Media Coverage of the Greenhouse Effect

Moti Nissani

Abstract: Following a review of the decisive role of the media in American politics and of a few earlier studies of media bias, this paper examines media coverage of the greenhouse effect. It does so by comparing two pictures. The first picture emerges from reading all 100 greenhouse-related articles published over a five-month period (May-September 1997) in The Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. The second picture emerges from the mainstream scientific literature. This comparison shows that media coverage of environmental issues suffers from both shallowness and pro-corporate bias. The biospheric implications of these two insufficiencies are touched upon.

Publication Source: Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 21: 27-43 (1999).

Dr. Benjamin Franklin

Editor, The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1729-1748

Thomas Jefferson, 1807

Third President of the United States, 1801-9

Louis D. Boccardi,

President, Associated Press, 1997


"The news media," argues Rodger Streitmatter (1997, 234), "have shaped American history. Absolutely. Boldly. Proudly. Fervently. Profoundly" (cf. Kalof 1998; Meadows 1991).

On some occasions, the media helped bring about positive change. Thomas Jefferson felt that the heroism and steadfastness of a few newspapers during the Washington and Adams years, "when our cause was laboring and all but lost under the overwhelming weight of its powerful adversaries . . . arrested the rapid march of our government towards monarchy" (Rosenfeld 1997, 905). In the early 1950s, the infant institution of television news distinguished itself "by taming the diabolical power of Joe McCarthy." It may be the case that the "civil rights movement in this country owes a great deal to television" (Streitmatter 1997, 169, 186).

On other occasions, the media retarded progress. Thus, "the role American newspapers the press abusing the mighty power it wields" (Streitmatter 1997, 50; see also Sinclair 1919, 324). The Spanish Civil War "proved once again that the world press is allied to all other commercial and political-commercial interests on the conservative if not reactionary side" (Seldes 1953, 254).

On the eve of Spanish-American war, an artist on a news gathering mission in Cuba requested permission to return home, for, it seemed to him, all was quiet on the Cuban front. His boss William Hearst reportedly sent him this cable: "You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war." Some commentators fail to see that what’s important about this tale is plausibility, not historical reality. In law books, the power of declaring war on Spaniards, Cherokees, Iraqis, Wobblies, DDT, CFCs, or excess CO2 is delegated to the first three estates. In the book of life, this power is largely vested in the corporate media. Hearst himself put it best: "The newspapers," he said, "control the nation" (Streitmatter 1997, 84).

One troubling corollary of Hearst’s dictum is self-evident: "Whoever controls the media, controls the nation." In turn, the mass media in America are owned, directly and indirectly, by the very rich. Consequently, as countless commentators have shown, the media in America are reliably biased in favor of big money.

There is nothing new in this. In 1919, Upton Sinclair (125) said:

Elsewhere (1919, 39) he recounts:

Here is another chilling example from that period. The speaker is John Swinton, editor of the New York Tribune. He is answering, at a banquet of his fellow-editors, the toast: "An Independent Press:"

Ben Bagdikian (1987, xvi) put it thus:

When it comes to the environment, most studies likewise suggest that media coverage of any issue constitutes a compromise between truth and money. Here, Bagdikian’s eloquent summary (1987, 169-173) of one such study will have to do:

It must be admitted, however, that some researchers and journalists honestly believe that media coverage of political issues is adequate and fair, while a few others feel that it is biased all right—against big money. It must be likewise admitted that most media studies are neither recent nor concerned with coverage of environmental issues. Moreover, when they do study media coverage of something like the greenhouse effect, they are rarely concerned with the question of bias (cf., Bell 1994; Trumbo 1996; Wilkins 1993). It seemed worth while therefore to explore allegations of media bias and shallowness by examining recent coverage of one contemporary environmental issue.

To do so, I chose one topic which received extensive coverage recently: the greenhouse threat. I cannot, in this paper, present all the evidence that emerged from this media study; instead, I shall only touch upon some key observations and generalizations.

This study was restricted to five months (May-September 1997), one regional paper (The San Francisco Chronicle, abbreviated below as SFC), and three papers which, in view of their reputation, location, and circulation, may be considered as both regional and national in scope: Christian Science Monitor (CSM), New York Times (NYT), and The Washington Post (WP).

I searched the Lexis-Nexis computerized data base for any mention of the term "global warming" in these four newspapers from May 1 through September 30, 1997. Articles that were not concerned with the greenhouse threat but which only mentioned it in passing (e.g., sports or humor columns) were excluded from this study, as were such items as ads, letters to the editor, and news in brief. All other articles in which the term "global warming" appeared and which were likely to contribute to readers’ perception of global warming—a total of 100 articles and 93,415 words—provided the basis for this study.

