Boykoff’s Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change

A leading researcher on climate change and media coverage reports progress in U.S. media in reducing the ‘false balance’ reporting that for some years had equated views of climate science deniers as being on par with the vast majority of climate scientists.

Climate and media researcher Maxwell T. Boykoff has a new book out consolidating and updating his findings on media coverage of climate change.

In Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change, Boykoff goes over some ground he has addressed in previous reports and updates his findings to incorporate new data and trends. He points to daily “fear, misery, and doom headlines and articles [that] populate the mass media landscape,” but also cites research in the United Kingdom finding that “dramatic and fearful representations can successfully raise awareness and concern about climate change. However, these kinds of images were also likely to distance or disengage individuals from climate change, tending to render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed when they try to comprehend their own relationship with the issue.”

Boykoff’s earlier research reports in the field are widely credited with giving teeth to the view that a “faux balance” norm of journalistic reporting gave too much weight to views of climate science “contrarians” relative to more widely accepted and more evidence-based scientific positions. That practice, in turn, was seen for years as contributing to political gridlock on climate issues.

Boykoff — whose name has become virtually synonymous with this specialized branch of climate/media academic research — steps back to acknowledge that “it is difficult to put a hopeful tone on headlines like those covering displaced communities from sea-level rises.”

He writes that analyses show that “the proportion of U.S. coverage providing ‘balanced coverage’ of anthropogenic climate change decreased … from as much as one-third of coverage in 2003 to just over 3 percent of coverage in 2006.” In U.S. media, coverage “diverged significantly from the scientific consensus in 2003 and 2004, but that was no longer significant in 2005 and 2006.”

Boykoff concludes in the book that the journalistic norm of balance in news reporting “has served to amplify outlier views on anthropogenic climate change, and concurrently engendered an appearance of increased uncertainty regarding anthropogenic climate science. This, in turn, has entered into an already highly contested arena where it has permeated climate policy discourse and decision-making.”

He emphasizes in the book that his findings “do not suggest that journalists should censor views on various aspects of climate science and governance.” He calls instead for “greater media accuracy by more carefully and fairly representing all credible perspectives, findings, views, and sides, in context.”

Book lead-time printing schedules being what they are, the book provides little clue of any trend toward a return to a false balance in news reporting on climate science. So there’s no data on whether the recent falloff in public interest and concern over climate change may have been partly prompted by, or instead was perhaps in response to, any recent qualitative redirection in news coverage. ┬áBut past is prologue, and for those wanting to better understand the present and future of media coverage on climate change, Boykoff provides an accessible, timely, and insightful view into its evolution and potential directions.

Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change. Copyright 2011, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-13305-0, paperback.

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