Shocker: Fox News Is Usually Wrong About Climate Change

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April 8 2014 7:45 AM

“Our National Debate About Climate Policy Is Broken”

Fox News
What the Fox says: Usually wrong stuff about global warming.

Image by the Union of Concerned Scientists

A new study just released by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that of the three major cable news networks, in 2013 Fox News far and away was the worst at covering news about climate change: More than 70 percent of their coverage contained misleading statements about it.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

Shocking, I know.

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Comparatively, CNN’s coverage was misleading 30 percent of the time while MSNBC was the most accurate with “only” 8 percent of its coverage being misleading.

This is not a surprise at all, of course; Fox News has long been known to distort reality when it comes to anything they feel threatens their ideology. What is surprising is that in 2013 their coverage of climate change was actually better than it was in 2012, when a jaw-dropping 93 percent of their statements about it were misleading.

If we were to grade them, in 2012 they’d have gotten an “A” in being unfair and unbalanced.

Diving into this a bit is interesting. The biggest contribution to CNN’s bad showing was due to false balance, having deniers on panels along with real scientists. For the most part with Fox the problem is with the hosts themselves, though they tend to have deniers on as guests quite a bit.

MSNBC was generally graded down by UCS because of a few mild overstatements linking some specific extreme weather events and climate change; in other words for going the other way than the other networks. They said that that climate change makes hurricanes and tornadoes more frequent, and tornadoes more intense. To my knowledge there is no well-established link for that (though climate change is indeed making the most intense hurricanes even stronger). So that’s a fair enough call by the UCS, but it’s chump change compared to the blatant denial so often seen on Fox. There are degrees of wrongness, and Fox wins here.

Worse, Fox viewers greatly outnumber those of CNN and MSNBC (1.76 million, 568,000, and 640,000 respectively), which means that even though MSNBC did a much better job, and covered climate change far more often, Fox’s distortions probably had a wider reach.

Obamacare graph
To avoid hugely misleading graphs, it's best to have a y-axis that starts at 0. Then you'd see that the left hand plot is actually 6/7ths as high as the one on the right, not 1/3.

Photo from Media Matters for America

Fox’s ideological bias is so well-known it’s like the air around us; taken for granted. At least, it is to those of us who know better. Polls show that Fox viewers tend to be misinformed on a broad range of topics (though it’s not known whether less-informed viewers watch Fox News, or whether Fox News makes them less well-informed). This is no surprise; for example just last week Fox News was reporting on the Affordable Care Act, and used a seriously misleading graph. It was so stupendously bad that it even got lampooned by Saturday Night Live:

I think that graph is the best part of the segment, even more than the bit dealing with climate change, which also has some fun with my pal Neil Tyson as well. I’ll note a Fox News host later admitted the graph was misleading, but by then the damage was done.

And while that SNL segment was funny, the topic itself is not. Many of the effects of climate change are already and unequivocally being felt now, today. The latest IPCC report was dire, saying we need to take action right now to prevent the worst effects of climate change over the next few decades … and in some cases, no matter what we do, some of those effects are coming anyway.

Yet Fox News seems hellbent on making sure the public is less informed than ever about one of if not the most important issue of our time.

If you won’t even acknowledge the problem, how on Earth can you ever hope to fix it?