The greenhouse picture that emerged from these 100 articles was then compared to the picture that emerges from the scientific literature. To be sure, this area of science is afflicted by many controversies and uncertainties. It requires a holistic approach—a notoriously difficult undertaking (Nissani 1997a). Moreover, this holistic picture cannot be readily quantified, nor summarized in tables, graphs, or equations. All the same, a fairly consistent picture does emerge from the pronouncements of leading scientific bodies and from mainstream scholarly journals, treatises, and textbooks.

In this study, a few key facets of this scientific picture are compared to their counterparts in the media. Key findings of this comparison are given below:

(1) On May 21, 1997, twenty-one "leading ecologists" sent president Clinton a letter. This letter warned that the enhanced greenhouse effect must be slowed down, in view of its potentially severe consequences.

This warning was only cited by the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because the letter was spearheaded and signed by four members of nearby Stanford University). The New York Times and the Washington Post considered this letter, but decided not to use it (Mooney 1998). This omission raises questions about the objectivity of the media, which, during that same time period, repeatedly cited the views of corporate experts and owners (see below).

(2) Despite pressures in the scholarly community to qualify and hedge one’s beliefs, a surprising number of respectable observers take a cataclysmic outcome seriously: "The continued habitability of the earth is clearly in question" (Woodwell 1995, 4). "Is it possible that we will someday destroy Earth’s good health and turn our home into a runaway greenhouse? Will the human volcano heat Planet Earth until all the seas go dry and lead melts in the sunlight? Are we already on the downhill path to Venus? . . . judging by our neighboring world, we are playing with fire" (Weiner 1994, 174; see also Broecker 1994, 18; Leggett 1992, 30). We may note in passing that everything pales into insignificance compared to this (admittedly unlikely) apocalypse, yet such concerns have been totally ignored by the 100 hundred articles of this study.

(3) The powerful coal, oil, and car industries, some economists, America’s two most recent Republican presidents, and countless congressmen avowed that cutting greenhouse gases may cost the nation trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. In a moment of candor, in 1992, Newsweek explained the suspect origins of this Amazing Bush Doctrine:

The importance of this question of costs can hardly be exaggerated. If Newsweek is right, if it can be shown that cutting greenhouse emissions will save money, then the greenhouse controversy vanishes into thin air, for how can one oppose steps that would avert the greenhouse threat and save money? So, was this extraordinary possibility, this undreamed of boon, covered fairly?

To begin with, on the basis of space, or number of times a claim is made, the view that cutting greenhouse emissions would cost the average American a fortune prevailed during the five months in question. As Newsweek explains, and as will become clearer shortly, the claim of exorbitant costs is patently absurd. It is dismissed out of hand by most independent energy experts, historians, interdisciplinarians, and economists. Moreover, it defies common sense. Yet, in most media articles that touch upon this issue, the stupendous costs are real. To be precise, in thirteen articles of our sample such costs are taken for granted. Seven articles give both sides, while two articles claim or imply that money will be saved. In no case is the reader given the rather straightforward background information to judge the issue on her own.

Thus an examination of media coverage of this critical issue of costs leads to two conclusions. Readers are not given enough information to judge the issue for themselves; instead, they are quagmired in disconnected views and assertions. Second, although the view that greenhouse gas reductions would save money is occasionally aired, the overall impression is that cutting emissions will cost a fortune and threaten our economy, jobs, and way of life.

(4) Moreover, as a human ecology instructor, I know from experience that abstractions about greenhouse savings strike home only when accompanied by concrete examples. Next time you find yourself in a hardware store, look around for compact fluorescent light bulbs. The label on the one I have just bought for $11 tells me, correctly (its stiff price notwithstanding) that over this bulb’s lifetime, and owing to its greater efficiency and longevity, I shall save $39 (if I buy this bulb instead of the standard bulb still widely in use now). Although the package does not say so, experience has also taught me that on summer nights I can keep my home cooler thanks to these magical bulbs.

A widely used human ecology textbook (Miller 1998, 406) echoes these assertions: "Replacing a standard incandescent bulb with an energy-efficient compact fluorescent saves about $48-70 per bulb over its 10-year life and saves enough electricity to avoid burning 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of coal. Thus, replacing 25 incandescent bulbs in a house with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs saves $1,250-1,750." Energy efficiency lighting could likewise save U.S. businesses some $18 billion a year and could make an appreciable impact (through reduced emissions of CO2) on the greenhouse effect.

