Once a journalist, former Vice President savages media coverage of climate science in a recent Rolling Stone essay. Hot rhetoric on a hot issue, but journalists and academics raise points calling into question Gore’s perhaps-dated perspective and analysis.

One-time Nashville Tennessean metro reporter, Columbia Journalism School lecturer, and U.S. Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., recently returned to the climate change/journalism spotlight with a 6,997-word essay, “Climate of Denial,” in Rolling Stone. In it, he hammers the news media for being — as depicted in a colorful quasi-allegory that opens the piece — a fake referee at a fake wrestling match.

The verbiage he attaches to the media’s current state and ongoing practice is something of a rhetorical atomic elbow: “seems confused,” “completely ignore,” “looked the other way,” “once again distracted,” “getting instructions from their owners.” The blows rain down.

News Analysis

“As with the invasion of Iraq,” Gore writes, “some are hyperactive cheerleaders for the deception, while others are intimidated into complicity, timidity, and silence by the astonishing vitriol heaped upon those who dare to present the best evidence in a professional manner.”

It is vintage Gore, echoing his 2006 critique in “An Inconvenient Truth” that the news media have engaged in inexcusable false balance by consistently quoting paid deniers as being on par with expert scientists: “That disgraceful fact is a notable stain on America’s modern news media, and many leaders of journalism are belatedly taking steps to correct it.”

As new evidence of media disgrace, Gore cites and mocks the at-times breathless coverage of the hacked e-mail scandal of 2009/2010, so-called “climategate,” which indeed most serious media analysts believe was vastly overplayed and hyped. But Gore also asserts that the media are being too timid in connecting the dots between extreme weather events and anthropogenic climate change. “It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation,” he writes, turning a bit of fundamentalist “end-times” imagery on its head and setting up an acid bit of sarcasm. “Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other.”

In sum, Gore draws an equivalency between an earlier media era, when basic issues of climate science were represented in the media as dubious, and the current 2011 media moment, when the new major flashpoint questions relate to specific extreme weather events.

Vintage Gore, But Too Vintage?

In years past, Gore’s points may have gotten nods of approval from the more sage and serious members of the press corps. But what to make of the reaction now of someone like Bryan Walsh of Time?

“I think Gore has an outmoded view of the media — which is ironic, considering he’s a new media mogul himself,” Walsh writes in a blog post titled, “Gore Chides Obama on Climate. But His Real Beef — Not So Fairly — Is with the Media.” He continues:

Gore is absolutely right that the scientific consensus over the reality of manmade climate change has grown increasingly strong in recent years. Any reporter who writes otherwise deserves to be horsewhipped by Joe Romm. But consensus on the reality of climate change is not the same thing as consensus on the exact effects and severity of climate change, where there is significant and natural scientific debate. Nor is there consensus — or some kind of unimpeachable fact — on how we as a nation and a world should deal with climate change. The reporting should reflect that very lively debate — a fact that sometimes gets forgotten by environmentalists.

Walsh also points to what he sees as a significant hole in Gore’s current intellectual framework. “This idea Gore seems to have — and it’s one shared by many in the environmental movement — that the unfiltered message would alone be enough to galvanize Americans into massive action on climate change just isn’t true.” Walsh references Andy Revkin’s 2010 post, “What if the Public Had Perfect Information?“, where the DotEarth author noted that even well-informed news stories on climate don’t necessarily have the “issue salience” that would bring them to prominence. Moreover, they cannot in good faith present immediate risks that would allow them to tap into some of the public’s “finite pool of worry.”

Certainly, part of this kind of Gore-Walsh disagreement is a function of the age-old split between climate activists and climate reporters. However, there are other ways of making sense of this very real wrestling match.

Cultural Cognition: An Emerging Idea

Step back from the media debate to a fascinating area of academic study that reexamines the field of climate communications. Take for example Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project and two papers co-authored by, among others, Yale Professor Dan Kahan: “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” and “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Cultural Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change.”

Kahan’s essential insight is that scientific knowledge is filtered through a more fundamental set of cultural values, and people ultimately want — and this is an utterly rational decision — to be tied to groups with whom they share values. To adopt heretical views based on value-neutral scientific facts is not necessarily “rational.” And so, simply blasting more facts at those who would reject science because of their shared community values is not necessarily the solution.

In remarks shared with The Yale Forum and cross-posted at the blog “Balkinization,” Kahan says that he disagrees with what appears to be Gore’s solution to the climate communications problem. Kahan argues that climate communicators should work to create …

an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities. In that sort of environment, we can rely on the trust in science and scientists common to the overwhelming majority of cultural communities in our society to guide citizens toward acceptance of the best available science — much as it has on myriad other issues so numerous, so mundane (“take penicillin for strep throat”; “use a GPS system to keep from getting lost”) that they are essentially taken for granted.

