outlets? What has been the relative amounts of attention to different energy technologies? How have we covered the debate over oil and gas prices and the solutions? What has been the performance of the media relative to coverage of coal-fired power plants, carbon capture, and other technologies; and relative to natural gas extraction? These questions in comparison to the number of studies conducted on climate change coverage — and the fierce debate over anecdotal examples of falsely balanced or dismissive assertions in the media — remain vastly under-examined.

COVERING THE ETHICAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE. The most under-covered and under-communicated dimension of climate change are the dimensions related to ethics, justice, and equity both at the domestic and international decisionmaking levels. How have the media covered these dimensions? How much attention has there been? What can be done to increase coverage and substantive discussion of these topics both in the national and regional media? How do these questions connect back to the need to invest in initiatives that build up the capacity of regions and communities to make collective choices about climate change and energy?

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