Let me note here that the point is neither incandescence nor fluorescence, neither heat nor light. The point is psychology. One could carry out virtually the same analysis for home insulation, or miles per gallon, or cogeneration, or electric motors—in each case showing that the majority of energy experts are right, and that the greenhouse problem can be solved at a stupendous profit! It is, let me repeat, through such examples that the energy efficiency thesis can be brought home to the lay person.

Yet, not a single article among the one hundred provided such concrete and sufficiently detailed explanations

(5) Serendipity made the need to discuss costs even more pressing, for on September 25, 1997 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in a voluminous report involving numerous reputable experts, agencies, and organizations, said in effect that America can become richer by reducing greenhouse emissions.1 So, has this landmark report been cited by the four newspapers?

To begin with, only one of the four [WP 9/26] mentioned this study at all. I hesitate to pick this one essay apart, for in the world of journalism, biased coverage might be better than zero coverage. Moreover, this essay, despite its many faults, was the single most informative essay in our entire sample. Bearing these points in mind, let us compare what this essay said about the DOE study to what this study said about itself, starting with the title. The newspaper’s title reads: "Technology Can Cut Pollution Without High Cost, Study Says." This title is misleading:

First, the study was concerned with global warming, not merely pollution.

Second, the title fails to make it clear to the reader that the DOE study talked about increased efficiency and other readily available technologies, not about future technologies.

Third, a look at the DOE study itself clearly shows that reductions will save money. Even the Department of Energy’s news release, despite its inoffensive language, made this point clear. Annually the reductions would cost "$50 to $90 billion per year" said the release. That is, the best bet for this, and ignoring history, holistic thinking, and common sense (see below), is $70 billion a year. By a similar logic, the best bet for the savings is $80 billion per year. In other words, in this DOE news release, some of the most qualified experts in the U.S., knowing full well the risk they are taking by irking powerful industries, are on record expecting the U.S. to save $10 billion a year from reducing greenhouse emissions.

Fourth, this was a massive Department of Energy Study, not a study by some obscure think tank.

So the title could just as well be: "A remarkable recent U.S. government study shows how Americans can eliminate the greenhouse threat, improve their health, and boost their bank accounts." And a subtitle: "Good news: Americans can become healthier, wealthier, and wiser by reducing greenhouse emissions." Or, "A sensational new U.S. study gives the lie to the greenhouse controversy and asserts that your household can save $100 or more every year by reducing greenhouse emissions." Or, at the very least, the title could simply quote the first sentence from the study’s own news release: "Clean technology can achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions . . . and produce energy savings that roughly equal or exceed the costs to implement them."

Elsewhere, the Washington Post says: "The Energy Department’s study found that the costs of research and development of technology to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2010 could be paid for—in part or in full—by energy savings." Only later on in the essay is the truth quoted: "The cost of developing energy-saving technologies is "likely to be more than balanced by savings in energy bills," the study said. "This analysis shows that what’s good for the environment also can be good for the economy," said Energy Secretary Federico Peña."

In terms of specific examples which let readers judge the issue for themselves, this essay comes closer than the other 99, but not close enough, to drive the point home. It describes areas where savings can be accomplished, coming closest with this passage:

This still falls short of convincing anyone, for it does not tell the reader the rest of what DOE said, how this can be done, and how it will save money.

The last paragraph of this article says:

So, here we have it. A careful scientific study by some of the most prestigious and staid scientific bodies in the land gives the lie to the greenhouse "controversy." Like previous studies, it again shows that this controversy is just as legitimate as the tobacco controversy, and that public-spiritedness has nothing to do with keeping it alive. Yet this study is mentioned in only one article of the 100, sandwiched between a misleading title and the opinions of Ford Motor Company.

(6) Nor did our newspapers fail to ignore any research which could conceivably cast doubts on the reality of the greenhouse effect or on the need for action. One article, for instance, wrongly led readers to believe that scientists now believe that human-induced global warming is most likely a fiction, and that the warming we have seen is due to solar cycles. Many other reports of scientific developments implied that global warming would be good for us. Thus, one essay traced bumper wheat crops in Australia to global warming. When the devastating effects of El Niño were reported, the likelihood that El Niño itself is caused by global warming was either whispered in passing, and always attached to an emphatic question mark, or flatly denied.

(7) Industry’s views on the other hand were almost always given respectfully and at length. The newspapers of record repeatedly cited a tiny minority of scientists whose views happened to coincide with those of the oil, coal, auto, and petrochemical industries. When the chairman of British Petroleum (a gigantic oil consortium) admits the reality of global warming ("there is now enough scientific evidence to warrant concern"), denies the existence of a crisis (we have plenty of time left to head off this problem), vaguely concedes that perhaps "it’s time we should do something," or makes a business decision to invest in solar energy, this is big news. In fact, British Petroleum’s views are cited in twelve of the 100 essays.2 Let me repeat this: A warning by 21 leading ecologists is cited in just one article; a major U.S. government study giving (again) the lie to the greenhouse controversy, is ignored in 99 articles and briefly (mis)reported in one; but the views of British Petroleum are reported in 12 articles!

