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Good news: Major print media in five countries have been representing climate change very factually, hitting a 90 percent accuracy rate in the last 15 years, according to an international study out today with CU Boulder and CIRES authors. Scientifically accurate coverage of man-made climate change is becoming less biased—headlining the idea that print media are no longer presenting climate change as controversy. But there’s one place where the team did find biased coverage: conservative media.

“Two decades ago, print media frequently gave equal credence to both legitimate climate experts and outlier climate deniers. But we found in more recent years that the media around the globe actually got it right most of the time. However, facts now outweigh a debate,” said Lucy McAllister, former PhD student at CU Boulder and lead on the study out today in Environmental Research Letters. “Nine out of ten media stories accurately reported the science on human contributions to climate change. It’s not portrayed as a two-sided debate anymore.”

The researchers from the Technological University of Munich, University of New England and the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed nearly 5,000 newspaper articles from 17 print outlets in five countries over 15 years (2005-2019). The work updates previous research by Max Boykoff, CIRES Fellow and coauthor on the new study, that examined how the journalistic norm of balanced reporting contributed to biased print media. “Many continue to cite the 2004 Max Boykoff and Jules Boykoff article—with data ending in 2002—as evidence of persistent bias in the media. An updated analysis was critically needed,” added McAllister, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Technical University of Munich.

Even though outlets around the world are becoming increasingly less biased when it comes to climate news—there’s one place it still continues to fail, the team found: conservative media. Canada’s National Post, Australia’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, and the U.K.’s Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, all historically conservative outlets, had significantly less accurate coverage of climate change.

World events influenced media accuracy, too: media coverage was significantly less accurate in 2010 just after the late 2009 University of East Anglia email hacking scandal and U.N. negotiations of the Copenhagen Accord, the team found. And coverage was significantly more accurate in 2015, during the time of the Paris Agreement negotiation.

“Accurate reporting in these print outlets vastly outweighed inaccurate reporting, but this is not a cause for complacency,” said Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and  ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

The researchers emphasize that people rarely read peer-reviewed scientific research about climate change, and are more likely to learn about it through the media. Therefore studies such as this one are critical to understand ongoing science and policy pursuits in the public sphere. There are also other competing pressures that shape our awareness of climate change—such as conversations with family and friends, entertainment and trusted leaders, the team says.

“Achieving consistently accurate media coverage is still not a silver-bullet solution to spark collective action,” Boykoff added. “Our work helps provide insights on how the media are portraying human contributions to climate change, yet more clearly must be done.”

“How can I stay informed about climate change?”

  • Talk with your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, leaders, community members, etc.
  • Learn about the basics of climate change:
  • Be a citizen scientist: The Globe Program/Globe Observers (download an app and collect data used by NASA)
  • Follow political news on international climate agreements. UNFCCC
  • Take a free online course at coursera.org. Try CU Boulder’s ‘Exploring our Responses to Climate Change’; University of Michigan, ‘Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action’

“Balance as bias, resolute on the retreat? Updates & analyses of newspaper coverage in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Canada over the past 15 years” published August 17, 2021 in Environmental Research Letters. Authors include: Lucy McAllister (Center for Energy Markets, School of Management, Technical University of Munich, Environmental Studies Research Associate, University of Colorado Boulder), Meaghan Daly (School of Marine and Environmental Programs, University of New England), Patrick Chandler (Environmental Studies Program, University of Colorado Boulder), Marisa McNatt (Freelance writer & researcher/Independent scholar), Andrew Benham (Undergraduate Research Assistant, University of Colorado Boulder) and Max Boykoff (Environmental Studies, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado Boulder)

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder