If you have a yearning for abundant media coverage, presenting yourself as an expert on global warming while disputing the science is a great way to do it. A study in Nature Communications reveals just how much extra coverage so-called climate contrarians get, at least in the English language media, compared to those with genuine expertise.
Scientists are overwhelmingly convinced the world is warming and it is mostly a result of human activities. However, that’s not always the impression you get turning on the TV or opening a newspaper, with the tiny minority who reject the evidence getting coverage out of proportion to their numbers.
To see if those impressions match reality, Dr Alexander Petersen of University of California, Merced, sought out all references to 386 contrarians across a sample of 100,000 digital and print media articles on climate change between 2000 and 2016. The contrarians were selected to be hardcore deniers, people who consistently deny climate change is happening or primarily attribute it to natural causes, excluding anyone who broadly endorses the scientific consensus while differing on a few details. For comparison, Petersen and co-authors looked at media coverage of the 386 most-cited authors by 200,000 peer-reviewed climate papers.
The contrarians appeared 26,072 times in Petersen’s media sample, 49 percent more than the leading scientists’ 17,530 appearances. That’s despite the fact that almost half the contrarians had not published a single peer-reviewed paper on climate science. Some were not scientists at all, just retired politicians or media figures confident they knew better than those who had spent a life researching the topic. With a handful of exceptions, the contrarians who had published climate-related papers had published only a few papers, most of which were quickly exposed as suffering from basic errors.
Petersen and co-authors then narrowed the search to 30 prestigious media outlets. Here the scores were almost identical: 2,482 to the contrarians and 2,463 to the highly cited scientists. Although the contrast shows the benefits of media outlets that do some fact-checking, it is damning that even in respected media, people with little-to-zero research record in this field are given more space than those who actually do the work.
Narrowing the focus still further, Petersen considered 2,256 articles from six major outlets individually. This revealed relatively little crossover in the coverage between top climate scientists and contrarians. Most of the articles from The Guardian, The New York Times, or The Washington Post featured just the climate scientists. Fox News usually gave a free run to contrarians. Both-sides journalism, where each group is given space despite the differences in their credibility, was around twice as common in The Wall Street Journal as the other outlets.