The theory that the earth
is catastrophically heating up because of industrial pollution has
become one of the leading environmental topics on network television
news. Global warming is a highly controversial issue, with most
climate scientists unconvinced that human actions are warming the
planet, or that such warming would even be harmful. Such views,
however, do not make it into newscasts. Instead, as with so many
other issues, global warming is usually portrayed in a
science-and-activists- versus-industry paradigm.
Media Research Center
analysts reviewed all of the stories about global warming on ABC’s
World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN World News and
The World Today, and NBC Nightly News from January, 1993
through October, 1997. There were a total of 48 stories.
Story Heats Up. The
48 stories were not evenly distributed throughout the years. Global
warming has become a bigger story lately, with more stories so far
in 1997 (26) than in all of the other years combined (22). The heavy
coverage so far in 1997 has been a result of White House public
relations activities, such as the inviting of the nation’s local
television weathermen for a presidential briefing. In 1993 and 1994,
when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White
House, but didn’t push for action on global warming, the networks
were largely silent.
No Room for Scientific
Debate. Most of the stories (39) simply assumed that science
supports warming theories. Only seven stories included a mention
that many scientists are skeptical of global warming. Of these seven
stories, only two brought up the actual arguments of skeptical
climate scientists. (The remaining two stories were about scientific
efforts to measure the earth’s warming; they neither assumed science
supports warming theories, nor mentioned arguments against such
Peter Jennings has been the
most adamant in claiming that the scientific debate is over. On the
April 5, 1995 World News Tonight, Jennings argued that "it
would only take a small increase in the world’s overall temperature
to change life as we know it" and that there was "new evidence that
man may be turning up the thermostat."
On the November 30, 1995
broadcast, Jennings announced, "2,500 scientists from around the
world have finally agreed with one another and are convinced that
burning oil and coal is causing the world’s temperatures to rise,
which may bring with it environmental disaster."
On the October 1, 1997
broadcast, he claimed that pollution "has already changed the
world’s climate" and that "if man doesn’t stop tampering with the
environment, the change in climate could well lead to a world in
which we have a very unpredictable future."
And then on October 22,
1997, Jennings told World News Tonight viewers that "the
overwhelming majority of scientists now agree [climate change] is
being caused by man."
Others were a bit more
balanced. "The earth does seem to be heating," reported NBC’s Robert
Hager on the April 7, 1997 Nightly News, "some think because
of pollution, others say it’s just cyclical." And although CNN’s
Cammy McCormick, on the October 6, 1997 World Today, said
that "most [scientists] will tell you that the earth is heating up
and people are partly to blame," she pointed out that "some climate
scientists say they’re not convinced about global warming."
No report mentioned that
nearly 100 climate scientists signed the Leipzig Declaration in
1996, expressing doubts about the validity of computer-driven global
And about those 2,500
scientists Jennings mentioned, S. Fred Singer, professor of
environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, wrote in the
July 25 Wall Street Journal: "The great majority of these are
not conversant with the intricacies of atmospheric physics, although
some may know a lot about forestry, fisheries or agriculture. Most
are social scientists — or just policy experts and government
functionaries. Every country seems to be represented — from Albania
to Zimbabwe — though many are not exactly at the forefront of
research. The list even includes known skeptics of global warming —
much to their personal and professional chagrin."
According to Dr. Singer,
"Even some IPCC scientists, in the report itself or in a May 16
Science article headlined ‘Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy,’
have expressed doubts about the validity of computer models and
about the main IPCC conclusion, that ‘the balance of evidence
suggests a discernible human influence on global climate’ — whatever
that ambiguous phrase may mean."
He also pointed out that
most of the warming over the past hundred years occurred before
1940, even though there were more carbon dioxide emissions after the
second World War, and that "weather satellite observations,
independently backed by data from balloon-borne source sensors, have
shown no global warming whatsoever in the past 20 years."
Dr. Singer isn’t alone. A
Gallup Poll found that only 17 percent of the members of the
Meteorology Society and the American Geophysical Society think that
the warming of the 20th century has been a result of greenhouse gas
Disaster Awaits. Not
only did the networks report unquestioningly that humans were
warming the planet, but they were certain that such warming would
lead to disaster. Only two of the 48 global warming stories pointed
out that some scientists believe warming would be a boon to human
health and well-being. The other stories assumed warming was bad.
On the October 7, 1997
Nightly News, NBC correspondent George Lewis predicted that
warming would lead to "wild swings in the weather, from heavy rains
to prolonged droughts, ruining crops all over earth." He also ran a
computer animation from an environmental group which "shows how a
three foot rise [in sea levels] would flood New York City, cause
some of the Florida Keys to disappear, and expand San Francisco Bay
all the way into California’s Central Valley." CBS correspondent
Scott Pelley, on the October 22, 1997 CBS Evening News, said,
"Scientists are already measuring the destruction, from floods in
American valleys to vanishing ice on world peaks...In fact, it is
happening all around the world — the earth’s glaciers have been
receding at an increasing pace over the last 100 years."
Dr. Singer, again, dispels
these claims. "Judging from the climate record of the last 3,000
years of human history, climate consequences of a greenhouse warming
should be generally beneficial," he wrote in a recent Science &
Environmental Policy Project report. "One would expect severe
weather to be less frequent because of (calculated) reduced
equator-to-pole temperature gradients. In fact, the frequency and
intensity of hurricanes have decreased over the past 50 years,
although the reason for this is not known."
Sources. The skewed nature of the global warming debate in the
media can be seen by whom network reporters interviewed for
soundbites. In the 48 stories during the study period, there were 60
soundbites from those who thought global warming was a problem and
favored drastic policy solutions.
Only 10 soundbites came
from the other side, with only two of those coming from scientists.
(Fifteen soundbites came from neutral sources.) Reporters often used
soundbites to frame the debate as being between science and
environmental activists on one side and industry on the other. On
the October 22, 1997 NBC Nightly News, for instance, correspondent
David Bloom, pitted the Sierra Club’s Dan Becker against a
representative of the coal industry, who claimed the plan would cost
jobs. Scientists skeptical of warming were ignored.
NBC News, though, did go
the farthest of all the networks toward balance. Twice the
Nightly News used its "In Their Own Words" segment to allow
critics of global warming policies to speak. On the July 8, 1996
broadcast, Singer made the case against human- induced global
warming and on October 7, 1997 Thomas Moore of the Hoover
Institution argued that global warming would promote human health.
But these were the
exceptions. For the most part, the debate in the media over global
warming has been one-sided, with the legions of scientists skeptical
of global warming completely left out.
This Issue Analysis
is adapted from a Free Market Project Special Report on network
coverage of the global warming debate. To see the full report, visit
the MRC’s web site at www.mediaresearch.org or call (703) 683-9733.