Why is there such a strong barrier of communication between the mass media and scientists, particularly when it comes to climate change

Published by Conor Mulvihill on

June 29th, 2016

The media is an essential organ needed to spread awareness about climate change, in reality very few people read scientific reports, specialist websites and blogs, or the reports of the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). People generally rely upon the mass media’s representations of climate change. Climate change science and other scientific data are often wrongly misinterpreted by the media mostly due to certain political points of view presented by various media organisations about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

There is clearly a strong relationship between the political perspective of a media organisation and its position on climate change. The left leaning newspaper the Guardian, for example, is known for their extensive coverage on climate change and other environmental issues and where there are very few sceptical positions to be found. Compare this to right leaning media for example the US Wall Street Journal which are more likely to hold a sceptical perspective and editorials. The position of right and left-leaning media has a major influence on the public’s perception and media-generated controversy which is also often seen as a reason for scepticism about climate change.

Various analyses of media coverage of climate change have concluded that a discourse of uncertainty isn’t suitable for the typically adversarial style of English language journalism. Radio, television and newspaper reports often interpret too simplistically the concept of providing a ‘balanced’ set of views. Statistics have shown that there is around 97% consensus within the scientific community that believe climate change is caused by manmade activity, yet the media still provides equal amounts of coverage on the arguments presented by manmade climate change ‘deniers’. Considering that a significant amount of scientific evidence on climate change is so heavily against climate sceptics, the reporting of their views should reflect this. The presence of organised lobbying interests have actively shaped the media’s agenda. This is often spearheaded by politicians who have a strong presence within mass media who distort scientific understanding particularly when it comes to climate change.

The blame cannot be solely placed on the mass media. Journalists have the difficult job of translating and processing detailed and confusing information provided by scientists. There is only as few journalists who have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may be ignorant about other scientific issues that they are suddenly asked to cover. This has resulted in a severe barrier of communication between journalists and scientists, they are not able to understand each other’s language, and they are both driven by different aims.
It’s necessary for scientists and science organizations to recognize the importance of framing science-related issues. Scientific information needs to be translated into a format that’s easy for its target audience to understand yet emphases key details from scientific data. For this to be possible graduate students at science institutions should be taught the social and political contexts of science and how to communicate with the media and the public. It’s also necessary for journalism schools and news organizations to develop a science policy in order to bridge the gap between journalists covering science and those covering politics. This would involve training journalists to understand both science and policy which would provide important background for science policy debates.

The mass media are faced with numerous obstacles that prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. Determining how much weight should to be given to each side in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise in relation to the matter. Considering how the mass media is able to reach such a wide audience and shape public awareness, public engagement as well as public support for positive action, it’s easy to see how its role in science communication needs to be studied carefully.

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Conor Mulvihill

Conor is Communications Assistant with the Irish Environmental Network. His background is in science and he has a masters in international relations.