Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”

Freudenburg: “Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss ‘both sides’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.”

Mass media have been a key vehicle by which climate change contrarianism has traveled, according to Maxwell Boykoff, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor and fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES.

Boykoff, an assistant professor of environmental studies, presented his research today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego. He spoke during a panel discussion titled “Understanding Climate Change Skepticism: Its Sources and Strategies.”

That’s from the UC press release on the panel.  If you want to see his PPTs, click here.

UPDATE:  Robert Brulle comments that I missed the summary of Prof. William Freudenburg’s presentation.  I add it at the bottom.  Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the figure above — click on it for a clean image.

Max and Jules Boykoff wrote a well-known 2004 media analysis, Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. The paper, which did “content analysis of US prestige press” [the NYT, Washpost, LA Times, and WSJ],” found

In the end, adherence to the norm of balanced reporting leads to informationally biased coverage of global warming. This bias, hidden behind a veil of journalistic balance, creates . . . real political space for the U.S. government to shirk responsibility and delay action regarding global warming.

Things aren’t much better now:

Boykoff’s talk was titled “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change.”  It discussed “prominent pitfalls”:

“One problem occurs when outlier viewpoints are not individually evaluated in context,” said Boykoff. “A variety of influences and perspectives typically have been collapsed by mass media into one general category of skepticism. This has been detrimental both in terms of dismissing legitimate critiques of climate science or policy, as well as amplifying extreme and tenuous claims.”

Such claims are amplified when traditional news media position noncredible contrarian sources against those with scientific data, in a failed effort to represent opposing sides, said Boykoff.

Sounds familiar:  N.Y. Times and Elisabeth Rosenthal Face Credibility Siege over Unbalanced Climate Coverage

Another issue in mass media is the tendency to flatly report on both the claims of contrarians, as well as the accusations made about their claims and motives, he said. The ensuing finger-pointing plays into the conflict, drama and personalized stories that drive news. It also distracts attention from critical institutional and societal challenges regarding carbon consumption that calls citizen behaviors, actions and decisions to account.

And that also sounds familiar, too:  Newsweek staff who play fast and loose with the facts are imperiling not just their profession but the planet.

“Reducing climate science and policy considerations to a tit-for-tat between dueling personalities comes at the expense of appraising fundamental challenges regarding the necessary de-carbonization of industry and society,” said Boykoff.

Among various and ongoing research strategies, Boykoff — in partnership with Maria Mansfield from Exeter University and the University of Oxford — has tracked climate change coverage in 50 newspapers in 20 countries and six continents since 2004. Boykoff also has looked at how climate science and policy find meaning and traction in people’s everyday lives through work in the United States, United Kingdom and India….

For more information on Boykoff’s research visit

For much more, check out Climate Progress’s entire media category.

UPDATE:  Here is a summary of the AAAS presentation by William R. Freudenburg, UC Santa Barbara:

Mass media continue to suggest that the science of global climate disruption may be in dispute, with actual conditions not being as bad as portrayed in scientific consensus estimates such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By contrast, work on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge” (ASC) suggests that such consensus statements are likely to understate the significance of the problems that need to be faced. This paper tests the difference in expectations, making use of the fact news media usually report findings from new studies in more focused and less politicized ways than they report on the overall debates — and that results from new studies are often reported as indicating that a problem is either less severe or more severe than previously expected. In the interest of conservatism, data are drawn from four newspapers that have already been shown to overstate the degree of “disagreement,” underrepresenting the scientific consensus, in their reports on overall global climate disruption. The paper also considers two time periods “” one during with the time when the papers were found to be overstating the supposed “disagreement,” and the other being 2008, after the IPCC and former Vice-President Gore shared the Nobel Prize for their work on climate disruption

The results show comparably strong support for the ASC perspective during both time periods. New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected,” strongly supporting the ASC perspective rather than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media.
The findings add further support to the growing realization that media coverage of supposed debates has been strongly skewed by a tactic so widespread that it has its own name — “Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMS. Partly because most citizens expect science to produce black-and-white certainty, rather than cumulative or “normal” improvements in understanding, well-funded special interest groups can exploit mass-media desire for controversy in stories, creating a false impression that “scientists” are still debating consensus findings. Similar SCAMs were used in fights against the regulation of cigarette smoking, asbestos, agricultural chemicals, and even the use of lead in gasoline.

