Matt Nisbet’s ‘Climate Shift’ research report raised headline-grabbing points on fundraising successes by those advocating action on climate change. But it’s what lies behind those headlines — and relating specifically to media coverage — that also warrants further review and analysis.

Few pieces of recent academic research on climate change have stirred up as much controversy as American University professor Matthew Nisbet’s April 2011 report “Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate.”

The report’s biggest headline-grabbing finding — that the environmental lobby is now holding its own in the money race with industry groups opposing carbon regulations — doubtless will generate further analysis, and one can imagine more such annual scorecards assessing this power struggle. And the questions “Climate Shift” raises about the relative political wisdom — or lack of same — in pushing the failed cap-and-trade bill in Congress may well be debated by historians for years to come.

Perhaps the most underappreciated facet of the scholarship that Nisbet put forth, however, involves his analysis of media coverage in the years 2009-2010, contained in his provocatively titled chapter 3, “The Death of a Norm: Evaluating False Balance in News Coverage.”

According to Nisbet’s story-by-story analysis that covers the vertiginous period involving Copenhagen, the so-called “climategate” hacked e-mails, and federal cap-and-trade, the mainstream media — represented in his analysis by The New York Times,, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Washington Post — basically moved past the oft-criticized journalistic mode of “he said, she said,” or “false balance.” In its place, those media generally reflected the “consensus science” as backed by organizations such as the U.N.’s IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences and most of its international counterparts. (The opinion pages of the Journal are bracketed as an exception, and Nisbet’s analysis shows that its editorials do indeed continue to cast doubt on climate science.)

Nisbet’s assertion is a profound one, with significant implications. His stated goal with “Climate Shift” is to help reorient the priorities of groups trying to combat global change through the promotion of science and smart messaging to the public. (See companion posting based on author’s extensive e-mail interview with Nisbet.)

“[I]f trend-setting national media have overwhelmingly portrayed the consensus views on the fundamentals of climate science (as the report’s findings indicate),” Nisbet wrote in a recent e-mail interview with The Yale Forum, “then we should be turning to other types of media organizations in our engagement efforts and focusing on other dimensions of coverage, including … subsidizing the ability of local and regional media to cover climate change and energy insecurity as these challenges relate to their region and communities.” These are ideas Nisbet has raised also in previous reports.

Lines of Criticism

Bloggers at Media Matters do criticize how Nisbet interprets his data around the “climategate” period — one of the few on-the-numbers critiques. Nisbet responds that changes in coverage since then are either not “statistically significant” or “not meaningful.”

Other than that, few have questioned the particulars of Nisbet’s labor-intensive analysis of how those five outlets performed. Their selection — and the exclusion of others — though, is the subject of debate.

Nisbet says he chose those specific news outlets because they set the news agenda and have high-volume traffic, as reflected in Nielsen-tabulated figures., the Post and the Times ranked numbers 4, 5 and 9, respectively, in terms of web traffic in 2009. But given that news aggregators such as Yahoo, AOL, and Google ranked 1, 3, and 6, respectively, one might think that Nisbet’s universe of analysis did not capture the true flow of public news information.

The combined traffic of the aggregators is nearly twice that of the news sites Nisbet focused on. Admittedly, though, these aggregators would be a moving target — and an empirical analysis of the quality of news linked to would be difficult — but that’s where some huge portion of the public gets its news and information, and therefore its impressions and opinions.

(One other quibble, about the selection of Politico: Nisbet calls it “the paper ‘the White House wakes up to,’ as memorably headlined in a profile at The New York Times.” In fact, the article he cites is really just a profile of Politico reporter Mike Allen and his important day calendar “Playbook” blog. Though Politico is powerful and prolific, what constitutes “the paper of record for members of Congress,” as Nisbet puts it, may be an issue of reasonable disagreement among media watchers.)

Climate communications expert and University of Colorado-Boulder professor Max Boykoff was one of the formal reviewers for the “Climate Shift” report. He told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview, “Overall, I found [Nisbet’s] work in Chapter 3 to be good. As he assembled it I spoke with Matt multiple times. (Chapter 3 was the part of the report I most focused on). We discussed how to replicate the methods and approaches that I undertook in my work on empirically testing the accuracy of coverage about human contributions to climate change (aka, the ‘balance as bias’ thesis). His methods and findings (re: WSJ op-ed divergence etc.) appeared valid and reliable.”

Still, Boykoff stated a potentially striking limitation of this type of analysis in his reviewer comments submitted back to Nisbet: Such analysis “still isn’t equipped to gauge how one particular carefully/prominently/well- or ill-timed article or commentary could have a much greater influence on public perceptions and views than consistently inaccurate treatment. In other words, the sometimes haphazard nature of media consumption — from skimming articles to just hearing/watching portions of a segment — isn’t accounted for through this approach. At the end of the day, these studies … struggle to account for ‘selective listening’ or ‘selective reading’ that we actually engage in during our daily lives.”