(8) The history of energy conservation provides yet another proof that we can cut greenhouse gas emissions while running all the way to the bank. This historical lesson appears in any would-be holistic discussion of greenhouse policies (Lovins and Lovins 1991), and in many introductory college textbooks (Nissani 1997b). The DOE study I mentioned earlier (United States Department of Energy 1997, 1.2) put this indisputable historical fact thus: "Between 1973 and 1986, the nation’s consumption of primary energy froze . . . while the GNP grew by 35% . . . the country is saving $150 to $200 billion annually as a result of these improvements." (italics added)

Thus, the view that curbing greenhouse gases will save American consumers money is not only backed up by commonsense (as in the light bulb example above), not only by the views of most independent energy experts (e.g., Lovins and Lovins 1992; Miller 1998; United States Department of Energy 1997; United States National Academy of Sciences 1992), not only by the experiences of more energy-efficient nations, but by history. This is a fact: Each American household this year will save well over $1,000 thanks to past gains in energy efficiency. At the very least, those who claim that averting the greenhouse threat will now cost the average household $1,000 a year, or that it will cost the nation one red cent, need to show how and why the historical process of saving money through greater energy efficiencies would somehow, and quite miraculously, make an about-turn and start costing money. So we must ask: In how many essays has this remarkable historical process been mentioned, let alone explained?

The answer to this is astoundingly simple: Zero.

(9) History provides ample confirmation for this generalization: When forced to choose between a course of action which benefits their short-term interests but harms society, and a course of action which benefits society but harms their short-term interests, and when free to make this choice on their own, organizations tend to choose actions that benefit them and harm society (Nissani 1992). One cannot possibly make sense of the greenhouse controversy without realizing that it conforms to an invariable historical pattern, and that it has been preceded by controversies about feudalism, slavery, child labor, women rights, civil rights, neo-colonialism, pasteurization, soil conservation, asbestos, tobacco, leaded gasoline, silicone implants, DDT, CFCs, ionizing radiation, black lung, agent orange, PCBs, whaling, logging, rapid population growth, sea otter . . . "controversies." In each of these countless phoney controversies, long after the factual and ethical questions have been conclusively resolved, the organizations who benefited from such harmful practices or products defended them "as if endowed with the instincts of living beings" (York 1970, 235). They always found experts willing to back up their profitably mistaken viewpoint. They have always tried to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty. They were always able to unearth yet one more reason why the status quo was best for us.

It is just possible that the greenhouse controversy follows this near-universal pattern. Any self-contained picture of greenhouse politics must acknowledge this point. Journalists know (or ought to know), and they must help the reader know, that "the voice of the Plum Creek Timber Company is just not credible when it comes to old growth forest harvesting rates. The nuclear power industry has earned no points for accuracy and many for deliberate deception. The pesticide industry is not an unbiased observer on pesticide safety" (Meadows 1991, 76). Consistently ignoring this historical lesson, treating such industries and their paid experts as legitimate purveyors of truth, decency, and the public interest, are tantamount to deception.

This historical pattern has been totally ignored by the 100 articles under survey.

(10) An interdisciplinary perspective provides another powerful argument for meaningful greenhouse actions. All ecologists—and all students of complex systems—take interdependence for granted. Reducing greenhouse emissions, as we have seen, may eventually save every American household, roughly (I am not concerned in this paper with exact figures), an additional $1,000 a year (besides the more than $1,000 it has already realized thanks to the 1973-1986 energy efficiency measures). But such savings will have many other incontestably beneficial consequences:

In our sample of 100, implications of greenhouse policies to health, pollution, and other undisclosed additional gains have been mentioned in only three [WP 6/12], [NYT 6/27], [WP 9/6]. And even in these three, the point of interconnections is always made in passing in another context, it lacks specific examples and explanations, and is never accompanied by an attempt to assess the radical improvements in the quality of life that are sure to lie in the wake of the soft energy path (Lovins and Lovins 1992).

(11) The greenhouse debate involves, without a doubt, an ethical perspective. This perspective can be brought to life through questions such as: Has the average American a right to produce three times as much greenhouse gases as the average Frenchman? Forty times as much as the average Indian? Has North-American industry the right to risk the well-being of the world’s people? Has North America and Western Europe a right to risk the existence, or permanently harm the quality of life, of all future generations? Do we have a right to risk massive extinctions of other creatures? Should we further shrivel the lives of the world’s poorest and most oppressed one billion?

