A March 2009 Gallup Poll survey points to “the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade” of Gallup polling on the issue.

The survey says most Americans think global warming is “either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated.” But two-in-five say the media are exaggerating the issue. In 2006, Gallup reported, 66 percent of those polled found the issue reported correctly or underestimated in news reports, with 30 percent finding it exaggerated. The 2009 polling figures show 57 percent in the correct/underestimated category, and 41 percent in the exaggerated category.

The Gallup survey reports a continuation of a trend first reported in 1997, with those identifying themselves as Republicans increasingly likely to think the media are exaggerating the issue. Perhaps more troubling to those hoping to build political momentum in the U.S. under the new Obama administration and in advance of key Capitol Hill legislative battles and year-end international negotiations in Copenhagen: more political independents than in the past think the news media are exaggerating the issue.

The uptick in questioning about the seriousness of the climate change issue was reported to be most pronounced among over-age-30 Americans, with the 18- to 29-year olds most likely to be dealing with the issue long into the future remaining unchanged in their views. The Gallup organization’s March 5-8 polling suggested not only that more Americans are dismissive of media concerns over the issue, but also that Americans appear “a bit less concerned about the seriousness of global warming” over all.

Those findings run squarely counter to findings by many climate scientists that the climate change challenges have been shown to be more serious, rather than less, and claims by many journalists and journalism scholars (see related story on Eric Pooley’s research posted with this update) that the media too often under-play what some see as “the issue of the century.”

“Overall,” Gallup reported on its website, “worry is similar to points at the start of the decade, but it is down from 66 percent a year ago and from 65 percent in 2007.” Asked this year to specifically prioritize eight environmental issues according to their levels of concern, Gallup found that global warming ranked last … “the only issue for which public concern dropped significantly in the past year.” Contrasted with 61 percent of those polled who in 2008 told Gallup they thought global warming is occurring, only 53 percent took that position in 2009. A “record high – 16 percent say the effects will never occur,” contrasted to the previous record high of 11 percent taking that view.

Gallup’s own analysis said the troubled economy might be seen as the cause for the fall-off in public concern, but it added that “the solitary drop in concern this year about global warming, among the eight specific environmental issues Gallup tested, suggests that something unique may be happening with the issue.”

Among policy proponents opposing legislative or regulatory initiatives to control greenhouse gas emissions, the Gallup findings were hailed as a sign that their contrarian messaging and doubts over the science are getting through to the public. Proponents of strong action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand, tended to describe the Gallup findings as akin to a fleeting snapshot in time, a reaction to a more policy-supportive Obama administration, or perhaps a fluke, albeit a highly publicized one, among other public opinion surveys backing strong climate change initiatives.

One point to perhaps keep in mind: No one who really knows much about the climate change issue argues that the warming trend will be linear and without periodic ups and downs. The same no doubt applies to public attitudes on the issue. The challenge for responsible journalists remains pretty much the same: Report the most authoritative scientific findings and claims with a skeptical eye, and follow the various policy responses with the same scrutiny you might apply to any other policy arena.

The Gallup results were based on telephone interviews with 1,012 adults 18 and older nationally. Based on that sampling, Gallup claims a 95 percent confidence level with a maximum margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It cautions that “question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.”

In other words: Journalists, beware.

(Headline of this article edited on 3/26/09)