Science or Spin?
Assessing the Accuracy of Cable News
Coverage of Climate Science
Our national debate about climate policy is broken. Too often, policy makers and other public figures make misleading
statements that question whether climate change is humaninduced—or is even occurring at all—rather than debating whether and how to respond to risks from climate change that scientists have identified. Media outlets can do more to foster a fact-based conversation about climate change and policies
designed to address it. Such conversations can help audiences base their positions on climate policy on accurate climate
science, as well as their varying political beliefs, attitudes, and values.
To gauge how accurately elite media outlets inform audiences on climate science, we analyzed climate science coverage across the three major cable news networks: Cable News Network (CNN), Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. We found that the accuracy of this coverage varied significantly across networks. In 2013, 70 percent of climate-science-related segments on CNN were accurate, 28 percent of Fox News Channel segments were accurate, and 92 percent of such segments on MSNBC were accurate.
In this report, we discuss social science related to public perceptions of physical science, provide a brief overview of our methods (covered in more detail in the online appendix at www.ucsusa.org/scienceorspin), present results for each network, and discuss each network’s coverage. We present recommendations and suggestions for climate science coverage that could serve to improve the scientific accuracy of public discussions about potential responses to climate change.
Accurate Science Coverage Makes Our
Democratic Dialogues on Climate
Statements from policy makers and related media coverage
exert significant influence on public attitudes toward climate change (Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins 2012). CNN, Fox
News, and MSNBC are the most widely watched cable news
networks in the United States, and their coverage of climate change is an important source of information for the public
and for policy makers. Thirty-eight percent of American
adults watch cable news (Enda et al. 2013). In 2012, the
three major cable news networks enjoyed an average audience of 2 million viewers across the entire day (Holcomb and Mitchell 2013). In 2013, Fox’s prime-time audience
was 1.76 million while MSNBC’s was 640,000, and CNN’s
clocked in at 568,000 (Kenneally 2014).
Cable news coverage of climate science often reflects
and reinforces people’s perceptions of the science, which
are related to their partisan identification as Democrats,
Republicans, Independents, or Tea Party supporters (Pew
2013). Political ideology can also have a large effect on
whether or not people accept the scientific consensus on
climate change (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman 2010).
On the cable news networks, as in the halls of Congress,
discussions about climate change feature a mix of political
opinions and scientific information. Many opponents of
policies designed to reduce emissions or prepare for climate change, including hosts and guests on cable news programs,
use inaccurate and dismissive portrayals of established
that climate change is occurring, and less than half of
the population recognizes that it is largely due to human
activities (Leiserowitz et al. 2014).
Too often, debates about climate policy—whether or
how to prepare for a changing climate, or what volume of
heat-trapping emissions should be allowed to go into the
atmosphere—are conflated with false debates about whether
or not the science itself is valid. Debates over whether
scientific conclusions should be accepted prevent the
American public from having an open, democratic dialogue
about whether, when, and how to respond to the scientific
evidence related to risks from climate change.
Politicians and interest groups...
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