For most citizens, knowledge about science comes largely through the mass media, not through scientific publications or direct involvement in science. As sociologist Dorothy Nelkin has explained, the public understands science less through experience or education but through the filter of journalistic language and imagery. This is especially true for unobtrusive or invisible issues such as global warming with which a person lacks real-world experience that could help shape opinion and understanding. Even if someone lives through the hottest summer on record, severe drought, or forest fires, that person still relies on the news media to connect such events to scientific evidence.

“Disinformation, Financial Pressures, and Misplaced Balance”
– Ross Gelbspan
In media coverage of global warming, scientists were the primary sources of information early on, but more recently politicians and interest groups have been cited more frequently in stories. As this happens, an issue ripe for examination is what messages media coverage communicate about global warming as sources of information change. Some researchers have found that as their sourcing changed, journalists tended to overemphasize the level of uncertainty about global warming. This conclusion has been reached by academic researchers and echoed by journalist Ross Gelbspan, who wrote “Boiling Point,” a book about global warming.

Some media researchers suggest that journalistic practices—such as objectivity and striving for balance—contribute to conveying this message of uncertainty. When sources offer conflicting claims, for example, reporters tend to use one of two strategies: 1. try to be objective, or 2. try to balance the conflicting claims within the story, which leads to sides in the debate being given equal weight, even when the majority of scientific evidence might fall to one side while the other side consists of industry-supported, fringe science.

Media coverage can send the message to readers that the science is uncertain without ever mentioning “uncertainty.” To deliver that perception requires the balancing of competing scientific views without a clear context to explain how the evidence lines up in the scientific community. But until we set out to test readers to determine whether story elements—such as conflict and context—contributed to or created a sense of uncertainty, no researcher had examined the impact of this journalistic practice. Our experiment would assess how newspaper readers respond to journalists’ writing on global warming, while exploring specifically how controversy and context influence readers’ perceptions about the certainty or uncertainty of global warming.

Testing Public Understanding of Global Warming

For our experiment, we created four versions of a news story based on a story of an actual scientific study that found a section of the Antarctic ice sheet was thickening. We used this subject matter because the finding suggested uncertainty about global warming, and therefore it would be a good test: We were curious to learn whether the addition of scientific context would be able to mitigate uncertainty or if the addition of conflict further heightened the uncertainty.

To find out, we wrote a few paragraphs about controversy. Another few paragraphs we wrote emphasized the context of this particular study. Controversy was inserted into one version of the story, context into another. To another version, we added both paragraphs—about controversy and context. In another, we placed neither paragraph but supplemented the thickening Antarctic ice story with general, encyclopedia-facts that were related to its size and formation. We also added some of these “encyclopedia-facts” to the other versions to make all of the news stories approximately the same length. Then we formatted them so they resembled a photocopy from a real newspaper.

We also designed a survey to assess the readers’ level of certainty about global warming after reading the article. Combined with questions that specifically assessed the participants’ level of uncertainty, other questions were related to the participants’ prior knowledge about global warming and general attitudes toward environmental issues. Each participant read one version of the story; all of the readers then completed the same survey. (Specifically, 209 undergraduate students participated in the experiment; 54 read the controversy story, 51 read the context story, 51 read the controversy and context story, and 53 read the story with neither controversy nor context.)

To evaluate the responses, we compared the survey answers relative to the version of the news story read. As expected, the students who read the news story with context reported the highest level of certainty regarding global warming, whereas students who read the story with neither controversy nor context appeared to be least certain about global warming.

Graph illustrates the levels of certainty relative to the news story the participant read.

What We Learned

This experiment was an attempt to test whether common elements in news stories—controversy and context—influence readers’ perceptions. The media’s attraction to controversy is unlikely to wane, but it is heartening to know that the simple inclusion of scientific context might help mitigate the readers’ level of uncertainty. The goal of our research was to bring these findings into a broader context for future research and counsel for science communicators and journalists.

Research like ours represents only a snapshot, replete with limitations and shortcomings—just as the picture of science presented by the news media is a snapshot. In comparison, the process of science can be viewed as a long movie, so it should not be surprising that members of the public struggle to put the movie together from their media exposure to scientific snapshots. As Henry Pollack, author of “Uncertain Science … Uncertain World” explained: Enough snapshots strung together can begin to look like a movie to the public. Eventually, through repetition and attention to context, the public will better understand global warming and other large-scale environmental concepts.

On a final note, we suggest that global warming needs a more salient metaphor that emphasizes its seriousness, immediacy and scientific credibility. In the United States, when reporters ask people on the street what they think about global warming, a typical response is that a few degrees warmer might not be so bad. These responses make clear that U.S. media coverage has not communicated the graveness of the phenomenon nor the negative consequences for daily life. It ultimately might be up to scientists, science communicators, and journalists to find ways to communicate the seriousness of global warming to a general public that will be increasingly affected by it. As our experiment demonstrated, including scientific context in the construction of news stories is one strategy to improve public certainty about the science behind global warming.

Jessica Durfee is a PhD student in the department of communication at the University of Utah. Julia Corbett is an associate professor in this department. She is finishing a book, “Green Messages: Communication and the Natural World.” A complete version of this study was published in Science Communication (volume 26, number 2) in December 2004.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment