07 Feb 2009 How the Media Covers Global Warming: A Case Study
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When University of Washington Professor Eric Steig announced in a news conference and paper published in the January 22 edition of the journal Nature that he and several colleagues had removed one of many thorns in the sides of climate alarmists — in this case, evidence that Antarctica is cooling — he received extensive worldwide attention in the mainstream press.
But when a noteworthy error was found in Stieg’s research less than two weeks after it’s publication, of the mainstream press, only an opinion column in the London Telegraph and a blog associated with the Australian Herald Sun carried the news.
The Stieg paper’s release was covered by 27 newspapers, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, by CNN, by the Associated Press, by NPR and quite a few others (see reviews of the coverage at the end of this post).
After independent analyst Steve McIntyre discovered a noteworthy error in the data, and released his results on his influential blog Climate Audit beginning on February 1, based on a Nexis search I conducted February 6, none of these outlets chose to inform their readers.
Here’s how the Stieg research showing supposed warming was received by the mainstream press:
NPR covered it twice (a January 21 package by Richard Harris and a January 23 Ira Flatow interview of Steig), with no hard questions either time (Flatow called Steig’s paper “probably historic”).
A January 22 piece in the Seattle Times by science reporter Sandi Doughton contained this little editorial:
By bringing Antarctica in from the cold, the new study could undermine the small cadre of global-warming skeptics who still argue that the planet is not getting hotter, or that humans are not to blame. Many have used the apparent cooling in Antarctica to attack global climate models and point out perceived weaknesses in the scientific consensus that emissions from automobiles and factories are beginning to change global climate.
A January 22 New York Times piece by Kenneth Chang presented the report along with quotes from scientists who thought it by and large likely accurate. One scientist was quoted saying, “But the idea of a long-term cooling is pretty clearly debunked.” No one urging caution about Stieg’s results was quoted.
CNN.com’s report began:
Antarctica is warming in line with the rest of the world, according to a new study on climate change in Antarctica.
Rather than being the last bastion to resist global warming, U.S. research has found that for the past 50 years much of the continent of Antarctica has been getting warmer.
For years common belief among scientists studying climate change was that a large part of Antarctica, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, has been getting colder while the rest of the world has warmed.
However the new research from the University of Washington has found that warming in West Antarctica exceeded one-tenth of a degree Celsius per decade for the past 50 years, which more than offsets the cooling in East Antarctica…
The CNN.com piece ended with quotes from Stieg.
The AP’s Seth Borenstein’s January 21 wire report began “Antarctica, the only place that had oddly seemed immune from climate change, is warming after all, according to a new study,” and included a quote from global warming activist scientist and study co-author Michael Mann, saying the study refuted the views of climate “contrarians.” Borenstein did, however, include two quotes from other scientists who raised questions about the study.
The Los Angeles Times’ Thomas H. Maugh II began with an editorial:
Scientists have long believed that Antarctica has been bucking the global warming trend, but that is not the case, new research shows.
East Antarctica, as assorted studies have shown, has been cooling recently, but the remainder of the continent is warming at a rate that offsets the cooling, according to satellite and ground data.
Global-warming skeptics have pointed to the presumed cooling of the continent as evidence that researchers’ computer projections of climate change are in error, but the new findings reported Thursday appear to refute their criticisms…
Maugh’s readers weren’t told that any scientists had doubts.
The San Francisco Chronicle went still further into alarmism. Science editor David Perlman told his readers flatly that “the issue [of Antarctic warming] has apparently been resolved.” The piece was headlined: “All of Antarctica Appears to Be Warming.”
The Guardian titled its piece, “Scientists Solve Enigma of Antarctic ‘Cooling,'” summarized it by claiming “Research ‘kills off’ climate skeptic argument by showing average temperature across the continent has risen over the last 50 years.” The Guardian included no alternative points of view.
Co-authors of Stieg’s paper included David Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Scott Rutherford of Roger Williams University, Michael Mann of Penn State, Josefino Comiso of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Drew Shindell of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Followers of the global warming issue will easily recognize Michael Mann as the proponent of the since-disgraced “hockey stick” global warming graph and an activist global warming activist and the Goddard Institute as run by one of the world’s most infamous global warming alarmists, James Hansen. Stieg himself is a contributor to the ardently pro-alarmist and environmentalist-supported PR blog RealClimate. Despite this, none of the mainstream press stories I reviewed mentioned the activism activities of authors.
On the other side of the question, here are samples from Andrew Booker’s op-ed column in the UK Telegraph critical of Stieg:
…So it predictably made headlines across the world last week when a new study, from a team led by Professor Eric Steig, claimed to prove that the Antarctic has been heating up after all. As on similar occasions in the past, all the usual supporters of the cause were called in to whoop up its historic importance. The paper was published in Nature and heavily promoted by the BBC. This, crowed journalists such as Newsweek’s Sharon Begley, would really be one in the eye for the “deniers” and “contrarians.”
One of the first to express astonishment [about the Stieg paper] was Dr Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a convinced believer in global warming, who wryly observed “it is hard to make data where none exists.” A disbelieving Ross Hayes, an atmospheric scientist who has often visited the Antarctic for NASA, sent Professor Steig a caustic email ending: “with statistics you can make numbers go to any conclusion you want. It saddens me to see members of the scientific community do this for media coverage.”
As Noel Sheppard reports on NewsBusters.org, 54% of American voters say the media makes global warming appear worse than it really is. Who can be surprised?
Cross-posted at Newsbusters.