Does the Media Convey Science Effectively?

When it comes to climate change, global warming, melting ice, rising sea levels and the many other environmental problems we face today there is a lot of evidence to support the concerns of climate scientists.  The questions is, is that evidence being communicated adequately.

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

In my first post I discussed the causes and effects of melting ice around Greenland and other global ice stores.

Now, I would like to discuss the reporting of the facts and fallacies that are commonly conveyed regarding rising global temperatures.

Science is important in understanding risk, especially when it comes to complicated processes that help the world exist in its current state: The Carbon Cycle, The Nitrogen Cycle and The Water Cycle. They basically concern how everything moves between land, water, and the atmosphere.

But the media can’t just report the science because, as I have pointed out in previous blog entries, the science is complicated and readers and views are easily put off.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s just the water cycle.

And that discussion doesn’t include long term water storage in the Greenland and other ice sheets.

Did you click on the Wikipedia pages mentioned above? If you did, then maybe you would also be interested in reading an article from The New York Times that included technical scientific terms and was admirably specific in it’s reasoning.

If you didn’t, I don’t blame you. Few of us has the time to do intense research on every single issue on top of our already hectic lives. There are a lot of people who don’t care about the specifics would rather read a summary. Unless catastrophe strikes.

But there lies the problem. We read the minimum, and allow the media to draw conclusions for us.

Photo Courtesy of Sky Dancing Blog

Photo Courtesy of Sky Dancing Blog

Then we read about the melting “ice caps” and the struggling polar bears and perhaps feel guilty for driving just down the street for a cup of coffee. It’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t directly affect us. The science behind melting ice around the world which is tied to “global warming” which can be attributed to our changing climate.

In fact, the science, while informative of cause and effect, can be scary and make us feel doomed. Do you feel like you could fix a doomed world?


Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Mag

Because of the consistent reports on crisis, the “black swan” events I mentioned in my last post, many people feel that their contribution is not enough to merit effort or they lose interest completely. Liz Szabo describes this in the case of school shootings and how the media affects our perception of mental illness in “Costs of Not Caring: Nowhere to Go.” She argues that on this case we are exchanging hospital beds for jail beds. We can also apply this to media coverage of melting ice. We talk about victims of rising sea levels, or make victims out of local animals. We discuss the bad, and when we offer solutions we feel overwhelmed by the costs.

This can be explained with the issue attention cycle. According to Anthony Downs, the cycle starts pre-problem, until there is an alarmed response (to something like a black swan event). After the response there is a realization of the costs to fix the problem which leads to a decline in interest. In the media the ending, what can be referred to as “post-problem”

Photo Courtesy of CMC Politics of Journalism

Photo Courtesy of CMC Politics of Journalism

But there’s hope.

According to Denise Robbins, communicating the science effectively can help:

“Catastrophic climate change is a simple message with many complexities, so these media deep-dives may be necessary for the message to break through.” – Years of Living Dangerously- Is this the new trend?

Robbins also argues that conveying the fact that these problems are solvable is important. Reducing emissions, reducing waste and recycling are all simple acts that can have a big meaning.

We don’t have to become experts, we just have to care enough to pay attention. We just need to keep a critical eye on the media, to be open to new information, and to check our facts.

Photo Courtesy of Gina Lujan

Photo Courtesy of Gina Lujan

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Why Doesn’t Anyone Know How to Talk About Global Warming? | Science | Smithsonian

Why Doesn’t Anyone Know How to Talk About Global Warming?

via Why Doesn’t Anyone Know How to Talk About Global Warming? | Science | Smithsonian.

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The Problem with How Media Frame Melting Ice: A Symptom.

Do you remember in my last post I mentioned that the media plays a very large role in the way we see the world? They pick the stories to report. They choose the focus. They set the agenda.

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

I discussed agenda setting, or the way in which the media alters our perception of reality through story selection, frequency, and prominence. In this post I want to discuss another issue in media coverage of environmental issues such as melting land ice, framing.

I mentioned before that only NBC and MSNBC mentioned the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Their competitor news networks chose to provide platforms for skeptics to devalue scientific facts and ignored the issue of human influence on the climate. Such decisions are not made by accident.They intentionally frame an issue.