There are lessons both for scientists and for the mass media. Scientists need to be more openly skeptical toward supposed “good news” on global warming. Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss “both sides” of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.


How much worse could it be?

Try this (see An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water):

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land “” some 10°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Dust Bowls over the U.S. SW and many other heavily populated regions around the globe
  • Massive species loss on land and sea “” 50% or more of all life
  • Unexpected impacts “” the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • In fact, that’s what I’d call the planning case for for 2100 if we stay near our current emissions path.

    Here’s the plausible worse case — maybe a 10% chance if we stay on our current high emissions path: UK Met Office:  Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”

    22 Responses to Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”

    1. Robert Brulle says:

      You missed this gem in the summary of Bill Freudenberg’s presentation:

      Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss “both sides” of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.

      Bob Brulle

    2. MarkB says:

      Michael Tobis has this rough drawing showing the media in relation to the science…

    3. Jeff Huggins says:

      I applaud the work mentioned above, but …

      It strikes me as amazing that media owners, senior editors, reporters (presumably communications specialists), journalism schools, and so forth apparently don’t “get it” or at least haven’t gotten it, all this time.

      Communication (I thought) is mainly measured by what the audience understands, not by what words are written on the page, what colors are used, and so forth.

      And, the public good is mainly and ultimately measured by public health, happiness, sustainability, helpful understanding, wisdom, justice, and all those other good things; NOT by merely writing “he said she said” words on a page, without regard to what is really happening.

      I would have thought that the journalism profession, and at least a large majority of journalists, senior editors, and media owners, would have understood all this by now.

      OK now, where are the journalism schools and the main organizations that are supposed to be pushing, and helping, the media to do their job for society?

      Also for the record — once again — I wrote and sent an assessment and ideas, from my perspective, to Andy Revkin, Curtis Brainard, and (for his info) to Joe late last year. I hope that Andy and Curtis have read it or plan to do so.

      It’s great that folks like Boykoff and etc. are speaking out. But, the rest of us have to get active, too. If history is any indication, even excellent papers about the need for improvement in the media have had little influence and impact in the past, because it’s too easy (absent other factors) for the media to just ignore things and continue with the status quo, making excuses (with ever more creativity) as they do so.



    4. RE:Freudenberg – not all journalists are missing in action on this. IPS is a global wire service w 200+ million readers but hardly any US or UK papers subscribe

      Four Degrees of Devastation
      By Stephen Leahy

      UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 9, 2009 (IPS) – The prospect of a four-degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures in 50 years is alarming – but not alarmist, climate scientists now believe.

      Eighteen months ago, no one dared imagine humanity pushing the climate beyond an additional two degrees C of heating, but rising carbon emissions and inability to agree on cuts has meant science must now consider the previously unthinkable.

      “Two degrees C is already gone as a target,” said Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme.

    5. mike roddy says:

      Boykoff nailed it, Brulle is correct, and Ken Levenson said it best here and in RC in his memo to Revkin blog comment.

      Joe and Jeff, what is the line of communication between Boykoff’s excellent report and the media? Is there any kind of organization that is responsible for checking the professional standards of reporters who cover science issues?

      SEJ has been intimidated, since so many of them have been fired, so maybe a new and independent media review board should be established. Without this, it’s just more cowboy stuff, including from putatively serious commenters like George Will and Lou Dobbs.

    6. Doug Bostrom says:

      Successful science journalism should have the same overall effect as adult continuing education.

