How broadcast networks keep getting climate change wrong

Major news networks still aren't sure whether climate change is real. You know who they should ask? Scientists.

By Lindsay Abrams

Published January 28, 2015 7:23PM (EST)

Marsha Blackburn, Bill Nye                 (AP/Chris Usher/Kevin Rivoli)
Marsha Blackburn, Bill Nye (AP/Chris Usher/Kevin Rivoli)

Breaking: Broadcast news is continuing to botch one of the biggest stories of our time -- when they bother to report on it at all.

The millions of Americans who tuned into evening and Sunday broadcasts on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox last year were exposed to a total 154 minutes of climate change coverage, a new Media Matters study finds. Which, for a massive problem with global ramifications, is decent, I guess. It's definitely an improvement from 2013, particularly for ABC and Fox, although they continue to lag behind the other networks.

And yet, with the sole exception of CBS' "Face the Nation," all of the major networks got tripped up by the false balance trap: in the interest of showing "both sides" of the climate debate, they gave a platform to people who "feel," against all scientific evidence, that man-made climate change isn't real, thus feeding into the fallacy that it's something that can be debated at all.

Where's all this denial coming from, if the 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and primarily driven by humans? Perhaps because, by the study's count, only 16 percent of the people invited to appear on the shows or quoted by the hosts were actually scientists:

The broadcast news discussion of climate change, unfortunately, continues to barely resemble the real-world discussion of climate change, where scientists are hard at work figuring out whether its impacts are going to be bad or really bad. Instead, we get segments like the one that aired last February on Meet the Press, in which "science guy" -- but not climate scientist -- Bill Nye debated Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn over whether or not climate change is even happening and, in the words of my former colleague Alex Pareene, was destined from the start to leave America "just a little bit more stupid and doomed."

It's great to see the media paying more a bit more attention to climate change, especially when they're still doing such a good job, overall, of ignoring it. How, now, to make sure that said coverage is actually doing the public a service? News stations could make like the BBC, and make it their policy not to give equal air time to climate deniers. Or they could just start reaching out to more scientists -- ones who are putting out peer-reviewed research on climate change and, we can only hope, aren't being funded by fossil fuel industry -- and let them do the talking.

Lindsay Abrams

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Bill Nye Broadcast News Climate Change Climate Change Denialism Marsha Blackburn Sunday Shows