A media frame is the central organizing theme chosen to communicate a complex story. The frame controls how a story is presented and how it is received. By ignoring anthropogenic causes, for example, a news outlet with an agenda might seek to convince viewers or readers that humans do not have the effects on the environment described urgently by climate scientists.

In other words, anything left out of the frame is out of the picture.

So, how does the media frame melting land ice?

Photo Courtesy of  Paul Douglas Weather Column

Photo Courtesy of Paul Douglas Weather Column


The decline of land and sea ice is usually framed as a symptom of “global warming” or “climate change.” When it is, it is not uncommon to see the images of polar bears isolated on diminishing ice rafts. Activists, especially, use these images because it is much easier to imagine the severity of the problem when you are forced to look at another living creature struggling to literally stay afloat in the vast, open ocean. It’s a good story. It’s crisis coverage.

Video Courtesy of CNN and Youtube. 

The factors that cause melting ice are complicated and the science is difficult to understand without study, as is mentioned in the above video. It’s not very interesting to talk about, and without the emotional images of endangered polar bear families it’s difficult to relate to.

Instead the media covers the extreme weather events, which can be referred to as black swan events, framing climate change as a potentially important issue but one that is difficult to understand and under attack by skeptics who warn of unintended side effects of corrective actions. Conflict always makes a better news story,  and better news stories bring in more revenue.  

Photo Courtesy of News@Jama

Photo Courtesy of News@Jama

Melting ice is causing a rise in sea level, which will change tides and contribute to the severity of disasters such as tsunamis (which, despite media framing, are not the same thing as  tidal waves). 

In March of 2011 a devastating tsunami wrought havoc on the Japanese nation. An offshore earthquake caused by the subduction of tectonic plates made a wave far enough off the coast to allow it to gain momentum, reaching great heights that rocked the Japanese plains. The below image is just one of many that show a desperate situation with human beings literally in the frame.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

This story is framed as a tragedy. It is often focused on local victims and the destruction of a Japanese nuclear power plant. The story told much less frequently especially soon after the disaster? That the same radiation from the Fukushima plant affected ecosystems as far as the United States Pacific Coast and Canada and that the impact even of distant events can affect the environment, climate and weather of us all. 

The organizing themes surrounding the issue of melting ice are those of a crisis for human safety and health. But, instead of including the science, the media frame often focuses on what’s exciting,  and when it’s not exciting anymore, move on to a new crisis.

The New York Times often chooses to report on climate change refugees rather than the cause of the rising sea levels.

 Framing as drama instead of persuasive science is a huge problem given the short attention span of today’s 24-hour news cycle. As I said in my last post, the media can do better. 

The media can shape policy. They can not only influence laymen, but also the elite of our society, that is, the policy makers. If the media covers this as a crisis for polar bears only, then we humans lose critical time in educating ourselves about the great effect we have on natural processes.

Do you remember DDT? I do. But, I’m 24, and really I only remember learning about it in school.

 Rachel Carson wrote the book on it, literally, in “Silent Spring.” (here’s a link if you want to read the synopsis)

Photo Courtesy of Iron Body Studios

Photo Courtesy of Iron Body Studios

 “Silent Spring” caused a huge public outrage and the media got behind it. There was enough of a public voice that policymakers banned DDT entirely in the United States.

Melting ice is not only a symptom but a complex issue that can stand alone. It should be treated as such. 

Do not forget that the media influences our perception of reality by focusing themes. We need to be aware of the nature and impact of frames, be able to recognize them, and to become more critical of what we read and see.  We should care about victims of extreme events, but the best way to help them in the long term is to mitigate factors like melting land and sea ice.

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Setting the agenda: Ice Melt and Climate Change

The media play a very important role in the way that we see the world. They pick the stories to report. They choose the focus. They set the agenda.

The stories that television, newspapers, magazines, Facebook and even Twitter choose to cover, how often, and how prominently, all contribute to our perception of reality. They contribute to whether we view the melting of land ice across the globe as real, and whether actions should be taken. In media terms, this is known as agenda setting.

How important do you think it is that we try to stop the loss of ice?

