Once the public loses confidence in the ability of journalists to be trusted guides for the public, it is hard to regain it. Scientists don't trust journalists because they get a lot of science wrong. The public doesn't trust journalists because they don't ask the awkward questions of people whose work they admire.
And then there is the framing they engage in.
During American election season, watching journalists scramble to rationalize and invalidate the anti-vaccine beliefs of Democrats is puzzling. They declare CDC data - and the clear link between the most progressive states and vaccine denial - unimportant, while they are willing to write and blog about anything that says global warming is happening and Republicans are responsible for it.
The public has become less convinced that journalists are doing journalism and it is becoming increasingly evident that the choice of language in framing climate science can have significant impacts on public and policy debate. For example, the terms 'climate change' or 'global warming' have been shown to mean very different things to different people in different cultural contexts. And they have also led to varying levels of disbelief. Years ago, the scientifically inaccurate term 'global warming' got low acceptance from right-wing people in the US whereas the more accurate 'climate change' got far higher acceptance. On the left, anything that sounded like doomsday got the same result. So journalists started replacing global warming with climate change in the same sentences and now people don't trust that term as much.
New research in Environmental Communication by Adriana Bailey and colleagues from the University of Colorado, Boulder, examined the concentration of words that suggest scientific uncertainty about climate change in two agenda-setting US newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, compared with the Spanish national dailies El País and El Mundo.
Their linguistic analysis identified words or expressions suggesting any room for doubt. These included common hedging verbs (such as "believe", "consider" and "appear"), synonyms for uncertain (such as "blurry", "inaccurate" and "speculative"), as well as adverbial downtoners (such as "almost", "largely" and "pretty").
The findings suggest a greater preponderance of such 'hedging' words associated with uncertainty in the US papers in their 2001 and 2007 coverage of two newly released reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contrary to what the authors expected to find, such hedging words were more prevalent in 2007 compared to 2001, which is strange given that levels of scientific uncertainty were actually decreasing over that period.
What happened once journalists began to stop speaking in journalism language and began framing the science as settled more and more? Acceptance of science began to drop.
The authors believe that scientific language - and journalists use of similar verbage - is what has led to 'green fatigue' and a lack of trust in media accounts about climate science, but the curve shows it is just the opposite. Regardless of personal opinion, science journalists need to be trusted guides for the public and not advocates or defenders of science. Many political journalists on the left and right do it - the problem in science journalism may be that the politics is one-sided and it creates an echo chamber.
Citation: Adriana Bailey, Lorine Giangola, Maxwell T. Boykoff, 'How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty', Environmental Communication
Volume 8, Issue 2, 2014 DOI:10.1080/17524032.2014.906481
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