On Monday night, CNN President Jeff Zucker made waves when he declared that there has been a “tremendous amount of lack of interest” in the network’s climate change stories, implying that his audience was becoming bored by the topic.
“We haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way,” Zucker told New York Times television reporter Bill Carter.
The statement drew a smug response from some in the conservative blogosphere who essentially declared that audiences were tired of CNN’s “blatantly liberal agenda” on climate change. But nothing could be further than the truth.
CNN’s climate change stories may be failing to elicit a strong reaction from viewers because the network often uses a debate format that grossly distorts the issue to the point where viewers are left more confused, uninformed, and apathetic than they were before they started watching.
“The problem with television journalism in general, maybe CNN in particular, is that they rely so heavily on talking heads to fill airtime,” said Dr. Stephen Reese, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “But [climate change] doesn’t lend itself to exciting back and forth punditry and debate.”
CNN’s favored approach to discussing climate change involves putting one person who is seemingly well-versed on climate science next to a person who denies climate science. This makes the network look like it’s being balanced. But because 95 to 97 percent of climate scientists agree that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are causing the planet to warm, that balance is false, giving disproportionate time to a viewpoint that is widely rejected in the scientific community. In 2013, CNN misled in 30 percent of its coverage on climate science — mostly from airing false balance debates, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The obvious effect of this is that viewers are being misled about the reality of climate change and the urgency that comes with it. But the other effect is that viewers wind up not caring about climate change altogether. Hence CNN’s disinterestedness problem.
“In the case of people who watch cable news, we’ve been so conditioned to favor a sense of certainty,” Dr. Stephen Reese, author of a 2008 white paper on how people make judgments about journalistic balance, told ThinkProgress. “We want to have our beliefs upheld. So when you introduce [climate change] as a political issue up for debate, it’s just, ‘well okay, there they go again,’ — just dismiss it as hopelessly polarized.”
Because CNN introduces so much false balance into its climate change stories, its audience then thinks those stories are less pressing than they actually are — a factor which contributes to uncertainty surrounding the issue and, ultimately, apathy. A 2009 study from the American Psychological Association confirmed this, noting that “perceived or real uncertainty” on climate change can lead to both “systematic underestimation of risk” and “sufficient reason to act in self interest over that of the environment.”
Put another way, CNN’s viewers don’t care about its climate change stories in part because they are uncertain about whether climate change is a big deal. And the reason why they are uncertain as to whether climate change is a big deal is because CNN continues to present climate change as something that is still up for debate. For its disinterestedness problem, the network has no one to blame but itself.
One of the reasons CNN has favored the false balance model is because it’s easier to present climate change as a political issue rather than a scientific one, Reese said. Television news inherently favors more sharply drawn views and simplistic back-and-forth arguments, which don’t translate well for a scientific discussion on sea level rise, for instance.
Unfortunately, CNN’s decision to frame climate change as a political issue has been detrimental to the network and frustrating to its viewers.
“Conservatives have successfully politicized the climate change issue, and CNN has played into their hands by framing it as political and not scientific,” Reese said. “When people see [climate change] presented as a political story, then they receive it in their traditional political filter, and are likely to dismiss it if they don’t agree with the sides.”
Of course, falsely “balanced” climate debate like this is not just rampant on CNN — rather, it’s a widespread phenomenon that has quietly shown its face across network news for years (Comedian John Oliver recently took on the false balance issue on “Last Week Tonight”).
According to a 2013 report from Media Matters, CBS News gave climate deniers more than six times their representation in the scientific community when covering the U.N.’s landmark climate change report that year, and half of print outlets used false balance to debate the existence of global warming.
To be fair, CNN has recently made an effort to step up its game on climate. When the major new National Climate Assessment was released this month, CNN provided the most coverage out of any cable news network other than Al Jazeera America, according to a ThinkProgress analysis. But false balance on that report was still rampant on the network’s “Crossfire” program, so much that Media Matters designated CNN a “national platform for false balance” on climate change.
So as CNN continues to paint climate change as an issue that’s still up for debate, it’s not exactly surprising when Americans across the country continue to express low levels of concern about the issue. What is surprising is the network’s inability to figure out why.