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Who benefits from media coverage of climate change? Not the audience

They key phrase spoken in BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the findings of the latest IPCC climate change report was “it’s about people now”. It’s a statement likely to carry great weight with a body of…

Fiddling with words while the planet burns. Dan Taylor, CC BY

They key phrase spoken in BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the findings of the latest IPCC climate change report was “it’s about people now”.

It’s a statement likely to carry great weight with a body of listeners who have tended to conceive of climate change as a remote, distant issue, the effects of which they had never really imagined having to face. The programme’s discussion laid out the report’s findings of threats to human health, homes, food and security, and those listening at home grabbing a slice of toast on their way out of the door would be in no doubt that “no one will be untouched”.

But those still listening later might well be. The next interviewee was Professor of Economics, Richard Tol, an IPCC contributor who announced he wanted his name removed from this report, stating he was unhappy with the final draft’s tendency to be “alarmist”. In terms of appeasing the listening public now wide awake at the prospect that climate change can’t just be ignored, he was highly effective.

Meanwhile on the BBC’s 5Live there was a similarly powerful rebuttal to the main, pull-no-punches headlines about the conclusions of the IPCC – a synthesis of the work of hundreds of scientists from more than 70 countries – when climate scientist Professor Judith Curry opened her interview with the words “the climate always changes”. She went on to highlight the great challenges of differentiating between “what’s natural and what’s anthropogenic” [man-made].

Scouring the media, as research has shown people now do routinely, audiences were subject to a reinforced message of reassurance regarding the IPCC’s headlines. Channel 4 News that night asked “Was the climate change report alarmist?”, and Richard Tol again played down warnings about the economic impact of climate change, including those of the comprehensive Stern Review in the Financial Times and also here. For one dissenting voice among the hundreds contributing to the IPCC, Tol receives rather disproportionate air time and column inches.

The arguments about the inclusion of sceptical voices, and the links to lobbying groups, are strongly put elsewhere. But in terms of audience response, it is significant that this same week Parliamentary Science and Technology committee criticised the BBC for “failing to clearly and effectively communicate climate science to the public”, and giving undue weight to marginal opinion. Actually the committee was equally critical of the government, as well as other news outlets. Despite two invites, neither the Daily Mail nor the Daily Telegraph – the newspapers displaying most scepticism - bothered to show up.

While the BBC is not the only, nor indeed the worst, offender in terms of communicating climate change, there is a strong argument that it is the most important. As evidence to the committee from Glasgow University Media Group and others emphasised, it carries the most trust with audiences and therefore a weight of responsibility that other news outlets don’t. This is particularly so in an over-saturated media environment in which credibility is increasingly difficult to attribute.

In response to the criticisms, a BBC spokesman re-affirmed that “as part of our commitment to impartiality it is important that dissenting voices are also heard”, and that the BBC does not believe “in erasing wider viewpoints”. Achieving impartiality is, of course, in the BBC’s DNA, but in this case it appears to be prioritised over informing audiences. As a strategy it seems to function as one of almost deliberately confusing them.

Listening to the 5Live report with Judith Curry, the reporter himself sounds confused. It’s very difficult to justify claims that this is in the audience’s interests as they are torn from unequivocal reports that climate change is going to have “severe, pervasive and irreversible” effects, to being reassured that it probably won’t be all that bad. Especially so when there is no clarification of which side carries most weight.

That audiences are confused about climate change has been demonstrated by research. More specifically, that the media has sown the seeds of doubt about the pressing need to take steps to slow or prevent it. And yet there is evidence that the public would in fact accept quite radical policy change on the issue if the communications were improved. But the most likely outcome of some of the coverage this week is that heads will continue to spin.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Murray Goulden

    Research Fellow at University of Nottingham

    Its difficult to tell to what degree the BBC's failure on climate change coverage is due to cowardice in the face of hostile right wing newspapers; lack of expertise due to restrictions on journalist's time to devote to one subject; and a genuine commitment to what is a bizarrely extreme form of relativism that - with some notable exceptions - seeks to treat every contentious issue as a 50-50 debate.

    Give that the latter is unevenly applied (I'm struggling to remember the BBC giving air time to a defender of paedophilia), and I highly doubt in their personal beliefs many of the staff of the BBC are post-modern to the degree that they reject any notion of Truth of Facts, you have to conclude that 'balance' is nothing more than a convenient cover for the first two factors above.

    1. Stephen Ferguson

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Murray Goulden

      I have come to the same conclusion.

      BBC News (not the peerless BBC Nature production unit) systematic undermining of climate science is now on a level with The Daily Mail or Lord Lawson's denier think-tank the GWPF. As a supposed bastion of our democracy, this is disturbing indeed.

      The consequences are so serious for public knowledge of the threat climate change poses, I think the time has come for climate scientists to take a stand by simply declining BBC interviews altogether, giving as a reason that they refuse to speak to an organisation that thinks Nature wishes to listen to 'dissenting voices'.

    2. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to Murray Goulden

      How exactly do right wing news papers intimidate the BBC?

      As for a lack of expertise, the BBC has more tame scientists and science journalists available to it than any other media organisation in the UK.