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

Photo courtesy of Lesson Bucket

In 2012,  Media Matters did a study on the TV broadcast coverage of sea ice loss in comparison to other subject matter, specifically Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s Workout (the P90x program). It revealed that major American TV news sources such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC covered the nominee’s personal fitness training as much or more than they did the loss of global ice.

Bret Baier of Fox News mentioned Arctic sea ice once between June and September of 2012, and then only to deny that a problem exists.

NBC And MSNBC Were The Only Outlets To Mention The Impact Of Manmade Climate Change.

-Fitzsimmons and Theel (Media Matters)

In 2011, Fox News made the claim that scientists at the University of Colorado were doctoring the results of ice melt and sea level rise. In fact, Jocelyn Fong and Shauna Theel reported that the “doctoring” was actually an adjustment to data agreed upon by most climate scientists according to a protocol established more than ten years ago.

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Media Matters’, Kevin Kalhoefer explains, in “how broadcast networks covered climate change in 2014”,  that there has been an increase in the amount of coverage of climate change, but it still varies greatly from network to network and even between Sunday news and nightly news. The increase is most obvious in Sunday news.

Networks can do better than this.

Fox’s Sunday Show Offered The Fewest Climate Change Segments.


Most news outlets also provide platforms for skeptics who can mislead entire audiences by circulating false information or spinning it in such a way as to attach negative connotations to accepted fact.

Video courtesy of Media Matters

In my last post I discussed the perils of the loss of global ice. Coverage of this specific issue is not sufficiently widespread, although in articles covering broader topics it is common for melting ice to be used as evidence for rising temperatures. Jill Fitzsimmons of Media Matters felt that the “Media Turn A Blind Eye To Record Greenland Ice Melt”, in 2012.

Choosing what story to cover amounts to choosing what the audience should care about. In a very real sense, it sets priorities for us all.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of There Once was an Island

Kalhoefer mentions that a lot of the coverage on broadcast news comes from a political standpoint. This puts journalists in a position to choose whether to cover the science on climate change or its general impact on society and the planet. Not all journalists have an adequate understanding of climate science, and therefore choose to cover the topic as a political issue.

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Photo courtesy of Media Matters

Science coverage for the sake of science is the least common. 

Weather and wildlife are covered more often. Extreme weather events are often attributed to climate change and its consequences. And one of the best ways for advocacy writers to get a response from their readers is by evoking a strong emotional connection.

  Media turn a blind eye to record Greenland ice melt.


Who can resist the plight of the polar bear atop an ice raft barely big enough to hold it?

Photo courtesy of The Endangered Polar Bear

Photo courtesy of The Endangered Polar Bear What about the rest of the animals involved in that bears ecosystem? Walrus’. Copepods.

Depending on the news outlet we pay the most attention to, we all have opinions formed by media regarding climate change. Did my last post sway you? Does the polar bear make you want to go out and do something about the state of our planet?

Fox News shows a conservative political agenda. MSNBC has a liberal political agenda. Each chooses to report on the details of climate change and human impacts according to their culture, tradition and place in the political landscape. They intentionally cover climate change more or less frequently than their competitors. They also choose when to air coverage, or where to place it in print media online or via newspaper.

Because many of my sources are from the archives of Web sites like, I have probably have less knowledge of the prominence, that is placement, of stories on melting ice, or global warming. But next time you scroll through HuffPost or look at a newspaper, pay attention to where the stories are placed. Is the first story you see about the science of climate change? Is is about the melting ice all over the world? Or the rising sea level that are forcing people to leave their family homes, even entire islands displaced?

Probably not.

Photo courtesy of Daily Camera

Photo courtesy of Daily Camera

This was the top story of my local paper today, a story related to city codes about building height. It has prominence in the news because it is the first thing that anyone who goes to Daily Camera will see.

Understanding that the news sets an agenda can help us be more critical of media.

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

So, why does the media cover melting ice so infrequently? Part of the issue is that melting ice is part of a much bigger issue. It is involved in global processes that are difficult to understand and a single article in a newspaper or a two–minute segment on the Sunday news is not enough to give an adequate explanation. There is also an issue of framing: people will act if they feel that somehow news could affect their own lives, and unless you live on low lying islands or in the arctic tundra the plights of those people and animals may not seem relatable at all.

