Stanford Study Confirms That “Balanced” Media Stories Quoting Skeptics Mislead The Public

Mon, 2010-03-15 18:25Jim Hoggan
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Stanford Study Confirms That “Balanced” Media Stories Quoting Skeptics Mislead The Public

Skeptics Skew Public Understanding of Climate Change

Providing climate skeptics a voice in “balanced” mainstream media coverage skews public perception of the scientific consensus regarding climate change, leaving viewers less likely to understand the threat of climate disruption and less likely to support government actions to address global warming, according to the results of a Stanford University research effort

The Stanford researchers probed the impact on public understanding of climate change when media coverage features a climate skeptic alongside a climate scientist.  Media stories featuring only a mainstream climate scientist “increased the number of people who believed that global warming has been happening and that humans have caused global warming.”

However, when media stories also include a climate skeptic, ostensibly to add “balance” to the story, the result is a “significantly reduced” number of people who understand the issue and endorse government action to address the problem.

“Watching a skeptic decreased perceptions of consensus among scientific experts, and this decreased perception of consensus led respondents to be less supportive of government action in general and of cap and trade policy in particular,” the researchers found.

According to the study conducted by Stanford’s Woods Institute For The Environment:

Watching media coverage featuring a skeptic made people:

  • Less likely to believe that scientists agree that global warming has been happening (Figure 1 - pdf)
  • Less certain that global warming has been happening (Figure 2 - pdf)
  • Less likely to ascribe high personal importance to the global warming issue
  • Less likely to believe that global warming will be bad for people (Figure 3 - pdf)
  • Less likely to believe that global warming is a very serious issue
  • Less likely to support more government action to deal with global warming (Figure 4 - pdf)
  • Less likely to support a cap and trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 5 - pdf)

The researchers note that the video clips used in the study featured only one skeptic.  “Nonetheless, respondents generalized from a single skeptic to scientists more generally, perceiving less agreement in the scientific community broadly,” they found.

“Our findings suggest that balanced news coverage may have been at least partly responsible for discrepancies between the American public and the scientific community on issues of climate change,” according to the Stanford researchers.

Anyone who doubts that misinformation can trump facts and the best science available should take a hard look at this Stanford study.

Previous Comments

I’ve taken the time to read the study, and have to say it’s not that surprising. Let’s assume the assumptions of the study are correct: that the inclusion of deniers/sceptics in the public debate tends to mislead the public into thinking there is significant differences of opinion in the scientific community: i.e. that is far less “consensus” than actually exists.

Not surprisingly giving air-time to sceptics legitimises them. This is the same strategy adopted by the creationist/ID movement. It’s a strategy that appeals to most peoples intuitive sense of “balance”, something the denial movement exploits and uses as the foundation for seeding doubt. “Well, if that scientists doubts it maybe there is something in what he is saying…”.

How to respond? Calling for deniers to be banned from the debate will only serve to bolster their claims of censorship and the existence of a conspiracy to silence their “legitimate questions”.

Simply ignoring them does not work, especially as they have a disproportionate presence in some newspapers, cable television and the vast blogging/internet infrastructure that they exploit to good effect. Meeting them head on in formal debates legitimises them and impacts the pubics perception on the scientific consensus (viz Stanford study).

My question to you guys: how are we to meet this challenge? Fight fire with fire? Appeals to reason? Continued “education” of the public.

Take the evolution battle in the US: public acceptence of evolution has not budged for more than 20 years (rougly 50/50 split).

At best, is simply limiting the damage of the denial movement in policy making the most pragmatic and realistic strategy?

Mike @

My question is whats wrong with a debate? For years the media has been pushing hard on the Alarmist side of things showing clips of the (Normal spring break up of ice), Polar bears cute faces, giving much attention to people like Al Gore and gave a very unbalanced view of the science. Having skeptics in the media is great because it presents a side the media in general has not always presented. I think its great that you have both sides of this issue on presenting both sides of the issue.

The point I think that needs to be made is that debate allows both sides to present points of view and evidence and since science is about accountability and about skepticism then why should this study be alarming?

Debate is healthy and if those on either side believe they truly have a case and the evidence to support their views then there is nothing to fear.

The truth always prevails through struggle and science is always changing as we learn more and lets face it this issue came out of the gate claiming scientific consensus (which is unhealthy in science) the media ate up the scary stories of rising seas, droughts, melting sea ice and glaciers to wake up to scandal, the IPCC the authority and voice of this side has been found to not be certain and so that’s good more work to do. The scientists (Skeptics were correct about some of the uncertainty of the science which means a debate still exists.

If those on the other side of the issue are winning more of the public’s confidence then other then conspiracy theories maybe the questions about their message needs to be examined. Maybe they have some good counter points.

Another words stop attacking the messenger (Which proves you have no point) and start looking over their message the presented evidence.


This is a guest post by Minda Berbeco cross-posted with permission from Live Science. Minda Berbeco is programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education and visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology. She contributed this article to Live Science's ...

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