Yet in the newspapers, this ethical issue has never surfaced, leaving one to wonder: Isn’t there an ethical, or even spiritual, side to humanity? Do we really wish to live by fossil fuels, CFCs, and chemical fertilizers alone?

This greenhouse study allows us to raise anew the issue of media bias and insufficiency. We can perhaps do so by responding to 8 questions:

(1) Has a studious and intelligent reader of the 100 treatises a good understanding of the greenhouse threat?

No. As a matter effect, s/he would miserably fail a high school test about the nature, causes, consequences, or cures of the greenhouse threat.

(2) In particular, after reading close to 100,000 words in 100 articles on this issue, would that reader know more, or less, than a reader of a few pages of any decent human ecology text for non-science majors (e.g., Miller 1998)?

Much less.

(3) Long ago, Walter Lippmann’s (cf. Streitmatter 1997, 234) said: "The function of the news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relations with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act." Does this collection of 100, taken as a whole, convey news or truth?

News par excellence.

(4) Is the coverage reported the way Michael Parenti (1996) claims that politics is reported: "isolated daily particulars unconnected to the large structural forces that help create them?"


(5) Would the reader’s view of the greenhouse threat be deficient because "one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely"? (Bagdikian 1987, xvi)

Yes. The picture that emerges, besides being so superficial as to hardly be concerned with the greenhouse threat at all, also excludes several important categories of fragments. One hears from the chairmen of oil and car companies, from captive and marginal scientists, occasionally from mainstream scientists or environmentalists, but rarely from such prominent scholars as Lovins and Lovins (1992) or Asimov and Pohl (1991), rarely about a warning to humanity which had been signed by more than half the world’s living Nobel laureates, never directly from Greenpeace or Rainforest Action. One hears about CO2, but not about ethics or the profit motive.

(6) Consider again readers who, for five months, labored through, and remembered, everything four of the most respected newspapers in the land saw fit to print about something that may turn out to be one of the most important issues that ever faced our species. Would such readers, in Thomas Jefferson words (Schmuhl 1992, 69) live and die in the mistaken "belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time"?

Yes. This is perhaps the media’s most insidious achievement: Giving people a caricature of reality, yet somehow managing to implant in them the conviction that they know something of "what has been passing in the world in their time."

(7) On August 12, 1997, the New York Times promised its readers: "Between now and December, when representatives of most nations will meet in Japan to discuss limits on greenhouse gases, The Times will examine the science, politics and economics of climate change." [NYT 8/12] Did the Times (and the other three) evince any signs of planning to keep the stated (or implied) promise of providing such comprehensive coverage?


(8) Above all, is the reader presented "with enough information to make up his or her own mind"?

No. The reader is presented with an endless parade of the views and speeches of Presidents and CEOs, Senators and Industrialists, independent scientists and captive scientists; with scientific news about one or another aspect of the greenhouse effect; with national and international negotiations. Yet throughout this barrage there is the shared, tacit assumption that the reader has already the background information to fit these disconnected fragments into a larger, meaningful context. But that larger context, that "enough information" is never given. It follows that environmental experts can derive some useful information from skimming newspapers but that the rest of us can learn more about environmental politics from midday naps than from a lifetime of reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to radio.3

In 1919 Upton Sinclair (p. 9) sizzled: "The social body to which we belong is at this moment passing through one of the greatest crises of its history . . . What if the nerves upon which we depend for knowledge of this social body should give us false reports of its condition?"

At the close of this millennium, science, nuclearism, and global environmental threats foreclose the option of letting this question dry up, like a raisin in the sun, another eighty years. In Sinclair’s days, a coldhearted society could prefer mammon to truth and still muddle along. Now, ignorance poses unacceptable risks (Nissani 1997c).



1. This DOE study was merely the latest in a series of such reports. For instance, in 1992 the National Academy of Sciences said that "savings in both carbon emissions and dollars can be readily accomplished through such simple steps as adding triple pane windows to existing buildings and improving the design of hot water tanks. For the United States alone, such measures would cut total CO2 emissions by some 18%, and would save some $56 billion per year" (p. 240).

2. The more things change, the more they stay the same. See, in particular, Sinclair, 1919, Chap. XXII ("A Millionaire and an Author").

3. Socrates: "It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know."





Donna Hoefler-Nissani, Brian Martin, Jim Michels, and Norma Shifrin have all commented on an earlier draft of this essay; they all have my heartfelt thanks.