Study: Conservative Media Causes Viewers to Distrust Scientists and Therefore Creates Global Warming Skeptics

Few would question what seems to be a divide along political party lines as it pertains to belief in man-made climate change. A study by researchers at several U.S. universities has sought out why such a difference in opinion exists and is pointing the finger at the conservative media.

conservative media climate skeptic
A study based on analysis of prior studies and a survey of Americans that those who use conservative media for news about global warming are more likely to question that it is man made and distrust scientists. (Image: Shutterstock.com)

How are more conservative leaning outlets leading to a distrust in climate science? According to the study, by creating a distrust in scientists themselves.

“Results demonstrate that conservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening,” the study’s abstract states. “By contrast, use of non-conservative media increases trust in scientists, which, in turn, increases certainty that global warming is happening.”

The study — An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming — was published by Public Understanding of Science. It calls Americans’ questioning man-made global warming, in part, “the product of a coordinated denial movement.” This movement “uses conservative media” to introduce doubt on the topic among its “ideologically receptive audiences” through a strategy that includes “undermining scientists and their research.”

In case you’re wondering, the study cites Fox News and conservative radio programs, like The Rush Limbaugh Show, as those that are “more supportive of conservative and Republican interests than CNN, MSNBC and the national network news programs.” The study says nothing as to whether these latter outlets are therefore more supportive of liberal and Democratic interests.

The research then cites other studies that have found outlets like Fox News “airs significantly more stories that question the existence of human-caused climate change than stories that accept these scientific claims.”

Here’s how the study explains a correlation between Amercians’ trust in scientists and media outlets:

We propose that, in the USA, the media sources preferred by liberals and conservatives play a role in shaping their respective levels of trust toward scientists. This argument is consistent with the finding that well-educated American conservatives have become more dis- trusting of scientists (Gauchat, 2012), likely due to their heightened attention to in-group messag- ing. Our explanation for this potential media effect on trust derives from the premise that institutional trust is built upon shared values (Siegrist et al., 2000). Further, because people’s knowledge of most scientific issues, including climate change, is relatively limited (Leiserowitz et al., 2010), the salient values used to judge trustworthiness are likely to be general rather than specific (i.e. based on agree- ment and sympathy rather than on carefully reasoned arguments or direct knowledge). In this con- text, different media outlets help to cue audiences as to whether a particular institution or set of institutional actors, such as scientists, share a person’s values and are thus trustworthy.

Basically, the study states that conservative media presents scientists in a way that they shouldn’t immediately be trusted while it also notes that “non-conservative American news sources […] communicate the message that climate science and scientists should be trusted.”

To reach the conclusion that those who lean more right politically have more of a distrust in scientists, the researchers conducted a test using an online panel of 50,000 Americans, maintained by Knowledge Networks, representative of the American public. These participants were asked:

  • How often they watch Fox News and listened to The Rush Limbaugh Show;
  • How often they watched CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio and network news;
  • How much they trusted or distrusted  scientists as a source of information about global warming; and
  • If they thought global warming was happening, why or why not.

They also answered questions as to the degree of their political affiliation, their religious affiliations, and other demographics like gender, age, race, education and income.

While the authors state that their findings confirm those from other studies that Americans using more conservative media outlets have less confidence in the occurrence of man-made global warming, they note that this study takes it a step further by factoring trust in scientists:

The results demonstrate that the negative effect of conservative media use on global warming belief certainty is due, at least in part, to the negative effect of conservative media use on trust in scientists. The positive effect of non-conservative media use on belief certainty is likewise explained by the positive effect of non-conservative media use on trust. Furthermore, the use of within-subject panel data and longitudinal analysis shows that media affects people’s level of trust in scientists.

Ultimately, the authors state that their review shows how with complex issues like global warming, Americans are likely to rely on heuristics (problem-solving), which leads them to trusting sources used by the media (or not) to come up with their conclusions on the topic.

The research was funded by several grants. Some of which were through the 11th Hour Project, an organization that “promotes a fuller understanding of the impact of human activity within the web of interdependent living systems”; the Pacific Foundation, whose mission is to “address issues of social justice, the environment, arts and technology”; the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, whose mission is to “support the transition to a more environmentally resilient, stable, and sustainable planet”; and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, which “seeks to raise awareness of urgent environmental issues.”

(H/T: Mother Jones)

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