How The Media Tackles The Climate Change Debate

May 8, 2014
Originally published on May 8, 2014 3:35 pm

On Tuesday, the White House released a report warning against the impacts of climate change. In a second-term effort to ignite awareness on the issue, President Obama has pressed the notion that climate change is an urgent and present problem that will only worsen if action is not taken.

However, many media outlets remain divided on the issue of climate change, resulting in a polarized media landscape that tends to deliver disparate opinions on the matter.

NPR’s Media Correspondent David Folkenflik joins Here & Now’ Jeremy Hobson to discuss how the media approaches the subject of climate change, and how this affects the audience’s understanding of the issue.


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It's HERE AND NOW. This week President Obama shared some of the findings from a new report on climate change, which says that climate change is already affecting Americans all across the country. And the media picked up on that, but in different ways.

One headline said "Climate Change Assessment Paints Stark Picture of Potential Damage." Another said, "Climate Change is Harming Economy Report Says." And yet another said, "We're Already Toast." But other news outlets this week continued to deny the seriousness of global warming outlined by scientists. And here to talk to us about how the media cover climate change is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Jeremy. How are you?

HOBSON: Well, I'm doing well. Is this still a tricky issue for the media to cover?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, this is a really tough one. I remember almost 20 years ago now I talked to an editor of mine back when I was a Cub reporter at the Baltimore Sun. She asked me what beats I might to cover. And I said, maybe the environment some day. And she said, it's a dog of an assignment, David. She said, there are no people's faces you can really put on the issues at play except in rare cases.

And if you think about global warming, you know, people have done stories. I believe our network has. I certainly have seen them on CNN and other places. Stories about, for example, folks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on these tiny island nations where the water's lapping higher and higher and will essentially, you know, completely cover them and erase their memory.

And they're saying our countries are at stake. And people say, that is terrible. And they say, but I have to pay the mortgage. I have to get the kids to school. And those people live many, many thousands of miles away. That doesn't affect me. It's a hard thing to put on it. And I think the second element of that is that it's a very urgent threat if you look at the--just in stark terms at what these reports are saying.

But it's not an immediate threat. It's not going to be that cataclysm happens tomorrow. It's that severe things are happening now. And people have adjusted to some severe things, and not thought about it. They haven't really figured out about what happens when things accelerate and get worse.

HOBSON: Well, some people may see it as an immediate threat if they live in places that have been hit by very severe storms and tornados and hurricanes and all kinds of other things that scientists are saying are caused by climate change. But it doesn't get to the point, David, of why there's still a debate about the science of it. And that does exist.

I want to listen here to a clip from Fox News Radio's Kilmeade and Friends. This is Alisyn Camerota, a Fox News journalist who left her full-time gig at Fox two months ago, and she's talking with Brian Kilmeade who hosts the show.


ALISYN CAMEROTA: There are some facts out there. There are some numbers. There is some empirical evidence that the earth has gotten warmer.


CAMEROTA: Yes. One degree, and that has repercussions.

KILMEADE: Put a sweater on or take a sweater off.

CAMEROTA: Um-hum. Tell that to the satellite imaging of Greenland ice plates.

KILMEADE: What do you mean?

CAMEROTA: They're melting.

KILMEADE: Who needs things froze--everything's got to be frozen for you to be happy?


HOBSON: David, why is this kind of conversation still happening? Because it does make it hard to move forward to deal with the affects of climate change when people are still denying that it's even a problem.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look. I mean, I think that we've past the point as straight ahead journalists of saying this is a thing that should be debated. You have a scientist who says it's happening. You might have some sort of skeptical economist or outlier. You know, 97 percent of scientists who have studied this say this happening and it's serious, and man has contributed significantly to it.

And so then you move on. Brian Kilmeade, you can argue he's the court jester of Fox News, has the radio show. But he's also, you know, a host on their very popular morning show there. And he reflects more or less the sensibility of the top executives at Fox News. And conservative outlets and conservative figures have very much either given this scant coverage, giving it skeptical or cartoonish coverage, or given it some combination of that.

And there's an effort to sort of even among folks who are willing to engage to treat this as something where, you know, you have balancing and competing imperatives. And that's fair. I mean, I think journalists can get at this in a way that says, look, there are a variety of ways of dealing with this, and we you know, there's a big margin of error in our projections of what will happen.

We don't know precisely what will happen, but we can look at what's been happening and we can look at the fact that it's only going to continue and get more severe if you look at these two fairly definitive reports.

HOBSON: Well, you say Brian Kilmeade could be the court jester of Fox News. There are also people like George Will, who recently joined Fox News as a contributor, who says, quoting this week, on this climate change report, scientists are not saints in white laboratory smocks. There are a lot of people out there who are saying this kind of thing.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, right. Well, I mean, it's an effort to say, look, you know, if over several decades of work that the world's leading scientists in an array of related fields have come to the near uniform conclusion that this is happening and this is real then, you have to chip away and undermine. You know, you see a variety of arguments done that way.

But the thing that's interesting is that there was a point at which, 2008, you know, John McCain as the republican nominee for the presidency, you know, said let's do cap and trade, which was a way of trying to ultimately inhibit carbon emissions among American industries. September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers collapses, financial crises ensues in the U.S. and across the world, and everybody's attention from policy makers to very much the media went elsewhere.


FOLKENFLIK: They just stopped looking at climate change for a couple of years there. And republicans since haven't really offered their approach to say, this is real and we have a republican or conservative way of thinking about this issue. They've essentially said that democrats don't have a legitimate way to do that.

And I think a lot of political and policy reporters struggle with how do you reflect, you know, policy reactions to something in which one party is not really fundamentally engaging on the issue.

HOBSON: Now we've played that clip from Fox News. I want to contrast that with something that's airing on Fox TV right now, the show "Cosmos" with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Listen to this.


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that'll bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse?

HOBSON: David Folkenflik, we know there's a difference between Fox News and Fox Entertainment, but explain that difference and why we're hearing these two very different things.

FOLKENFLIK: Well look, you know, both are ultimately controlled by my old friend Rupert Murdoch, you know, who contains multitudes. The interesting thing is his publications in the U.K., particularly Australia and in this country, have been highly skeptical, to the point of hostile, of climate change science, except perhaps in the news pages of his Wall Street Journal.

His company corporately has adopted a carbon neutral path. You know, it wants to have essentially a net zero emissions, and it accomplished that in quicker than the five-year goal that he and his son James, another executive at 21st Century Fox, set for the company. So, you know, there's a guy who at once, you know, is propounding on the opinion pages of his publications a lot of skepticism and yet allows something like Tyson to come out and offer a scientific take on things.

HOBSON: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, very interesting. David, thanks as always.


HOBSON: And please let us know what you think about how the media are covering climate change. You can go to You send us a tweet @hereandnow, @hereandnowrobin, @jeremyhobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.