Because of increasing coverage over the past couple of years we can probably assume that the upcoming election will lead to further coverage of climate change and ice melt, especially those laced with political agendas and potential environmental policies.

This is exactly what the media was made for. To educate the public on the events of the world and the opinions of future world leaders so we can make the best election decisions possible.


Photo courtesy of Reddit

Photo courtesy of Reddit

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Global Warming and Melting Ice Sheets

A tidal flood, or a “King Wave,” nearly covers the the island of Takuu, a low lying coral atoll near Bougainville. The residents’ homes are destroyed, their belongings left in a soggy pile by a tide that rose above the island, the highest point of which is hardly more than a single meter. There Once was An Island follows three characters who try to decide whether to leave their home on Takuu and move to Bougainville, or stay and fight the effects of salt water inundation and rising sea levels.

Photo Courtesy of There Once Was an Island

The devastation of Takuu is just one of the effects of global warming that can be seen today. The increase in world temperatures is creating many different problems, but one of the easiest to observe through time is the rise in sea level caused by the melting of glaciers and land ice. In her book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert mentions that the melting of the Greenland Ice sheet alone would result in a 23 foot rise in the sea level ,which would result in the loss of many major coastal cities. If this happened states such as Florida would find large portions of land covered by water, and the island of Takuu would be fully submerged. In the image below, the red shows the portions of Florida land that would be covered with a six-meter rise in sea level (about 20 feet).

Photo Curtesy of

Photo Courtesy of the Reason Foundation

Large populations of people live in these coastal regions. If their homes are no longer inhabitable they must be placed elsewhere, the burden and expense falling onto government. According to Kolbert, the rising sea level is not the only problem caused by the melting of the ice sheets. There is also a decrease in the albedo of the arctic. Field Notes from a Catastrophe explains that albedo is the reflective quality of ice that helps to prevent the earth from absorbing too much heat from the sun. As the ice melts due to increased temperatures on earth it helps to speed up its own melting process. That is, as albedo is lost the more heat is absorbed, and the faster the ice is able to melt. James Balog, known most prominently for founding The Extreme Ice Survey, has photographed the recession of different glaciers. In his film Chasing Ice, Balog further documents the melting ice across the globe.

Photo Curtesy of

Photo Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey

These rivers of water only further help to melt the ice by finding the smallest holes in the ice to flow through, creating larger holes that only serve to quicken the melt. Rising temperatures bring spring sooner and winter later. The ocean system has a cycle that makes sure warmer seasonal temperatures do not negatively affect the freezing of sea ice during the fall and winter at high latitudes. But if ice melts earlier and freezes later these problems continue to worsen.

Photo Curtesy of

Photo Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey

Smaller pieces of glaciers melt more easily due to size and ultimately aid in the faster melting of the ice sheet in all. These problems can no longer be ignored. At the warmest temperatures the modern world has ever seen, the world is seeing rises in sea level that some had never imagined. The Greenland ice sheet, one of the larger stores of perennial ice, or ice that exists year round, is in danger of melting with the potential to affect millions. Understanding the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and our individual effect is undeniably important.

Can the individual help? How can we change our behavior? The United States seems to have an increasing interest in melting ice and increasing sea levels. With the efforts of James Balog and other environmental activists we might be able to inform the masses on the effects that individuals or communities might have. Because the United States has such a wide variety of allies and contacts we can hope to educate the world, especially the Millennials Generation, on the real difference that can be made. While this is a problem that will take time to solve, reverse or even know all about, it is worth it to invest our time and energy into it now.

In the following months I will try to analyze the media coverage of melting ice sheets specifically from American media. I will cover topics such as agenda-setting, framing, and consumer culture. Understanding the way that media covers topics such as climate change is important because it allows us to understand biases and focuses. Journalists such as Elizabeth Kolbert seek to illuminate all of the facts, while others try to tie climate change to their political agenda. By thinking critically about media coverage we can be more effective advocates for the environment.

Photo Curtesy of Media Matters

Photo Courtesy of Media Matters

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