None of the three major cable news networks have a perfect record on portraying climate science, but Fox News was the most inaccurate of all in 2013, according to a new report.
The report, released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked at segments on the cable networks’ prominent evening and weekend programs that mentioned “global warming” or “climate change” in 2013. Researchers found that segments on MSNBC were the most accurate, with just 8 percent of the segments containing misleading statements about the science behind climate change. CNN was next in terms of accuracy, with 30 percent of segments containing misleading statements, and Fox was last, with 72 percent of segments containing misinformation or misrepresentations of climate science.
The nature of the misleading statements differed from station to station, with CNN’s inaccuracy growing from debate guests who doubted certain aspects of climate science, such as the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. Fox hosts and guests, on the other hand, would more often accuse climate scientists of hiding or misrepresenting data, and were also more likely to state outright that climate change was not occurring. Accurate coverage of climate science on Fox came primarily from Special Report with Bret Baier and The O’Reilly Factor, and despite being the least-accurate of the three networks according to the report, Fox’s 28 percent accuracy rating is an increase from a 2012 UCS report, which found that Fox was accurate just 7 percent of the time.
MSNBC contained misleading coverage from the opposite side of the spectrum, with hosts sometimes overstating how fast sea levels are rising or making links between things that aren’t yet scientifically known, such as climate change’s effects on tornadoes.
Aaron Huertas, science communications officer at UCS, told ThinkProgress that the differences in accuracy among the networks were largely a result of sourcing. When CNN did have accurate coverage, they relied on federal and academic scientists, with their misleading coverage coming mostly from debates that featured ideological guests.
“For CNN, I was surprised to see so many segments in which people were still arguing about whether or not climate science is valid,” Huertas said in an email. “The basic science on climate change is as clear as the science linking smoking to lung disease; there’s no reason to have debates about whether or not that science is valid, even if there are still some people who reject the science for ideological reasons.”
The report focused on accuracy of coverage, but it also uncovered another discrepancy among the cable networks: MSNBC covered climate change more often than CNN or Fox did. The report noted 132 MSNBC evening and weekend segments that mentioned climate science in 2013, while Fox had 50 segments mentioning climate science and CNN had 43. Huertas said that Chris Hayes’s two shows on MSNBC had nearly as many segments that discussed climate science as all the CNN shows looked at by the report. But Huertas said ultimately he was more interested in whether the networks got climate science right when they did mention it than how much they covered it in total. When a network covers climate science but does so inaccurately, it can be just as unhelpful as not covering it at all — a point illustrated by the news of last week’s IPCC report, which Fox covered for more than 5 minutes (compared to CNN’s one minute, eight seconds) but which it called a waste of time.
“We can disagree — heartily — on how to respond to the facts, but reality is reality,” Huertas said. “CNN could host more debates about policy and drop debates on established science. Fox News could do more to differentiate between political opposition to climate policy and rejection of climate science. MSNBC has proven it can cover nuanced science accurately, so it could do more to curtail the occasional segments in which hosts or guests overstate the effects of climate change.”
CNN, MSNBC and Fox News did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment in time for publication.