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Climate Change Reporting and Bias

The British newspaper the Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that the BBC has adopted new editorial guidelines that expressly call for its reporters to be impartial on science issues, suggesting that the new rules are a response to criticism that the storied news agency was not giving adequate coverage to climate change skeptics.

The Telegraph story is thin on details, and it doesn’t appear that the new guidelines reference climate change specifically, but the story raises a broader question about how reporters should cover global warming skeptics.

In the United States, there is no doubt that many Americans are skeptical of climate change. An Oct. 10 Rasmussen poll shows that while 59 percent of Americans see global warming as a “serious issue,” just 39 percent think climate change is caused by human activity. About 42 percent think global warming is caused by “long-term planetary trends” and 7 percent think other causes lead to climate change.

At the same time, some Republicans in Congress (see Inhofe, James) have raised questions about climate change. And Think Progress has identified a slew of Senate races and 14 key House races in the upcoming midterm elections in which the Republican candidate has raised questions about the science behind climate change and/or made clear his or her opposition to comprehensive climate legislation. It has also identified four gubernatorial races with Republicans who have raised similar questions.

And yet the science tells a different story. Scientists have warned that we must reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million or risk the effects of catastrophic climate change, including drought, desertification and sea-level rise.

In the end, it appears to come down to politics versus science. In the world of Washington, facts are often secondary (see panels, death) and conflict gets top billing. Scientific findings and reports rarely take center stage, and when they do it’s often through the lens of politics (Politician A loved the report, Politician B slammed the report).

Over the next couple months, I’m going to make an effort to report more on the science behind climate change. We’ll see how that goes…

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