The Media and Climate Change: Revisiting Boykoff and Boykoff

A discussion over at RealClimate about media coverage of climate change (an issue dear to my heart) sent me back to read a widely quoted paper last year by Boykoff and Boykoff – Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press.

The Boykoff and Boykoff thesis is that the mainstream media, because of its culture of “balance”, has distorted public understanding of climate change. I don’t think they make the case, because of fatal flaws in their own characterization of the interplay between science and policy on the issue.

First of all, as Roger Pielke Jr. points out, survey data has repeatedly shown that the U.S. public strongly accepts the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are altering the climate, with serious results. As Roger put it, “Efforts made trying to convince the public that global warming is ‘real’ are pretty much wasted on the convinced.” That would seem at odds with the Boykoffs’ assertion that a media-led disconnect between the public discourse on climate change and the scientific one “has played a significant role in the lack of concerted international action to curb practices that contribute to global warming.”

But the real problem in the Boykoffs’ analysis is their conflation of the scientific consensus on climate change with the resulting policy response. Nowhere is that more clear than the paper’s introduction, where they say:

With increasing confidence, the IPCC has asserted that global warming is a serious problem that has anthropogenic influences, and that it must be addressed immediately. (emphasis added)

No. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change most assuredly does not say anthropogenic climate change “must be addressed immediately.” The panel’s purpose is to assemble the best scientific analysis for policy makers, who then must use it to help them decide what must be done, and when.

This is not a minor error, because it colors the substance of their analysis. In the Boykoffs’ view, a news story that quotes people for and against immediate greenhouse gas reductions is guilty of false balance – flying in the face of what they have characterized as the scientific consensus.

Their paper’s first example offers a disturbing case in point:

On December 3, 2002, the Washington Post, citing “numerous uncertainties [that] remain about global warming’s cause and effect”, top administration officials communicated George W. Bush’s call “for a decade of research before the government commits to anything more than voluntary measures to stem carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions” (Pianin, 2002, p. A8). This statement was not only a backhanded swipe at the findings of scientists concerned a bout global warming, but it was also the spectacular culmination of a complex and perpetually unfolding discursive process propagated by the prestige press in the United States.

The story is about a Bush Administration conference on climate change:

The Bush administration acknowledges that global warming poses serious problems, but senior officials speaking at a climate-change policy conference yesterday said numerous uncertainties remain about global warming’s cause and effects. They urged caution in committing the country to long-term solutions that might hurt the economy.

For starters, the Boykoffs have, I think, mischaracterized the story. The sentence from their paper is a bit of a garble, but it seems to suggest that it was the Washington Post itself, rather than senior Bush Administration officials, who did the citing of “numerous uncertainties.” It’s a key difference. I’d score the newspaper down for false bias too if it had baldly asserted “numerous uncertainties about global warming’s effect.” But the reporter was quoting the Bush Administration officials speaking about the reasoning behind their policy choice. The reporter here was writing about policy response, not science.

This is the Boykoffs’ fundamental error. While they may be correct that there are cases where stories about the science are marred by a bias created by false balance, their conflation of scientific understanding of the issue and policy responses renders their argument fundamentally flawed. Here is how they characterize the scientific consensus:

The scientific community has reached general consensus that immediate and mandatory
actions are necessary to combat global warming.

I believe that misstates the scientific consensus. The scientific consensus describes what is happening now, and what we can expect under various scenarios of future greenhouse emissions. It is up to the policy and political processes to weigh that in making decisions about the costs and benefits of various courses of action.

The Boykoffs believe that the scientific consensus is equivalent to a demand for “immediate and mandatory actions.” So in their analysis of media coverage, offerings that quote people who want anything less – no action, voluntary action, modest or cautious action – is an example of false balance.

But that’s precisely what the political and policy debates are about. That’s not false balance. That’s explaining the debate.


  1. John,

    I posted the B&B abstract at RealClimate so I feel compelled to reply. I also use the article in one of my classes. You make a good point about the Boykoff’s conflation of the consensus on the science and the policy. Their major premise that there is a consensus on the policy is flawed. You also make a reasonable case about the problems associated with the particular quoted from the WaPost. Although unstated, the “journalistic problem” with the Bush quote is that it is left to stand for itself — there is no journalistic effort to provide a correction to Bush’s misleading statement. The underlying point is that newspapers too often uncritically report, they don’t engage in efforts to meet the journalistic norm of “accuracy”.

    Additionally, later examples in the paper demonstrate clearly the case they are making.

    They cite the LATimes:
    “The ability to study climactic patterns has been
    critical to the debate over the phenomenon called
    ‘‘global warming.’’ Some scientists believe—andsome
    ice core studies seem to indicate—that humanity’s
    production of carbon dioxide is leading to a
    potentially dangerous overheating of the planet. But
    skeptics contend there is no evidence the warming
    exceeds the climate’s natural variations”

    They cite the WaPost:
    [S]ome skeptical meteorologists andanalys ts assert
    that global warming reflects a natural cycle of
    temperature fluctuation andcan not be decisively tied
    to human actions. ‘‘As far as we are concerned,
    there’s no evidence for global warming, and by
    the year 2000 the man-made greenhouse theory
    will probably be regarded as the biggest scientific
    gaffe of the century,’’ Piers Corbyn, an astrophysicist
    at London’sWeather Action forecasting organization
    toldthe Reuter news agency.”

    As part of the discussion of the article in my class, I require my students to bring 6 recent articles on climate change to class and we discuss the similarities of their articles and the B&B results. The results are very similar.

    Second, there is a big disconnection between awareness and understanding. A closer look at the numbers of the polls doesn’t exactly provide strong evidence that the public is well informed. FoxNews poll reveals that only 59% of Americans believe that human activities have influenced climate change — 35% think it has been caused by caused by human behavior, 24% about a third says it is a combination of both human behavior and natural variability (the scientific consensus). The MIT Public Awareness (pdf) study states bluntly, “A major concern when eliciting views on a subject such as the environment is the ability of the public to understand the policy options and the underlying issues.” There is a significant body of literature (pdf) showing the disconnect between understanding and action.

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