      If I were to attend a survey lecture series on astronomy, I’d certainly welcome historical information about previous incorrect understandings of stars. I’d also expect the lecturer to lead me to a conclusion about where the best understanding of the nature of stars now lies. I would not expect the instructor to tell me everything that everybody has ever thought about stars and then leave me to tease out my own conclusions.

    7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

      You still not get how bad it will be and quickly some things will happen.
      Frightening paleo reconstructions, have been averaged. This smoothing hides quick changes. The 4 meter per century rises in sea level did not happen in a nice orderly fashion.

      Scientists studying the decline in Arctic sea ice quote trend lines. But the falls in sea ice are quite chaotic. Same with temperature rises to date, 1998 was massive. That sort of massive increase in a single year will be repeated.

      Rapid change will also happen in the other direction. Even though the cold will not be as intense, lack of warning will catch people by surprise. If yesterday was minus eight, minus ten is not a problem. If yesterday was plus forty, minus five is deadly.

      OK slight exaggeration, but not much of one, that sort of fall would take a couple of days. You wont see a meter of sea level rise overnight, but you may see see it over a few months.

      Please look at a few paleo reconstructions, they all use some sort of smoothing technique. Trends, averages are important, necessary even, but do hide the chaotic nature of what we face.

    8. Cugel says:

      “Partly because most citizens expect science to produce black-and-white certainty …”

      Many people expect from scientists what they’d expect from a priest (or would have in the past). Ask a question, get a definitive answer, no thought required. They miss the fundamental difference between science and religion.

    9. Aaron Lewis says:

      Re 7 Rabid Doomsayer,
      The problem with looking at paleo reconstructions is that most of the paleo events were forced by very gentile orbital changes. We face much more abrupt forcings. We must take the current and projected future levels of forcing into account as we interpret the paleo events

      Satellite telemetry has apparently mistaken rotten sea ice for solid multiyear ice. Likely, there are similar misinterpretations of areas of the large ice shelves and ice sheets. I expect that in the near future we will find that parts of the ice sheets are not as structurally stable as they have been.

      And we need to think about carbon feedbacks such as clathrates and tundra methane; and not just human emissions.

      And, your example was no exaggeration. If an area is only accustomed to rain, then the same amount of moisture as snow is a disaster. The difference in temperature between rain and snow is tiny. If an area that had snow in the past does not have snow for a few years, they the people get rid of their snow tires and forget how to drive in the snow. If you count in traffic accidents, a fraction a degree of cooling can cause a lot of damage.

    10. James Newberry says:

      In this country, like many, the policy of cheap fuel economics is a religion. A religion based on utility, not science. Science is about nature, utility is about mankind and its wars, and militarism is fueled by the carbon bonds of hydrocarbons and the power of atomic fission.

      Welcome to the military/media complex. This wire tap, from the profiteering national insecurity state, is for you.

    11. John Mashey says:

      Although Myanna Lahsen unfortunately could not attend, the panel was great, with a packed standing-room-only on the tail-end-Monday of AAAS. With questions, it ran at least half an hour over and could have gone longer.

    12. Leif says:

      As soon as I read this I sent a letter and link to the NY Times. Just in case they were remiss in monitoring this site today.

      Two palms up for all you do Dr. JR and helpers,


    13. Robert Nagle says:

      This is similar to Jay Rosen’s discussion of audience atomization in the media market (see the graph). Scientists belong to the “sphere of deviance” and therefore should be treated at arm’s length by Big Media.

    14. The elephant in the press room…

      Please tell me if I missed it in the text or in the comments… Does anybody know that media professionals are paid by advertisement, most of the time representing more than 50% of the revenues, more often than not 100%? This is not an accusation, this is a fact. So “Newsweek”, or the Post, etc., are nice façades, with a nice logo, but the money that pays the bills is ADVERTISEMENT.

      At the end of the month, journos receive their pay officially from Newsweek, for example. But “Newsweek” is just a conduit, which channels corporations’ ads money to journalists’ bank accounts. Once again: no accusation here, facts.

