TODAY |

'Climate change contrarians' receive 49 per cent more media coverage than scientists, US study finds

"Climate change contrarians" are getting 49 per cent more media coverage than scientists who support the consensus view that climate change is man-made, a new study has found.

Your playlist will load after this ad

Scientist Shaun Hendy joined Breakfast to discuss a new study on "false balance" in news stories. Source: Breakfast

The research, conducted by the University of California and published today in Nature Communications, examined around 200,000 research publications and 100,000 digital and print media articles from climate change scientists and deniers over several years. 

On TVNZ 1's Breakfast today Shaun Hendy, Professor of physics at the University of Auckland explained the idea of "false balance" in news stories about climate change and how it's impacting peoples' understanding of the issue.

"I think this is something we've sort of been trying to combat for a long time, this idea of false balance that when you have a climate scientist talking about climate change, then you've got to have a contrarian," Prof Hendy told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"Partly, it's to do with the way news works, right? It's not newsworthy that, from year on year, 97 per cent of climate scientists still think that climate change is occurring.

"When a news story happens, you want some controversy, and so often, you get those two opposing viewpoints being presented - but they're not equal."

It comes after a recent study of 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers found that 97 per cent of scientists believed climate change was occurring.

The other three per cent, Mr Hendy said, will "often be people questioning things that always goes on".

"We're always questioning science, but we eventually we sort of come to a conclusion. When a plane crashes, we don't go, 'Wow, gosh, that theory of gravity. If only scientists could sort that out.' We assume that something's wrong with the plane, not our theory of gravity.

"Climate science is reaching that point, where we're becoming so confident that ... the questions, the uncertainties are really quite small and extreme."

He said climate change doubters will seek out confirmation bias through the media they consume - which often includes the experts the outlet gives a platform to.

"We all do that. We're constantly deluged with information, and the information we tend to like to consume is that information that confirms our own beliefs, so if you're sceptical about climate, you're going to naturally just end up consuming media that portrays that scepticism – that's just part of being human, unfortunately.

"As an individual, you’ve got to work to overcome those biases that you have from your information sources that you're seeking."

Prof Hendy said the media needs to stop debating over climate change's existence.

"We're not having that debate in science and so when we're having that debate in public, we're not really representing the science accurately," he said. "The science has moved on and journalists should as well."

He added that New Zealand media, including Radio New Zealand and TVNZ, "have by and large done a pretty good job."

"There are a few media outlets that provide platform for climate change deniers, but largely, I think New Zealand media have moved on and some time ago."

The study found that less editorial control resulted in more subjective media outlets, and the more free-forming there is by the outlet host, the greater capacity and likelihood of climate change denial there is.

"We've all been on social media. This is probably where most people will encounter climate change denial.

"Go on to Facebook, go on to Twitter, post something about the climate and very soon, you'll find yourself arguing with climate change deniers, so those outlets with less control – they provide a platform where people who want to deliberately mislead can go and misread information.

"Often, what I'll find is that [climate change deniers] are picking up on pieces of science that were maybe true – there were real questions maybe 60, 70 years ago – and so people are still questioning that.

"They don't realise – or at least, they're ignoring the fact that scientists actually sorted that out a long time ago, so there's a grain of truth, often, in what they're saying, but actually, the science has moved on."