Selling climate uncertainty: misinformation and the media

The media does the public a disservice when it misrepresents climate change. danny birchall

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Today, The Conversation launches a week-long series, looking at how the media influences the way our representatives develop policy. To kick off, Stephan Lewandowsky asks how media misreporting undermines a functioning democracy.

It is a truism that a functioning democracy relies on independent and strong media that hold the powerful to account.

A tacit, and often overlooked, presumption underlying this principle is that the media pursue their role in an ethical and impartial manner.

If the media themselves abandon ethical standards and replace robust and truthful reporting with spin and the pursuit of an agenda, a crucial element of a functioning democracy has been lost.

In fact, without vigorous competition and meaningful legal checks, there is no reason why a privately-owned media conglomerate could not create an Orwellian environment that deceives politicians and large segments of the public alike.

Anyone inclined to doubt this should consider recent events in the UK involving the Murdoch media.

The behaviour exhibited by some Murdoch ink slingers, who by an act of grand self-delusion have labelled themselves “journalists”, beggars belief.

To hack into the phone of a missing school child, thus interfering with a police inquiry while arousing false hope in parents desperate for a sign of life from their daughter, surely must be considered an act of moral depravity.

Public revulsion at those actions has put an end to the docility with which British politicians have hitherto served the Murdoch press. As the multiple investigations proceed, more and more dubious practices have come to light — the “double agents” that worked for Murdoch from within Scotland Yard, for example — that even an imaginative novelist would not have invented for fear of seeming over the top.

It’s an Orwellian nightmare.

In Australia, News Limited figures have been quick to distance themselves from events in the UK, assuring us that such behaviour was limited to rogue elements among the British tabloids, and proclaiming that Australian outlets are serving the public with high ethical standards.

Some politicians appear to have been unimpressed by those protestations, and calls for an inquiry into the Australian media are refusing to go away.

Many Australian scientists have also remained unimpressed by the protestations not only of News Limited figures, but also by the media coverage of scientific matters by many Australian outlets, from the ABC to Fairfax to News Limited (the latter differing from the former two in a step function of accuracy).

Simply put, the Australian media have failed the public by creating a phoney debate about climate science that is largely absent from the peer-reviewed literature, where real scientific debates take place.

Over the next several days, a series of articles in The Conversation will shine an inquisitive light onto specific instances of misrepresentation, distortion, or spin by the Australian media as they relate to climate change.

There is an urgent need to analyse the media’s systemic failures, not just because a democracy can only function when the media play their role ethically and truthfully, but also because misrepresentations, once published, have lasting cognitive consequences.

Much research on how people update their memories shows that, well, it shows that people do not update their memories.

If people are told that Joe Blogs is a suspect in a jewellery theft, then a subsequent retraction — “Joe is no longer a suspect” — will often remain ineffective. Although people will recall the correction, their behaviour in response to inference questions reveals continued reliance on the false initial information. People will still nominate Joe when asked whom the police should interview in connection with the theft.

Misinformation sticks in people’s memories, even when they acknowledge a correction, and even when they earnestly seek to discard a memory they know to be false.

The potentially tragic implications of this human cognitive limitation are obvious in a judiciary setting.

Research conducted with “mock” jurors in an experimental setting typically reveals that although jurors state that they have obeyed the judge’s instruction to disregard compromised evidence, the jurors’ behaviour — as revealed by them rendering guilty verdicts — remains largely unaffected by corrections.

Lest one think that those are “just findings from laboratory experiments,” it must be noted that a substantial proportion of the American public (between 20% and 30%) continued to believe that Weapons of Mass Destruction had been found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, notwithstanding the fact that the search had remained futile. (And notwithstanding the fact that the absence of WMD’s eventually became official U.S. policy with bipartisan support.)

Of course, media coverage of the search for WMDs was characterised by literally hundreds of reports in which “preliminary tests” indicated the presence of chemical weapons, all of which then turned out to have been false alarms. (And to give the media credit, they were also reported.)

Clearly, it matters a great deal if reports in the media turn out to be false.

Even if corrected, misinformation tends to stick around in people’s minds.

Worse yet, there is some evidence that under certain circumstances, a correction may inadvertently reinforce the original, false information in people’s minds. For example, research by Professor Norbert Schwarz has shown that health-relevant information, when presented in the popular “myth vs. fact” format, can sometimes reinforce the myth, rather than replace it with the fact.

Clearly, it matters a great deal if the media misreport an issue, even if they issue a correction or apology.

When it comes to climate change, an issue of such global significance, failing to report the facts could thus have enormous repercussions, even if corrections are later issued.

Fortunately, there are some ways by which people can be encouraged to discount misinformation: I will consider those in a few days, after we analyse some specific instances of media spin.

This is the first part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.

This article is about the media’s representation of climate change - we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.