Boykoff also said he told Nisbet that his (Nisbet’s) research had not provided sufficient support for the “Climate Shift” report’s contention that “even in a world of blogs and fragmented audiences, the coverage appearing at these outlets strongly shapes the news decisions made at the broadcast and cable networks and informs the decisions of policymakers.”

The Fox News Question

Other notable criticisms of Nisbet’s approach in Chapter 3 of his report have focused on his exclusion of television sources, particularly Fox News. Prolific blogger and energy/climate expert Joseph Romm, who leveled ferocious criticism of Nisbet on his “Climate Progress” blog, makes much of this point. This dispute is a tricky one, resting on a difficult-to-resolve social science debate about how “persuade-able” the Fox News audience is, and just how best to measure the impacts of its huge ratings and online readership as part of American political consciousness.

In his comments to The Yale Forum, Nisbet replied, “As I discuss in the report, the audience for Fox News and political talk radio tend to be strongly self-selecting with consumption of these media tending to reinforce the views of those already doubtful or dismissive of climate change (approximately 25 percent of Americans).” Moreover, he says it “is not clear how these unsurprising findings would help us to move forward since any level of engagement with Fox News producers or talk radio hosts is unlikely to lead to changes in their coverage patterns. We can complain about and criticize these outlets, but much of the criticism and anger, I would argue, often ends up distracting us from initiatives where we can make a difference with journalists, editors, and with different publics.”

This latter point, of course, highlights an important facet of Nisbet’s project, namely that it has a particular goal, an “agenda” even, that puts an emphasis on both utility, or making a “difference,” and on truth as criteria for inquiry. (It’s possible this is where he opens the door for controversy, as it leaves him open to criticisms that he is downplaying conservative media and thereby painting an unduly positive picture of the U.S. media as a whole on climate issues.)

Columbia Journalism Review science editor Curtis Brainard told The Yale Forum recently that he thinks the spirit of Nisbet’s report is basically right in Chapter 3, at least as it relates to “news reporters and news articles.” For Nisbet and Brainard both, broad accusations that public ignorance is the media’s “fault” are no longer well-founded.

“There is this conventional wisdom floating around out there that journalists are inept, rarely able to get their facts straight or explain or deliver an accurate account of events,” Brainard wrote in an e-mail. “They’re not. But it’s much easier for activists and other policy or program stakeholders to blame the media when things don’t go their way than to analyze the much more complicated interplay of multiple factors.”

(As an aside, Brainard notes that he wrote about precisely this dynamic in his recent article, “Tornadoes and Climate Change,” which pushes back against such charges leveled by environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben. Brainard says McKibben is too quick to condemn the media as a whole for not making connections between various extreme weather events.)

We’re past those earlier days, Brainard told The Yale Forum, when the basic questions about climate science are portrayed in most mainstream news media as being unsettled: “The coverage has become so much more sophisticated since then, delving into the specific consequences of climate change, from sea level rise, to changing precipitation and drought patterns, to consequences for flora and fauna. Many reporters struggle to accurately explain the highly uncertain and nuanced science underlying these phenomena, but the flaws in the coverage are quite different from the false balance that was on exhibit before, say, 2006. First of all, there is nowhere near as much scientific consensus about these finer points of climate science as there is about the fundamentals (i.e., the Earth is warming, and humans are most likely to blame), so today’s stories are really apples compared with yesterday’s oranges.”

Work Ahead for Media, Scholars

If Nisbet’s report has an underlying flaw, perhaps, it may be in its packaging, particularly in its “Move On”-style message and ambition to deliver a definitive verdict. Its real virtue is that it has just very effectively — whether or not one buys it all — started a different kind of conversation. And given that just five outlets were analyzed in the report, there is certainly much more conversation to be had.

As mentioned, Nisbet has said he is already carrying out new research and further study on local and regional media. (See his latest thoughts on this issue as they relate to Chicago.) It’s a cause on which all academics and media professionals and critics might agree, as the business model for such outlets continues to erode. Local information ecosystems are changing, shifting, and in many cases decaying. But many observers point out how essential they remain.

“It would also be good to look at the practically countless number of local TV network affiliates across the country since, collectively, they are where most Americans still get their news,” Brainard also noted.

“Local newspapers, as Pew has documented, remain at the center of the local media ecosystem, with the overwhelming number of regional/local issues covered by local TV news and at local blogs originating from local newspaper coverage,” Nisbet said. “In this sense, on climate change and energy, we should think about local and regional newspapers as being part of the central communication infrastructure that regions and communities need to learn, connect, plan and make collective choices on the issue.”

Perhaps, through further studies by Nisbet and others, this important work on local and regional media — their shortcomings and needs — can shed additional light.

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...