A recent study by researchers Erik Nisbet, Kathryn Cooper, and R. Kelly Garrett from Ohio State University found evidence that, depending on the issue, liberals and conservatives were similarly likely to distrust science. The distrust by the liberal and conservative groups was higher when the issues were politically charged. These issues included climate change, evolution (liberals more likely to trust science), and fracking, nuclear power (conservatives more likely to trust science). The researchers pointed to the media as one of the factors that likely politicizes these debates, and as a result, harms scientific progress related to educating the public.
Global warming is one of the most hotly debated political issues in the US today. Issues stemming from global warming range from national investments in alternative energy sources, where and whether or not to drill for oil, and increased tax rates for companies that consume high levels of fossil fuels. Among politicians, these issues typically fall along partisan lines. Democrats are more likely to favor investing government funds in alternative energy, restricting increased oil drilling, and taxing companies for fossil fuel consumption while Republicans are more likely oppose these things.
In the August 2011 edition of the Journal of Communication, Xiaoquan Zhao of George Mason University, Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, Edward W. Maibach of George Mason University, and Connie Roser-Renouf of George Mason University conducted a study regarding media consumption habits and global warming perceptions. The results of their study support the notion that politicians and the news media have contributed to making global warming a partisan issue.
The study consisted of online panel survey data of 2,164 U.S. residents age 18 and older. The respondents indicated on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very closely) to what kind of news they paid attention. Categories that indicated that the respondents paid attention to political news were national politics, state politics, and local politics. The categories the environment and science and technology indicated that the respondents paid attention to science and environment news. In order to gauge science-based beliefs, the researchers asked respondents about their certainty that global warming is occurring, perceived human cause, and perceived scientific agreement over the issue. They also asked respondents about their perceived risk of global warming (happening now, harm you personally, impacts over the next 20 years), as well as their level of support for emission reducing policies. In addition, political ideology, religiosity, and demographics were part of the analysis.
They found that individuals who paid attention to science/environment news possessed views in-line with science-based beliefs. That is, people who consumed science/environment news perceived global warming as a valid threat supported by evidence from the scientific community. Conversely, individuals who paid attention to political news viewed global warming as a matter of debate, of lower risk, and had fewer views based on scientific beliefs.
The researchers attribute part of the reason for the divide to the notion that scientific/environmental journalists are becoming more educated regarding scientific facts of global warming. The vast majority of scientific research supports claims that global warming is occurring and that consumption of carbon by humans exacerbates the problem. As such, individuals who consume science-based news possess views more closely related to the scientific community pertaining to global warming.
Global warming is a distinctive issue because the effects are gradual and not yet apparent to a lot of people. In general, the American public thinks the urgency of global warming is overstated. The media is essential in disseminating information about uniquely complicated issues like global warming, and vibrant public discourse depends on accurate information.
It is possible that political news journalists and reporters adherence to objectivity has something to do with the divergent opinions from the individuals that consume this news. If an issue is presented as partisan by politicians, then journalists likely feel obligated to report both sides of the story, even if facts are present that rebut one of the sides (think about the “birther” and “death panels” issues). A common assumption in political communication scholarship is that politically engaged individuals who consume public affairs news possess higher levels of political knowledge. This study lends itself to the argument that not all news is equal, and that the type of news an individual pays attention to reflects that individuals’ knowledge regarding issues.