Imbalance in US TV Media Coverage of Greenhouse Gas Regulation

As Skeptical Science readers are well aware, there is a scientific consensus that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing dangerous global warming.  The Australian Climate Commission recently concluded that we need to limit global human CO2 emissions to no more than 1 trillion tons between 2000 and 2050, which requires that we take immediate steps to significantly reduce our emissions.  Scientists generally don't offer advice as to how we should achieve the necessary carbon emissions reductions, but in its recent report, America's Climate Choices, the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that a price on carbon emissions would be the most effective way to achieve significant emissions cuts while minimizing the impact on the economy.  There is also a consensus amongst economists with expertise on climate change that the US should commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 1), and that doing so will be beneficial for the economy.

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Figure 1: 2009 NYU climate economist survey results when asked under what circumstances the USA should reduce its emissions

On top of all that, polls have consistently shown that over 70% of the US public supports US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of greenhouse gases (i.e. here, here, and here).  Polls also showed that a majority of Americans supported the proposed carbon cap and trade system (i.e. here, here, and here) before it was blocked by the Senate in 2009.

Media Misrepresentation

Unfortunately, those who rely on the US television media for their information may be unaware of the widespread consensus in favor of regulating and/or pricing carbon emissions.  A new Media Matters report analyzed television news guests who discussed the EPA's role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from December 2009 through April 2011 on the major US news networks: Fox News (FNC), Fox Business Network (FBN), MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and on the nightly and/or Sunday news programs of ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox Broadcasting Co.

The results of this analysis are rather disturbing.  During the period in question, 199 guests on the analyzed networks discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.  152 of these (over 76%) opposed the regulations, 35 (less than 18%) supported them, and 12 (6%) were neutral (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Media Matters survey results

As Figure 2 also illustrates, the guests were predominantly interviewed on three networks: FBN (39%), FNC (32%), and CNBC (15%).  83% of the guests on FBN, 81% on FNC, and 72% on CNBC opposed EPA greenhouse gas regulations.  MSNBC was the network to most accurately reflect the consensus support for emissions controls (80% in favor), but only interviewed 13% as many guests on the subject as FBN.  Note however that this analysis excludes news stories which did not include interviews.

Lack of Climate Experts

Another piece of disturbing information to emerge from the Media Matters report: of the 199 guest interviews on these network news programs, only two might be classified as interviews with climate scientists.  In both cases, FNC interviewed Patrick Michaels, a long-time "skeptic" who works for the right-wing think tank Cato Institute.  Michaels gained some degree of fame by erasing Scenarios B and C from Hansen et al. (1988) in his testimony to US Congress in order to misrepresent the study's results – hardly the lone scientist who should be representing the entire climate science community in these TV network interviews.

Elected Officials

Of the remaining network guests, 35 were elected officials.  30 of these were Republicans (who almost universally oppose carbon regulations), and an additional two were very moderate Democrats (then-Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and then-Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia) who also oppose carbon regulations.  All 12 guest elected officials on FBN, all 10 on FNC, and all 8 on CNBC opposed carbon regulations.  MSNBC was again the lone network to accurately represent the prevailing opinion on the issue, with 3 of 4 guest elected officials supporting greenhouse gas regulations.

Advocacy Groups

A further 29 guests were identified as being from "advocacy groups" (i.e. right-wing think tanks like Cato and Heritage Foundation, environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Sierra Club, unions  like United Steelworkers, etc.).  Of these advocacy group guests, in keeping with the previously-discussed statistics, 22 (76%) opposed greenhouse gas regulations, while the remaining 24% were in favor.

Validity of Criticisms

It's worth noting that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is not the best solution to the climate problem.  It has a larger economic impact than a market-based system like cap and trade, and it's less effective at reducing emissions, and therefore there are valid reasons to oppose it.  However, the US has only implemented greenhouse gas regulations because we have thus far failed to implement a carbon pricing system.  The people who oppose EPA regulation tend to be the same people who blocked the proposed carbon cap and trade system.  So while there are valid reasons to criticize EPA regulations as a suboptimal solution, the problem is that most of those who oppose it oppose all solutions.  In short, there's nothing wrong with opposing EPA greenhouse gas regulations, if you propose a better alternative.  Inaction, which is the goal of most of these critics, is not an option. 

Manufactured Controversy

In short, a vast majority of climate scientists, economists with climate expertise, and the US public in general support carbon pricing and/or regulation.  And yet the vast majority of guests on US TV network discussions of carbon regulations have opposed them.  This represents a major failure of the US media to accurately represent both expert and public opinion in its newscasts.  Instead, the media seems to be creating a manufactured controversy by creating the illusion of widespread opposition to greenhouse gas emissions limits.

Before we lay all of the blame on Fox, while the network and its affiliates are responsible for a large proportion of the imbalance in question, there also appears to be a failure amongst other networks to adequately cover the subject.  For example, CNN – which strives to be the neutral voice between conservative Fox News and liberal MSNBC – only interviewed four guests on the subject during the period in review, three of which opposed the regulations.  The problem is both over-representation of the "skeptics", and under-representation of those supporting the proposed climate solutions, and especially an under-representation of climate experts (both scientific and economic).

We urge the media to both stop manufacturing controversy, and adequately and accurately cover this critical issue.  The only way our populace can make good decisions is if they are informed decisions.

Posted by dana1981 on Thursday, 9 June, 2011

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