Friday, 31 May 2013

Climate Watch

News about the weather is no longer confined to a nattily-dressed television presenter waving a wand at a blue screen dotted with maps, place names, temperature data, and icons of the sun, moon, the stars, and droplets of rain representing the state of the day just passed and the ones to come. It is now, more frequently than ever before, one of the main stories of the day.

The media is full of Images of hurricanes and tornadoes in the U.S with more punch than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima, a freezing Easter in the UK that left a different kind of icing on the cake, an unimaginable heat wave in Brazil, the coldest winter in China’s living memory, persistent droughts in the watering holes of Africa, and the blazing bushfires in Australia, not to speak of the spate of floods, and the rollercoaster rides of the mercury across the globe.

But how well does the media report on one of the pressing global issues of our time – climate change? “Weird weather, global climate change, and the media” is the theme of the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists to be held in Helsinki, Finland, from 24-28 June this year. The conference aims to provide an opportunity to science, environment and health journalists and writers “to improve public understanding of extreme weather and climate change”.

The issue, of course, is not as much about journalists as it is about the institutions they represent. The media is not one entity and media institutions often have strong ideological or political leanings which determine the positions they take on issues and this has an impact on their news coverage as well. For example, liberal media organizations are more likely to give more weight to the human hand in climate change than conservative ones which tend to deny anthropogenic climate change.

Findings of a U.S-based study forthcoming in the Public Understanding of Science now show that following conservative media reduces people’s trust in scientists while using non-conservative media increases trust in scientists. The study, by Jay D. Hmielowski, Lauren Feldman, Teresa A. Myers, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Edward Maibach, shows that a decreased trust in scientists leads to a sceptical view of climate change while an increased trust in scientists allows people to be certain about climate change and its impacts. There is, therefore, a correlation between the ideology of certain media institutions and the climate change beliefs of people who follow them. Although earlier research seemed to treat “media use and trust as independent factors”, the authors say that “considering the interplay between these variables” and how they “uniquely influence atti­tudes may provide a more comprehensive understanding of why people hold particular beliefs about climate change.”

Measuring people’s beliefs on climate change is not easy but, in another article forthcoming in PUS, Australian researchers, Murni Greenhill, Zoe Leviston, Rosemary Leonard, and Iain Walker, suggest that differences in the wording on survey statements can elicit different responses. More about that in the next blog.