      Now, taking into account that the vast majority of ads concern CO2-spewing machines -cars, planes, gadgets…-, the conclusion is pretty mathematical: someone who’s paid by GM -through some kind of conduit- is unlikely to clearly state that science is telling us our parents’ way of life with cars is over.

      To look for other explanations is missing the elephant in the press room. Journalists are not dumb, as suggested above, trying to balance things when they shouldn’t do it, etc. They’re paid by the very entities whose business model cannot be allowed if current scientific knowledge is taken seriously. Wake up: look for the money…

    15. A Siegel says:

      Thank you for calling this to attention.

      This is an excellent point / description, in yet another way, of the ‘faux and balanced’ nature of media reporting.

      The Washington Post editorial page ‘wonders why’ people are confused ( when they publish George Will / Bjorn Lomborg / Sarah Palin / et al in the OPED, have front page articles re ‘climate gate’, and ‘balance’ with the occasional Bill McKibben OPED or editorial. Well, they certainly aren’t balancing with any discussion of just how serious it could get.

      It is an important point, which that graphic makes well, that the IPCC is actually a bunch of optimists (rather than crazed alarmists like the deniers have so successfully work to get too many to think).

    16. The Boykoff brothers have been doing excellent work on this topic for many years. Their 2004 study that is mentioned above sampled stories from 1988-2002. I wrote an honors thesis extending their study through 2008. The results are longer than should be posted in a comments section, but they are summarized here ( and I would be happy to share the entire paper with anyone who is interested or might find it helpful.

      Thanks for again drawing attention to this, Joe.

    17. Jeff Huggins says:

      I agree, to a large degree, with Pierre-Emmanuel’s Comment 14. And that point presents a tough — indeed, very tough — problem.

      But, or yet, that’s why our own actions, purchase decisions, boycotts, and so forth are (or should be) so essential. Thinking that we can NOT boycott ExxonMobil, and that we can all keep watching NewsCorp entertainment products, and that we can continue buying Koch products (most people don’t even know what Koch products they do buy), and that we can change the behaviors of key companies and the media and politicians just through “reasoning” with them, is actually pretty silly, if you think about what history teaches and what has been going on in recent years.

      The question remains this: How do we have a sizable ECONOMIC impact on the central companies who are fueling the disinformation, contributing to politicians to NOT address the climate change problem, and so forth. Until we can have a sizable ECONOMIC impact on them, I’m afraid that fact-based reasoning is not going to get very far, in terms of actually moving us (society) onto a more healthy path.

      Joe, what can CAP/CP do to perhaps host an excellent list of the central companies that are fueling the problem? As I’ve mentioned, I’d be happy to help identify the main “problematic” companies and their brands. That’s easy. But, the list would need to be hosted somewhere.

      In my view, any “thinking” or “approach” to addressing climate change that ignores that part of the problem, and that doesn’t address it, is ignoring the biggest part of the present problem. It’s as simple as that. We can wake up to that fact, or not. Up to us.



    18. Alex Smith says:

      I interview climate scientists, geologists, biologists, etc., regularly for my weekly show, Radio Ecoshock.

      Most are plainly worried about catastrophe. Some say it carefully, others come right out warning we are playing with mass extinction.

      I’ve covered a few, such as Andrew Glikson from Australia, and Jeremy Jackson from Scripps Institution, in this week’s program titled “On the Road to Extinction”

      The one hour program (14 megabytes) is here:

      That also includes a new interview with Yale’s Mark Pagani, whose December 2009 paper should frighten us all. He found that around 5 million years ago, the Earth was about 4 degrees hotter, with CO2 levels near what we have today (between 365 to 425 ppm). Pagani says in addition to the “fast drivers” the IPCC studies, there are also “slow drivers” which GUARANTEE we will warm around 4 degrees over pre-industrial, even if we did not emit another ounce of CO2 now.

      His only suggestion was to start removing CO2 pronto. Find an abstract of Pagani et al’s paper here:

      Title: “High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations”

      Joe, you must cover this.

