Accurate Science Reporting Influences Americans’ Climate Change Beliefs Only Briefly, Study Suggests

A newspaper with the headline "Climate Change Time Bomb" is on fire
A new study explores how climate change reporting influences Americans' opinions on the subject. RapidEye / iStock / Getty Images Plus
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Science reporting is an important part of informing the public on climate change, but how much does it actually influence Americans to adopt more accurate views on the subject?

A new study led by associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University Thomas Wood suggests that, while science reporting on the subject of climate change does result in Americans having more accurate opinions and support of government action on climate change, the gains are short-lived, reported The Ohio State University.

The researchers found that the accurate beliefs developed diminish rapidly and can be worn down by exposure to coverage that questions climate change.

“It is not the case that the American public does not respond to scientifically informed reporting, when they are exposed to it. But even factually accurate science reporting recedes from people’s frame of reference very quickly,” Wood said, as The Guardian reported.

The results of the study will be published on June 24 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was conducted in four parts during the fall of 2020 and involved 2,898 online participants, reported The Ohio State University. During the first part, participants read reliable popular media articles covering climate change that communicated the scientific consensus.

In the second and third parts of the study, participants read an opinion questioning climate science, an additional scientific article, an article covering the partisan discourse on climate change or an article on an entirely different subject.

The fourth part of the study involved participants being asked their individual beliefs on climate change science, as well as their opinions on matters of policy.

Following each part of the study, participants were asked if they believed climate change is actually occurring and caused by humans. They were also asked whether they supported government action concerning climate change, as well as whether they supported renewable energy.

The study showed that reading articles with accurate information swayed the opinions of Republicans and those who had rejected the idea of human-caused climate change at first, in addition to Democrats.

“Not only did science reporting change people’s factual understanding, it also moved their political preferences,” said Wood, as The Ohio State University reported. “It made them think that climate change was a pressing government concern that government should do more about.”

The study found that the positive influence on the participants’ beliefs didn’t last, however, and that the opinion pieces reversed the accurate beliefs brought about by the science articles. The results also showed that articles dealing with partisan disputes didn’t have quantifiable effects on the attitudes and beliefs of the study’s participants.

According to a 2021 study, “Climate change in news media across the globe: An automated analysis of issue attention and themes in climate change coverage in 10 countries (2006–2018),” published in the journal Global Environmental Change, subject matter is also important.

“Journalists can also portray climate change as a more pervasive issue through the content of news – for example, by emphasizing the societal dimension of climate change and illustrating how humans are aware of, affected by, battle, or cause climate change,” the study said.

On the whole, the study conducted by Wood and his colleagues suggested that the media plays an important part in the attitudes and beliefs of Americans on issues of scientific importance such as climate change.

“It was striking to us how amenable the subjects in our study were to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,” said Wood, as reported by The Ohio State University.

While the news media often concentrates on new information, the study’s results run contrary to the effectiveness of that practice when it comes to climate change.

“What we found suggests that people need to hear the same accurate messages about climate change again and again. If they only hear it once, it recedes very quickly,” said Wood, as The Ohio State University reported. “The news media isn’t designed to act that way.”

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