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Fox News leads cable networks in climate change misinformation - report

Published time: April 09, 2014 23:13
Fox News headquarters in New York (AFP Photo)

Fox News headquarters in New York (AFP Photo)

A new analysis of the three major American news networks has determined that, among other findings, the way the conservative-leaning Fox News portrays climate change is far out of step with just how dire the situation truly is.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit organization made up of professional scientists and private citizens advocating scientific thought, analyzed global warming coverage broadcast on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – the three most widely cable news networks in the US. All combined, the networks attract millions of eyeballs each night and have become one of the most common ways US viewers get their news, particularly with regards to global warming.

Researchers observed almost 600 segments across the three outlets where “global warming” or “climate change” was mentioned. Any inaccurate aspects of the coverage were deemed misleading, with Fox News leading that category by leaps and bounds.

Fox News covered climate science 50 times in 2013. Of these segments, 28 percent were entirely accurate, while 72 percent included misleading portrayals of the science,” the UCS team wrote.

More than half of Fox’s misleading coverage (53%) was from one program, The Five, where the hosts often instigated misleading debates about established climate science. In general, Fox hosts and guests were more likely than those of other networks to disparage the study of climate science and criticize scientists.”

Through 2013 Fox News averaged 1.1 million viewers during prime time and a total of 1.76 million viewers each day, a slight decline from the year before but still far more than the hundreds of thousands of viewers who tune into CNN and MSNBC.

One of the most popular shows on the network is “The O’Reilly Factor,” a program that regularly attracts triple the audience of its competition versus its two network competitors, but is often criticized for host Bill O’Reilly’s staunch right-wing stance. That assumption was debunked by the UCS study, with the scientists finding O’Reilly to be the most accurate of all Fox News hosts on climate change, although his show did include misleading guests and statements, as well.

Coverage on “The Five” was so egregious in part because of co-host Greg Gutfeld’s assertion that there had been a “pause in global warming for over 15 years now.” Climate studies have indicated that global warming has temporarily slowed since 1998, but the UCS criticized Fox News for having “omitted references to long-term trends in rising temperatures and [failing to] discuss other markets of climate change, such as rising seas of melting glaciers (NASA 2013; Nuccitelli 2013).”

The most common types of misleading statements broadcast on Fox News, in order of total segments, were: understanding the reality or effects of climate change, misleading debate, disparaging climate science, and overstating the effects of climate change.

How likely Fox hosts are to change their stance remains to be seen but, if a snippet from Greg Gutfeld’s book is any indication, the UCS should expect to be disappointed. In that 2012 book, titled “The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage,” Gutfeld quotes a US News and World Report story that criticizes Fox’s treatment of the environmental crisis.

Although Fox discussed climate change most often, the tone of its coverage was disproportionately dismissive,” said a study mentioned in the US News report. “Fox broadcasts were more likely to include statements that challenged the scientific agreement on climate change, undermine the reality of climate change, and questioned its human causes.”

Gutfeld’s response, as quoted by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, dismissed the criticism.

Yikes! Fox challenged, undermined and questioned! To the gallows! That quote, right there, shows you that tolerance is not deemed necessary if you reformat the game board so anyone who questions the basic assumptions is qualified from playing.”

CNN fared better in the UCS study, producing 43 climate change reports in 2013, 70 percent of which were entirely accurate and 30 percent misleading. The scientists recommended that the network stop featuring guests who debate the merits of climate science and instead feature discussions on how Americans can change their behavior.

Most of CNN’s misleading coverage stemmed from debates between guests who accepted established climate science and other guests who disputed it,” they wrote. “This format suggests that established climate science is still widely debated among scientists, which it is not, and also allows opponents of climate policy to convey inaccurate statements about climate science.”

The network viewers could trust the most on climate change was MSNBC, even if the left-leaning network sometimes went overboard in trying to state its case. The network covered global warming in some form 132 times in 2013 and was accurate 92 percent of the time, with the 8 percent of misleading statements attributable to overstating “the effects of climate change, particularly the link between climate change and specific types of weather, such as tornadoes.”

Last year was alarming for the UCS not only because of the Fox misinformation machine, but also because comparatively few Americans are tuning in to watch that climate change news. A recent Pew Research report published data from the Nielsen ratings indicating that MSNBC’s audience dropped by 24 percent. The sinking numbers were made worse by Fox’s success: MSNBC was expected to bring in $475 million in revenue, barely one-quarter of what its rival will earn.