Reacting to Zhao et al

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making. The reading was Zhao, X., Rolfe-Redding, J., and Kotcher, J. E., Partisan differences in the relationship between newspaper coverage and concern over global warming (Public Understanding of Science, 2014).

This week’s readings fall directly into my area of interest for this class and research on climate change communication more generally. I’ve written two term papers on topics related to motivated reasoning about climate change, and still find the topic fascinating. I also can’t seem to stay out of a climate change debate group on Facebook where you can see it in action. It’s a living laboratory for these concepts if there ever was one.


First, a few criticisms / observations about the Zhao study. Zhao mentions this at the end, but by limiting the media analysis to four mainstream newspapers, that misses a lot. Part of his thesis is that people are selective in the media they seek out so that it reinforces opinions they already hold. I have absolutely found this to be the case with climate change.

Last semester in Eric Toman’s class, one assignment was to interview three people on their opinions about climate change, much as if we were researchers doing a study like this. I interviewed three people at a cafeteria where I often go to eat. One woman was an absolute denier who thinks climate change is a hoax, and I talked with her for over an hour. She ended up showing me all the sources where she gets her news. She said that if you weren’t online, then you were missing everything, and all her sources were highly partisan news sites. Forget Fox News or WSJ – I hadn’t even heard of most of the sites she showed me, but they were clearly very popular among climate deniers. I’ve found similar results in the climate change debate group. The deniers won’t accept certain news sources at all — for example, that hate hate hate Skeptical Science, but they love Breitbart, Watts Up With That, and other partisan outlets.

The point is that there is a whole world of partisan news sources on the denier side, and maybe equally as many on the climate side, though it is hard for me to treat the two sides as equal, since one has the weight of science behind it and the other does not. However, there are lots of pro-climate science sites such as Climate Progress, Climate Reality, Skeptical Science, etc. I wouldn’t know how to do a study that took all these various outlets into account unless you picked a few to represent each side, or you simply asked people what they read online. However, online news is certainly worth looking at regarding an issue that has become as politically polarized as climate change, as both sides tend to seek out more detailed news online than they will ever get from mainstream media.

Another observation I had about the Zhao study is that it was of news coverage and public opinion on climate change in 2006, which is almost 10 years ago now, and a LOT has happened since then. For one thing, the countermovement of front groups and foundations didn’t really kick into full gear until 2009 when the cap and trade proposal was in front of the U.S. Congress — and since then they have been spending $1 billion a year in climate change denial, most of it in untraceable dark money (Brulle, 2013). If things were partisan back in 2006, imagine how partisan they are now!

A third point has to do with how the study measured concern about climage change. All the questions in the GSS survey were about what is happening in the Arctic region to polar bears and such. But as this class has repeatedly demonstrated, the distance affect is very real, and it’s hard for peole to get excited about something so far away. That alone could skew results about how concerned people are about climate change.

More news, less concern

Now, regarding Zhao’s findings. One thing he finds is that as news coverage increases, concern with climate change increases among Democrats but decreases among Republicans. That is very interesting and goes along with Kahan’s cultural cognition findings that deniers and dismissives actually know as much or more about climate change as people who are concerned. It’s counterintuitive, but these findings are pretty consistent.

The question is, what do we do about it? News outlets can’t exactly stop covering climate change in the hopes that the deniers will come around. They won’t. On the contrary, mainstream news outlets do not cover climate change enough. If we want to talk about agenda setting, the lack of coverage of climate change as opposed to issues like ISIS, immigration, and Obamacare may be part of why most middle Americans don’t see it as important.

This finding can help people who want to communicate the importance of climate change to a broad audience in one way, however. Several times in this class we have talked about how people can couch climate change in other issues such as public health, jobs creation, or national security. This finding reinforces that point. Climate change is multi-dimensional and affects everything, so we can talk about those specific affects more than whether climate change is happening and if it is caused by humans.

I’ve come to several points of agreement with members of the opposition in the debate group in this manner, even if we have different reasons for agreeing. For example, one guy and I agreed that it’s useful for the military to employ solar power, even if I said they are doing it because they take the threat of climate change seriously while he said they are doing it to become less vulnerable to attacks on oil caravans in conflict zones. There is no reason both of these statements can’t be true.

Another very interesting finding in the Zhao study is that people on both sides became more concerned when presented with stories that discussed scientific uncertainty and did not refute it. How can this be? My guess is, people like certainty, but for different reasons. Some people like to be told what to think, while others like to rebel against accepted opinion. Being told scientific opinion is uncertain makes people want to pin it down, which causes them to get engaged in the issue.

Responding to opposition

A third finding that I thought was interesting was about when partisans swung into action to get their side across. Zhao et al found this happened when they thought opposition news sources were publishing too many stories about climate change. The content of those stories didn’t matter — it was the fact that a news outlet on the other side had published them at all, and partisans felt this meant the stories had to be countered.

I am sure this effect is real because I’ve been in groups where this happened and people were asked to go make comments on the story or social media post in question. The point wasn’t so much what the story said, though it usually actually is slanted in the way people think it will be from simple heuristics. However, this pheonomen is another reason for looking at outlets beyond mainstream media that are truly partisan about climate change.

One reason I think debate groups like the climate change one I’ve been participating in and other such groups are popular is that people feel the need to get their points of view out. They don’t expect to convince the other side of anything, but they do think if someone who is undecided or less partisan is reading, then the “correct” point of view needs to be visible. This is also why some vested interests actually hire people to make comments on news stories and social media posts. They want to steer the conversation in a certain way, and they are willing to pay for it. The phenomenon is so prevalent that it has its own vocabulary: astroturfing by sockpuppets. (More here, here and here.)

I would love to see an update of the Zhao study that takes internet news sources into account, as well as the conversation among people who engage in comments on news stories and social media. We are beyond passive intake of newspapers and into an era where just as much if not more of the action happens online. In the climate change debate group, someone makes a post, usually a news story or blog entry that showcases their own opinion, probably once every 10 minutes, and most posts get dozens if not hundreds of comments. We can dismiss all of this as so much noise, but it’s also indicative of the conversation, a living laboratory. Why not take advantage of it?