Noting that the Gore view seems “very 1.0,” Kahan also said that in his Rolling Stone essay, the former vice president “calls the debate over climate change ‘a struggle for the soul of America.’ He’s right; but that’s exactly the problem. In ‘battles’ over ‘souls,’ citizens of a diverse, pluralistic society will naturally disagree — intensely. We’d all be better off if the issue had never come to bear connotations so fraught.”

Gore could certainly have enlisted academic research to support some of his views, but he nevertheless would need to deal with a lot of other findings that run counter to his basic premise. And he may be hard-pressed to explain how a “perfect press” that ignored all denialist nonsense is anything more than one necessary condition among many others — not a sufficient one — to spur mass action to address climate change.

A 2009 paper in Climate Change that surveys the field of climate communications, “Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future Directions,” notes that “although further education and increases in scientific literacy are essential and welcome for many reasons, it is far too simplistic to assume that individuals merely lack education, information, or understanding of climate change, and if these knowledge gaps could be filled and lay individuals somehow could be forced to interpret the findings in a particular way, they would automatically act to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint.”

Another 2011 study, from researchers at Columbia University and the National Research Council, “Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States,” suggests that the deep communications problems Gore blames on the vagaries of the media are primarily attributable to the “inherent difficulty of understanding climate change [and] the mismatch between people’s usual modes of understanding and the task.” The study puts it another way: “Public understanding of climate change needs improvement, but the problem is not one of ‘illiteracy.’ In comparison to the rest of the world, the American public has an average amount of knowledge about climate change and an average understanding of climate change phenomena.”

Not Responsible for ‘Pronouncing a Winner’?

Even if Gore could sustain his argument against both Kahan’s cultural filter critiques and Walsh’s points that the science within climate science has uncertainty — and that even a perfectly informative media would not be a sufficient solution — some academics would say the former vice president may need more empirical evidence to justify his premise that the media are a major factor in muddying public opinion on climate change. No doubt, there was ample research on the media practice of “false balance” during the early and mid-2000s, and work by scholars such as Max Boykoff have documented these pernicious practices and effects. This is precisely what Gore attacked in “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006.

But the question remains whether or not Gore’s view of the press is outdated, a kind of knee-jerk “manufactured dissent” that is increasingly the artifact of a different era. (As discussed recently at The Yale Forum, some scholars believe there is an improved “new normal” for the media on climate change issues, though others disagree vigorously.)

Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, a well-known climate communications expert who has polled on these issues for more than a decade, says that Gore fails to make the media-public opinion connection now.

“As a backdrop to Gore’s assertions, it’s useful to consider evidence on the impact that the news media have had on Americans’ thinking about this issue,” Krosnick told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview. “According to our national surveys, large majorities of Americans have believed that climate change is real and human-caused, will have undesirable consequences, and merits substantial government action to address it. These majorities rose a little in the years preceding 2007 and fell a bit in the years after, but the majorities remain large. Mr. Gore might look at these data and say: ‘Ah, ha! Just as I expected! During the last 15 years, climate scientists have generated more and more evidence of the existence and threat of warming, but Americans are not being well-informed of this growing consensus by the media, so public opinion has held relatively steady instead of moving toward my views even more. The climate science is not getting the attention it deserves from the news media!’”

Krosnick continued: “But I’m not sure this would be a fair accusation: I’d say the news media have paid plenty of attention to the climate science, but truth be told, that science is now an ‘old story,’ one the media have told many, many times before. It’s understandable, therefore, that every new climate study is not at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country. So given today’s ethics and principles of journalism, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to fault the news professionals for practicing their craft as they do.”

As mentioned, Gore might counter that extreme weather events and other natural occurrences — he discusses the evidence in his Rolling Stone article relating to heat, floods, drought, and melting ice — need to be connected more strongly by the news media to anthropogenic climate change. On this new point of contention, perhaps only the scientists can indeed “referee” …

The issue comes back to whether or not Gore is fair to the media or is too broad-brush in his critique, both substantively and tonally, and whether his wrestling analogy is even apt.

“Mr. Gore portrays the news media as a referee in a wrestling match-like bout between ‘Science and Reason’ and ‘Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues,’” said Krosnick.

“I don’t view the news media that way, and I don’t think news media personnel do, either. At its core, journalism involves documenting what happened, and what people said and did. In carrying out that process, journalism professionals often do their best to determine whether assertions of fact are actually correct. But the latter is a secondary part of their jobs, and in the end, the news media are neither responsible for pronouncing a winner (as Gore’s wrestling referee is) in a debate, nor are those professionals necessarily capable of doing so.”

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...