MEDIA:

How a study of biased reporting on climate change morphed into a tale of biased science

Early last month, Hong Fuhai, an economics professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, received an unexpected question: Was it true that he and his colleagues said it is OK to lie about climate change?

"A reader of the Townhall article, whom we hadn't known, emailed us for clarification, as he didn't believe what Townhall reported," recalled Hong, who was then startled to discover that his study on media bias and climate agreements had led the news on the conservative Arlington, Va.-based website Townhall.com under this headline, "Academics 'Prove' It's Okay To Lie About Climate Change."

More surprises were coming. A few days later, Canada Free Press published an article linking Hong's study to the Enron scandal, one of the biggest accounting failures in American history. After Hong's paper was officially published in April, conservative headline writers grew still more creative: "Hong Kong economists say it's not a good idea to lie about global warming ... it's a GREAT idea."

In response, Hong and Zhao Xiaojian, the study co-author as well as an economics professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, issued a statement online this month saying that their study explains why certain media have incentives to exaggerate scientific findings of climate damages. But, they insisted, it does not mean "justifying lying about climate change."

The two economists' study and what happened to it showcases a challenge faced by many climate researchers: Their scholarly findings stand a chance of being misinterpreted by media in order to push climate action or to deny global warming, depending on who is doing the reporting.

The two Chinese economists started out by recognizing that former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's climate documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," had some scientific errors. They also found that some academics had already identified that climate change reporting is often characterized by language that tends toward exaggeration. The two economists wondered why some media did that and how the result might influence nations' negotiating on international environmental agreements.

An inconvenient bias?

As economists often do, they set up an economic model that assumed an international mass media with good access to information, many homogeneous countries and an international environmental agreement. Then they posited the "free rider problem," an axiom that says one nation could benefit from global efforts of reducing greenhouse gas emissions even if the country itself does not pay for the costs of that benefit. In theory, though, that would prevent other countries from signing international climate agreements.

But then the researchers reasoned that exaggerating climate damages might have some short-term benefit because the media accounts might shock some countries to become more involved in the negotiations.

The researchers went on to conclude, though, that as countries' representatives read more news accounts about climate change, they might be less inclined to trust the media altogether, even though some news outlets reflected the real situation. So they decided the impact of media exaggeration on affecting the participation level in international climate agreements could be beneficial or not, depending on how negotiators viewed media credibility.

Those findings, which the authors felt might be the first economic theory on the media and climate, were published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. However, the researchers soon found out that their study -- focused on somewhat exaggerated accounts by media reporters that accepted climate change -- soon fell victim to more heavy-handed bias in descriptions of it by outlets that didn't accept climate science.

"While our analysis investigates the media tendency of accentuating or even exaggerating findings of climate damage, the articles misinterpreted our results, accentuated and exaggerated one side of our research and completely omitted the other side," complained Hong and Zhao in an email interview with ClimateWire.

Townhall.com did not respond to a request for comment.

The economists found several media outlets reported on their findings without bothering to read the full paper, making mistakes on the definition of terms used in the study. They also complained that none of the media that attacked their study mentioned core economic research issues like the free rider problem in signing international climate agreements. Instead of discussing media bias, "[the media] focused on attacking scientific research on climate change, as if this was the topic of our paper," the authors said.

"One of us presented this paper in an international academic conference two years ago," the researchers told ClimateWire. "The audience found the paper interesting. They raised comments and asked technical questions, but none of them interpreted the paper in a way similar to the media coverage such as the Townhall article. We are really shocked by the current biased media coverage," the researchers said.

Misinformation overload?

To be sure, this study isn't the first -- and probably won't be the last -- to be misinterpreted by media. While some media may not be influenced by politics, an editorial published in 2010 by The Economist shed some light on how the nature of news writing also plays a role in unbalanced climate science reporting.

"The media like big numbers," the article notes. "Reporters will naturally take a 3,000-page report like that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and skim through it, looking for affected populations over 1 billion, percentages over 50%, and catastrophes occurring within the next 30 years." The result, according to The Economist, is that the picture the media describe will exaggerate the results of the scientific research.

"In some cases, scientists who work on climate change issues, and those who put together the IPCC report, must be truly exasperated to have watched the media first exaggerate aspects of their report, and then accuse the IPCC of responsibility for the media's exaggerations," the article said.

Words from the two economists who are involved in the recent disputes echoed that claim. "Yes, it is a big burden for us to deal with such media bias on our research, and a significant distraction from research," Hong and Zhao said.

"But we would be happy if this event will alert the public to the prevalence and variety of media bias," they continued. "Now the attacks from the extreme climate skeptics seem overwhelming. But in the long run, we believe that the real messages of our paper will be eventually revealed. ... In the future, one would expect more academic and public attention to media bias on the climate issue."

Will the economists continue their probe into media bias?

"We are indeed discussing about the possibilities," the researchers replied. "We hope that our personal experience from biased media coverage will give us higher incentive to advance the frontier of the knowledge on media bias and the climate issues. At this moment, we are still part of the event, overloaded by the (mis-) information."

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