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The media is getting better at fact-checking climate deniers — but still not great

Gettin' corrected.
Gettin' corrected.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The American politico-media complex is in a bit of an awkward phase on the subject of climate change. By now, virtually everyone acknowledges it's a problem that calls for policy solutions — everyone, that is, except the hardcore base of the Republican Party and, oh yeah, all the Republican presidential candidates (except, uh, Lindsey Graham).

Mainstream political journalists are generally educated cosmopolitans who accept the scientific consensus. Yet their jobs regularly bring them into contact with, and require them to write about, these politicians who reject it. How should they deal with that?

Back in March, I wrote a post about that very subject. It keyed off media analyst Jay Rosen, who asked how campaign journalists planned to address the climate denialism of GOP presidential candidates in the 2016 race.

Rosen offered four possible options:

  1. Normalize it: Treat denialist claims like any other campaign position.
  2. Savvy analysis: Is denialism a winning move or is it costing the candidate?
  3. Persistence: Call what it is — a rejection of the science — and keep calling it that.
  4. Confrontation: Try to raise the costs of denialism.

Here was his somewhat dismal assessment:

What to do? All four paths have problems. In my view 2.) is the worst option, 1.) is not much better, 3.) is probably the best choice, but that doesn’t mean it will make a difference, and 4.) is the riskiest but might be a worth a try.

As it happens, Media Matters has a new report out that takes a look at this question in some detail.

First, they analyzed 54 stories from seven major newspapers and wire services appearing between March 23 (when Cruz became the first candidate to announce) and June 22. In each of the stories, a presidential candidate either denies that climate change is happening or equivocates about whether humans are substantially responsible.

The report tries to separate stories that fact-checked those claims from stories that let them pass uncorrected. Here's a positive example, a March 23 AP story:

Cruz says that for the past 17 years, satellite images show that "there's been zero global warming." But scientific experts say satellite data is the wrong way to measure global warming, which the vast majority of scientists say is happening and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Here's Reuters on May 21:

Bush, answering questions from reporters after an event in Salem, New Hampshire, defended remarks he made a day earlier in which he said scientific research does not clearly show how much of climate change is caused by humans and how much is from natural causes.

The United Nations panel of climate scientists, which is composed of thousands of the world's leading climate change experts, says it is at least 95 percent probable that most of the warming since 1950 is caused by man-made greenhouse gases.

In contrast, here's the Wall Street Journal on April 22:

Mr. Rubio recently questioned humans’ role in climate change and said efforts to reverse such changes would have a devastating impact on the economy.

"I believe climate is changing because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing," Mr. Rubio said on CBS’s "Face the Nation." "The question is, what percentage of that or what is due to human activity?"

And then ... that's it. It also mentions skeptical comments from Jeb Bush and Fla. governor Rick Scott on climate. At no point does it note that Rubio and co. are, factually speaking, wrong.

And so on (there are lots more examples in the report). Here's the final score:


Out of 54 stories, 31 noted the factual inaccuracy of a candidate's claims while 23 did not. I was actually pleasantly surprised by these numbers. They reflect spreading adoption of Rosen's strategy No. 3, which I would not have predicted.

It likely has something to do with the uptick in good climate and energy journalism in the US these days, usually outside the campaign-journalism beat. Chris Mooney is leading a great team at the Washington Post. NYT has Coral Davenport, among others. Politico recently hired ace energy (and other stuff) reporter Mike Grunwald. There's Ben Geman and Clare Foran at National Journal, the team at Climate Progress, and a whole host of dedicated sites like Climate Central, Midwest Energy News, InsideClimate News, and more. Smart writing on climate and energy is much easier to find today than it ever has been. (I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch!)

And then there's TV. Media Matters takes a look at the TV news landscape:

From March 23 to June 22, the major broadcast and cable news networks aired 37 segments featuring a presidential candidate denying climate science, and 12 of these segments (32 percent) failed to note that the candidate's position contradicts the scientific consensus on climate change. MSNBC accounted for the vast majority of television coverage noting the scientific consensus, as TV outlets other than MSNBC collectively failed to fact-check candidates' climate science denial 75 percent of the time.

This is evidence, if you need any more, that among the demographic targeted by news shows — to wit: old people — fact-checking climate claims is still seen as "liberal."

There's a video roundup of the best and worst from TV news if you can stand to watch TV news, which I cannot.

Anyway, long story short, while TV news remains a wasteland, there are signs that climate denialism isn't getting the free ride is used to get among print and online journalists. Maybe Rosen's strategy No. 3 will be more popular than he expected.