The US news media are utterly failing to offer a coherent climate crisis narrative of the sort required for scientific understanding and urgency to penetrate the public mind. This is evident not only from analyses of media, but from surveys showing that public understanding and concern have dropped even as scientific comprehension and apprehension grow.
To increase the potential for greater public involvement, and more importantly, to give our leaders strong incentives to make policy based on science rather than ideology and denial, journalistic practices must change. As it turns out, such a shift would require journalists to more closely mimic the ways scientists themselves build and communicate scientific narratives (aka theories).
These points add up to the argument suggested by my title: that the media need to do something “extra,” that they should treat global warming as a crisis, as “stop-the-presses” news. Failing this, the public has scant ability to read (or find out) all about the growing threat of climate change. Unfortunately, as the public’s not-so-blissful ignorance of climate science grows, politicians’ inclinations to act creatively and decisively shrivel.
Public Misunderstanding of Climate Science is Growing
Recent Gallup Polls reveal the results of the media’s failure to construct a narrative that accurately registers the scientific consensus on climate change. The data show public ignorance and emotional detachment from global warming, along with a disturbing partisan gap. Gallup’s results show a decline in public concern about global warming and a firming up of its ranking in last place among eight environmental problems.
Those saying the media exaggerate the seriousness of global warming now outnumber those saying they underestimate its gravity by 41-28 percent. In 2006 respondents saying “underestimated” outnumbered “exaggerated” by a 38-30% margin. So there’s been a net swing of 21% toward public ignorance.
I use that word with some confidence since others’ research, along with the data disclosed below, demonstrate that the American media have not “exaggerated” the perils of global warming. Thus even if one interprets the survey as more a rating of media behavior than of global warming itself, it reveals a poorly informed public, a conclusion backed by other survey data too.
The polarization of opinion (Figure 2) suggests that this ostensibly scientific factual issue has been subsumed into the larger culture wars that feed the nation’s partisan divide. The partisan gap in those seeing global warming as exaggerated grew from 12 points in 1998 to 44 in 2009. This is deeply troubling, for these polls suggest the debate on global warming is taking place not over how to cope with the problem but whether it even exists. As Figure 2 shows, over the past few years there has been a sharp jump in denial even among independents. Abetted by traditional journalistic practices, the public mind appears to be miring deeper in confusion rather than focusing more sharply.
The Narrative Gap
The surveys make a prima facie case that the US media are not persuasively conveying the scientific consensus. They also challenge any hope that the internet is educating the public. Consider some further evidence of the media’s failure to encourage understanding of the climate crisis.
On March 12, 2009, an international conference of leading experts on climate change issued a preliminary statement of major findings. They concluded that “the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized” and that “a significant risk [exists] that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climate shifts.”
It is difficult to imagine a clearer, more compelling demonstration of the seriousness with which scientists take global warming. Yet the mainstream media virtually ignored the event and its stark conclusions. Among all the media indexed in the Nexis database, just one full newspaper story (370 words in Newsday) appeared. Four other papers gave the Copenhagen news passing mentions (one to three sentences). Broadcast and cable news networks entirely ignored the findings. Reasons likely include such traditional journalistic practices as “objectivity” and “balance,” which (research shows) often yield their opposites, and reporters’ and editors’ probable perceptions of global warming as stale news.
Yet this was not merely another study suggesting a climate in crisis, it was a declaration by many leading scientists that their prior warnings were insufficiently dire. To make a war on terror analogy, it is as if the media neglected an al Qaeda bombing in Chicago that killed “only” 50 because we’ve all heard the terrorism story.
Journalistic treatment of the Copenhagen conference both points to and reinforces absence of the continuing crisis narrative needed to attract the interest and generate the comprehension and concern of the public. That vacuum reinforces leaders’ temptations to take the easy path and put climate policy on the back burner (as it were).
Conclusion and Recommendations
Media ignored Copenhagen in major part because powerful US leaders did. Journalistic neglect in turn reduced elites’ incentives to tackle the issues and opened space for denial—among citizens, politicians, and journalists—in a self-reinforcing vicious circle. Breaking into the circle requires leadership from the very top. Only the president has sufficient sway over media agendas to interrupt this spiral of ignorance. As is true of traditional national security issues, pure democracy here is neither desirable nor possible. What we need is leadership of public opinion, with longer-term responsiveness to more informed public input.
Moneyed interests generally support vigorous (and profitable) responses to conventional security threats. They usually overpower underfunded peace groups in public discourse, making it relatively easy for policymakers to ignore or mischaracterize public opinion by isolating opponents as unpatriotic. In the matter of climate change, many wealthy interests oppose a pre-emptive “war.” This situation calls for Churchillian leaders whose cause can be taken up by watchdog journalism.
News media can help to interrupt the vicious circle of denial and delay, though it’s an uncomfortable role for them. The task would mean abandoning their stance of (ironically mislabeled) objectivity and actually becoming more scientific and more subjective (as scientists are too) in telling stories. Arguably, interpreting and narrating information collected with an open and creative mind might even serve news organizations commercially in their time of economic crisis. Coherent narratives sell.
For the Copehagen conference, this would involve fitting the scientists’ findings into a running narrative of threat and crisis akin to those stitching together otherwise disparate developments for the wars on terror, drugs, and AIDs, among others. American leaders in government and the media need to create a new narrative of global interdependence on climate, ecology and energy. Not only would this reflect scientific and economic truths, it would serve genuine US security interests.
 Other data supporting this conclusion can be found in a May 2008 Gallup Poll available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/107569/ClimateChange-Views-RepublicanDemocratic-Gaps-Expand.aspx?version=print.
 Blogs and internet searches can supplement news reports for a small proportion of citizens. As suggested by the polls, blogs and the rest cannot signal or produce changes in perceived or actual public opinion without penetrating major media in an enduring story.
 Based on searching “Copenhagen AND (warm! OR climat!)” in the Nexis libraries of (Broadcast) Transcripts and U.S. Newspapers, between March 10, 2009 and March 17, 2009.