For nearly three decades, mainstream American news outlets duped the public on climate change by publishing significantly more news stories that denied climate science compared to those that said it was occurring, according to a recent study.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research helps explain why the American public remains bitterly divided on the issue of climate change, and why climate change policymaking in the United States is often stalled. It also puts into sharp relief the corporate control over mainstream media that for decades has fueled anti-science bias and prioritized corporate profiteering over communicating the urgency for climate action.

“The messages opposing action to address climate change are about twice as likely to receive newspaper coverage as messages advocating for climate action.”

Rachel Wetts

Rachel Wetts, an assistant professor of Environment and Society at Brown University’s Department of Sociology, led the study, which analyzed nearly three decades of climate change-related press releases and national news articles published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. She also evaluated thousands of press releases from businesses, advocacy organizations, scientific researchers, trade organizations, and the public sector, published between 1985-2013 to assess whether they supported or opposed climate action.

Wetts told The Real News the study led to three major conclusions: “First, the messages opposing action to address climate change are about twice as likely to receive newspaper coverage as messages advocating for climate action. In addition, messages from business coalitions and very large businesses also receive heightened media visibility. Finally, I found that messages from organizations providing scientific and technical services were the least likely of all types of organizations to have their messages reproduced in mainstream media.”

Wetts was surprised that organizations with greater scientific expertise, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and IBM, were among those least likely to have their views reported in the media. In striking contrast, she said, “the views of large businesses and opponents of climate action are being given an outsize opportunity to sway this debate.”

Increased coverage of anti-climate news is because of the “false balance” on the issue of climate change, Wetts explained: “Ideally, this balance norm is meant to ensure journalistic neutrality. However, in the case of climate change—where a large majority of scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity—following this norm means creating a highly distorted representation of the scientific understanding of the issue.”

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Wetts’ research is a compelling addition to the string of studies and surveys drawing attention to the sketchy and piecemeal coverage of the climate emergency and the prioritization of business interests in mainstream media. The recently published Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2020 survey underlines how poorly informed Americans are about the existential threat posed by the changing climate. For instance, the survey reports only one in four people hear about global heating in the news at least once a week. Only one in two people understand that humans are causing the crisis.

Climate activist circles are more aware of corporate media spin on issues of environmental justice and climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion (XR)— a global environmental movement known for its ‘social disruption’ approach to drawing attention to climate crises—is leading a national disruption campaign demanding US media outlets, including CNN and the Washington Post, publicly distance themselves from their corporate donors in the fossil fuel industry.

The Washington, DC, chapter of XR (XRDC) recently set off smoke flares and dumped ash outside CNN’s DC offices protesting the corporation’s “appalling coverage of the wildfire crisis.” In an email to The Real News, XR representative Reilly Polka said, “CNN mentioned climate change just five times in 49 of the segments it aired about the wildfires. It spent just three minutes covering the fires over a four day period. Out of 12 CNN articles about the wildfires that we surveyed between September 12-14, not one explains that fossil fuels are to blame for the climate crisis.”

She added that “outlets like CNN have a moral duty to make the emergency headline news every single day.”

The Washington Post also drew the ire of XRDC for carrying advertisements promoting Big Oil companies. XR activists recently sent a letter via email to the Post’s editor listing six demands, including publishing climate headlines daily, using climate urgency language, and banning all advertising from fossil fuel companies: “We understand that ad revenue is vital, especially when the news media is suffering financially and editorial budgets are being cut. But taking money from fossil fuel companies to promote an industry that has spent billions deceiving the public about its destruction of life is not in the public good,” the XR email reads.

On Sept. 25, youth activists and community groups worldwide observed a day of climate strikes to underscore the urgency of the climate crisis, despite the risks of COVID-19 pandemic. Climate strikes were scheduled to take place in at least 3,500 locations around the globe, with protesters marching the streets while staying socially distanced while others called attention to the warming climate through online meetings. Thousands of activists also posted on social media and joined the street marches to make their feelings known about the lack of climate action from world leaders. According to the global youth movement Fridays For Future, last Friday’s demonstrations were spread across at least 150 countries, all with the agenda of fixing the broken political will to act on climate change. At least 6 million people around the world took part in last year’s week of action.

Aman Azhar

Climate Change Reporter
Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.