      Alex Smith
      Radio Ecoshock

    19. Climate change projections are part of the unfolding scientific story, and, as such, quite solid. The problem for the press and the readers is that there are competing narratives that also demand attention. US financial collapse, inability to recover jobs, nuclear Pakistan/India/Israel/Iran, food price issues, disease vectors. These narratives suggest that things of major consequence will happen before major climate consequences and hence we might never get to the plausible narratives suggested by science.

      The problem in much social science is that it focuses on some domain of thought and does not inquire about the full recreational landscape. Concern about climate change will of course go down if other problems (loss of jobs for example, and the impossibility of recovery) increase in importance).

      There are also many unknowns about the future that, as they are discovered, will shift the overall picture, including about climate. While i am in complete agreement with the thrust of the presentation, I also want to encourage, for the sake of science, really vigorous discussion that will surface more of the unknowns.

      We also need to think about the way climate issues reveal the incapacity of governance to cope. This leads to a hornet’s nest of other compelling issues about governance, and those who don’t want to go there will resist climate conclusions or even the validity of debating it, just as some business interests don’t want us to go there, not because it is incorrect, but because it threaten their cash flow stability.

      Indeed, climate realities, as financial realities, suggest the end of a regime, and the result is, as governments can’t cope there are more likely to be scattered attempts to cope rather than coherent ones.

      Given this, there is no good solution as to how to cover climate issues (except not to lie or fail to report)since just reporting climate in isolation is also a distortion.

    20. Rick Covert says:

      Joe, thanks for calling it what it is, Global climate disruption. The only thing I would add to that is the word Severe in front of Global.

    21. Peter Houlihan says:

      Revkin watch: A few days ago I found that Revkin “Highlighted” the following comment on his DotEarth blog:

      HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
      Mountain View, CA
      February 25th, 2010
      7:15 am
      In the year 2000, Climate scientists at East Anglia announced that children in the UK will grow up not knowing what snow is.

      Well they have plenty of snow. The greater danger is that they will grow up not knowing what science is, given the constant bombardment of nonsense from climate scientists.”

      I submitted this comment that seems to have been rejected:

      February 26th, 2010
      6:19 pm
      #23 You forgot to mention that he also said “Heavy snow will return occasionally, says Dr Viner, but when it does we will be unprepared. ”

      Andy Revkin, why do you promote a comment that makes this statement?:

      “The greater danger is that they will grow up not knowing what science is, given the constant bombardment of nonsense from climate scientists.”

      And what of all the peer-reviewed science published each month? Is that also part of the “constant bombardment of nonsense”?

      Do you support such a broad brush accusation against climate scientists as a group? If not, why did you promote a comment by someone that makes such an absurdly overreaching statement?

      Such a comment just adds to the vilification of an entire class of scientists.

      I have admired your writings for many years. But, I have lost that admiration over the last year. I used to recommend you to my students as a reasonable source of information on climate science. I can no longer can do that.”

      Doesn’t he get that by “highlighting” such a ridiculous quote just gives it an imprimatur of legitimacy?

    22. Leif says:

      Doug C, #19: I agree with all you said but would like to add a point if I may. In my opinion, the more one evaluates all the problems, green energy and sustainability throughout society appear to be the only rational solution. One of the first things the nation must do is quit hemorrhaging money. Biggest chunk out? Oil imports deficit. Solution. Sustainable energy at home. Next biggest? Defense. Solution. Green energy, sustainability. Promoting healthy life support systems and equality in living conditions, around the world. Less hostilities! Transformation of “Defense” from killing machine to humanitarian machine. Hell, I would even let my grand son enlist or even be drafted in the latter.
      Unemployed and under-employed. Solution. Green energy and sustainability. Jobs right here producing green energy, milking a cash cow right here and spending right here. The list goes on. Try it yourself. The more we do the better our chance of success. Society needs to look at the problems as if our lives depended on it.

      The fact is, they do.