Consensus and controversy: Which makes the news?

David Hosansky  |  24 November 2009  •  This has been quite a banner year for climate skeptics. Even though reports continue to pour in about melting glaciers, sea ice loss, and temperatures across much of the globe remaining unusually warm, fewer and fewer Americans seem to believe the climate is warming.

In the spring of 2008, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 71% of Americans believed there was solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer. As of last month, that number had dropped to 57%. Similarly, a Gallup poll in March found that 41% of Americans felt that the seriousness of global warming was being exaggerated—the highest level of skepticism in more than a decade of Gallup polling on this subject. Similar drops in concern appear in a poll released just today by ABC and the Washington post.

Last week’s news about the hacking of some 1,000 private e-mails written by prominent climate scientists, including Kevin Trenberth here at NCAR, is likely to further embolden skeptics. Some say the e-mails paint a picture of scientists who were distorting climate change research—an allegation sharply denied by the hacking target, the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

The media coverage of the e-mail hacking is a discouraging reminder of how hard it is to inform Americans about climate change. In the first three days after the hacking incident was initially reported, the coverage generated about 1,500 hits on Google News. That’s an enormous level of media interest for a subject like climate change. By comparison, an NCAR news release is lucky to generate 300 to 400 media hits as measured by Google News, and then only when the research has major societal implications, such as a recent study linking climate change to lower water levels in some of the world’s major rivers.

With news organizations cutting back on their science coverage, they don’t have the resources to cover new research. They’re looking for controversies like the hacking of e-mails. So when scientists are in agreement over global warming, that doesn’t generate news because it’s not controversial. When 18 of the nation’s most prominent scientific organizations wrote to Congress last month about the broad scientific consensus over global warming, major news organizations didn’t do any stories at all.

As a former reporter, I’m not trying to make the case that the hacking of e-mails wasn’t a legitimate news story. But it would be nice if that were better balanced with stories about the scientific consensus.

There are many reasons that Americans remain uncertain about the validity of global warming, years after virtually all climate scientists considered the case proven. Temperatures in much of the United States aren’t rising as rapidly as elsewhere in the world. Heat waves don’t generate the kind of angst that a snowstorm might cause. And the economy could be making many in the public uneasy about the sacrifices that could be involved in cutting emissions.

But the coverage of the hacking at CRU reveals another reason. Mainstream news media, sadly, are simply not driven to cover the science of global warming. If the traditional motto of journalism is “just the facts,” perhaps the motto in this 24-hour, point-counterpoint news culture should be: “just the disputes over the facts.”