New Analysis Finds Significant Differences in How Accurately Cable News Networks Portray Climate Science

Published Apr 7, 2014

WASHINGTON (April 7, 2014) – The scientific accuracy of climate change coverage varies significantly across the three major cable news networks, according to a new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

CNN segments that mentioned climate science were wholly accurate 70 percent of the time while Fox News segments were 28 percent accurate and MSNBC’s were 92 percent accurate, based on a review of nearly 600 segments mentioning “global warming” or “climate change” across the networks’ most prominent evening and weekend programs during the 2013 calendar year.

“Sometimes, it’s like the networks are covering different planets,” said Aaron Huertas, a science communications officer at UCS who led the analysis. “Unfortunately, too many politicians, interest groups, and pundits continue to dispute established climate science and cable shows sometimes give them a platform to do so.”

On CNN, most of the segments that included inaccurate statements were from debates featuring guests who reject aspects of established science. These included misrepresentations of the relationship between climate change and some forms of extreme weather, as well as misleading claims that global warming has stopped.

“Debates about responding to climate change can be informative, but debates about whether or not science is real spread unwarranted doubt and confusion,” Huertas said. “It’s like interviewing someone who claims that smoking cigarettes isn’t bad for your health.”

Fox News Channel hosts and guests were the most likely to accuse scientists of manipulating or hiding climate data, the analysis found, and hosts and guests often conveyed misinformation about scientific findings, including multiple misleading claims that global warming is not occurring. The analysis found that the network did have some accurate coverage, including interviews with policymakers and fact-checking overstatements about climate change from celebrities and liberal figures. Special Report with Bret Baier and The O’Reilly Factor were responsible for almost all of the network’s accurate coverage, though both shows also had segments that featured inaccurate representations of science. Despite its relatively low accuracy, this analysis marks a significant improvement for Fox News. A 2012 UCS report found the network’s representations of climate science were accurate just 7 percent of the time over a six-month study period.

MSNBC’s coverage, meanwhile, was mostly accurate. On a few occasions, hosts and guests overstated the speed and severity of sea-level rise as well as the link between climate change and some forms of extreme weather, such as tornadoes. However, they also accurately conveyed science on those topics in other instances. A majority of MSNBC’s accurate coverage featured some criticism of politicians or other public figures who dispute established climate science.

The report suggests that cable news channels could do more to improve the scientific accuracy of their climate change coverage. CNN hosts and guests could participate in debates about policy rather than debates about well-established science, Fox News could do more to differentiate between scientific fact and political opinion on climate change and MSNBC can avoid overstating the effects of climate change.

“Despite their varying degrees of accuracy, hosts, guests, and producers at these channels have demonstrated they can get the science right even as they approach climate policy with very different goals and beliefs,” Huertas said. “As the effects of climate change mount, it’s increasingly important for news outlets to accurately convey the risks scientists are studying.”

The report, Science or Spin?: Assessing the Accuracy of Cable News Coverage of Climate Science is available online, along with related charts, methods and raw data.