      With respect to the coverage suffering from false balance, every broadcast of the clips from Tol I heard was accompanied with a clip from someone else pointing out that Tol was an outlier, that there were thousands of other scientists who disagreed with him.

      Like it or not, the fact that a lead author on the SPM asked for his name to be removed *is* news.

    3. Jason England


      In reply to Murray Goulden

      What percentage of the population are paedophiles, d'you think, Murray?:

      "The BBC has spent tens of thousands of pounds over six years trying to keep secret an extraordinary ‘eco’ conference which has shaped its coverage of global warming, The Mail on Sunday can reveal. The controversial seminar was run by a body set up by the BBC’s own environment analyst Roger Harrabin and funded via a £67,000 grant from the then Labour government, which hoped to see its ‘line’ on climate change and other Third World issues promoted in BBC reporting."

  2. John Grant

    logged in via Twitter

    Thank you for this piece. I've been concerned enough about the BBC website's appalling coverage of climate change -- <i>faux</i>-balance gone mad -- to have written to them. No reply, of course, but they did seem eventually to improve a bit. But now they've got some scientifically illiterate clown reporting who, twice in a row, has given 50% of his space to a single dissenting voice . . . who isn't even a blasted climate scientist!

    The Beeb's feet really need to be held to the fire on this one, because we're all going to suffer as a result of the organization's climate myopia.

    1. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to John Grant

      "space to a single dissenting voice . . . who isn't even a blasted climate scientist"
      "they've got some scientifically illiterate clown"

      He is one of 62 coordinating authors on the WGII report. I'd assume he was given that position because he's considered to be an expert in the field of the economics of climate change and was considered well qualified to deal with the potential economic effects of climate change.

      He clearly stated that the SPM was overly alarmist in its language and didn't (in his view) reflect the overall tone and balance of the full WGII report.

    2. John Grant

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Steven Crook

      "He is one of 62 coordinating authors on the WGII report."

      Then shouldn't he be getting 1/62 of the airtime devoted to the comments of the authors, rather than ~50%?

    3. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to Stephen Ferguson

      Yawn. I repeat, he had enough credibility for the IPCC to appoint him as a coordinating lead author. He's well published in peer reviewed literature.

    4. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to John Grant

      Not the point. The news worthy item (apart from the report itself) was that one of the 62 coordinating lead authors had chosen to have his name removed from the SPM.

      Under those circumstances it was inevitable that there would be questions asked. In all the stuff I heard on the BBC a rebuttal on the basis of his opinions being an 'outlier' was also repeated. Seemed perfectly fair given the circumstances.

      Just consider another scenario, lead author asks for name to be removed from SPM because they think it's playing down the risks. They're silenced by the media because they're an outlier. How do you feel then?

      Remember, Prof. Tol's subject is the economics of climate change. I don't believe he's ever denied the basics of the science

      This is an area that should be subject to wide ranging and vigorous debate, but has become bogged down in daft denialism arguments when anyone suggests that, possibly, adaptation and not mitigation is the economically sensible way to proceed.

  3. Jason England


    There will always be a small percentage of foolish people that think that when the global average temperature has not warmed for ~ 17 years, global sea ice is above average, no sign of any sea level rise and the IPCC GCMs are mostly well over the mark with their predictions [which is what their report is based on] that the normal BBC narrative on DAGW is not necessarily the real world.

    1. Jason England


      In reply to John Grant

      "Where *do* you get your information from, Jason?"

      From impeccable sources, John.

      What is it about the above you don't understand?

      Would you like today's global sea ice anomaly?:

      Or the global temperature trend for the last 17 years [with the CO2 emissions included to show how "well" they correlate?:

      How the GCMs are running compared with the real world?:

      As for visible signs of SLR and therefore overall land ice melt well you'll have to go back a few thousand years to the HTM.

      But if you have any personal records of SLR you'll be the first so please let me know about it.

  4. Alan Bryant

    logged in via Facebook

    Interesting question Ms Happer, and yes, the audience doesn't gain from the conversation.

    For the most part, skeptics don't get to play in mass media. When you have men like Schmidt, Hanson, Cook etc. who refuse to debate the issue, a certain one-sidedness takes place. The audience gets only to hear the version that the majority of media outlets wish to be stressed.

    Richard Tol only now seems to be getting airplay, only because he was a leading author on the IPCC, and anyone connected with…

    Read more
  5. Jason England


    The Beeb just need to use the right models:


    It appears that news media and some pro-environmental organizations have the tendency to accentuate or even exaggerate the damage caused by climate change. This article provides a rationale for this tendency by using a modified International Environmental Agreement (IEA) model with asymmetric information. We find that the information manipulation has an instrumental value, as it ex post induces more countries to participate in an IEA, which will eventually enhance global welfare. From the ex ante perspective, however, the impact that manipulating information has on the level of participation in an IEA and on welfare is ambiguous.

  6. Jason England


    Not as good as The Goon Show, but pretty good:

    Date: 03/04/14

    BBC Newsnight

    James Lovelock on BBC Newsnight: ‘I don’t think anybody really knows what’s happening’

    [...] James Lovelock: "Take this climate matter everybody is thinking about. They all talk, they pass laws, they do things, as if they knew what was happening. I don’t think anybody really knows what’s happening. They just guess. And a whole group of them meet together and encourage each other’s guesses."