A Problem the News Media Can’t Fix

Matthew Nisbet points to some new Gallup data that I believe supports an argument I have made in the past: that lack of public understanding of climate change is not a problem the news media can fix. From the Gallup report:

While the percentage of Democrats who view the news about global warming as being exaggerated has been fairly stable, at 23% in 1997 and 18% this year, the percentage of Republicans taking this view has increased dramatically — from 34% to 59%. The result is a 41-point difference between adherents of the two major parties. Growing skepticism about news coverage of global warming clearly goes hand in hand with Republicans’ declining belief that it is already occurring.

In other words, to the extent that the news media provides information that conflicts with their political viewpoints, people are more likely to distrust the news media rather than change their views. This is consistent with my experience on issue after issue as a journalist. This is not a function of the political views of the actors involved. Depending on the issue, actors on both the left and the right, as well as actors on one side or the other of issues that do not fall on a left-right divide, routinely choose to distrust the media rather than change their views when the media presents information that is in conflict with those views.


  1. There are strong biological reasons why people are reluctant to change their views. There are also strong and related psychological reasons. Basically, it takes a lot of work and energy to change a long held view even if this view is incorrect.


  2. … and the attitudes are fixed when people are as young as 18.

    Which is why my five-year-old is being taught about the importance of pirates.

  3. Well what you could be seeing a selection bias. More people are identifying as Democrat or Independent. Those left behind in the GOP are the true believers, those who are least likely to be swayed from their position. Thus you can have increased awareness and understanding which a consensus being reached by the general population but the issue still appearing to be partisan.

  4. I think there is something the news media cna do about it, but this is past tense. If, in the early days talking about global warming, the emphasis had been on the science of it and not the politics of it, we’d have a much different debate. The problem here is not party divisions or an inherent flaw in the public so much as it is the shaping of a debate along partisan lines. Those lines should have been drawn with regards to solutions, not about the very nature of the problem. I think that in an effort to treat the science of this politically significant phenom as up for debate the perception that the minority opinion of global warming skeptics was brought up as equally valid, and I think when such a minor divergent view is given equal coverage, the power for science to be science is lost.

    A comparable case could be made with 9/11 conspiracy theories. They are out there, they are a divergent view, but they are so far from agreed upon that they have not been granted coverage, and that neither party has really taken them on as policy. There is no debate here because the set of facts are generally agreed upon, and so debate can end.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the news media has lost influence on the debate by making facts less certain in the public perception than they should be. This is not to say that party maneuvering isn’t equally at fault, but I think the artificial debate is really where it all goes wrong.

  5. The science of global warming.

    If there are any readers who have solid references to the science of global warming, complete with error bars, please tell me where to find these references.

    Every where I look I find spin, partisanship, conflicts of interest (people who get more funding by deciding that one conclusion or the other it true independent of whether it is true or not), and hardened positions.

    I am an experimentalist. I need data and credible measures of the likely errors in the data or in conclusions about the data (really well done Bayesian statistics would be a big help).

    Please tell me where to find this information.


  6. Eric –

    The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are an excellent starting point. They’re all free on line, and I recommend the full reports, not the summaries for policymakers. They’re well caveated and footnoted, offering you a useful route into the primary literature:


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