Science coverage of climate change can change minds – briefly

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Scientific reports on climate change are leading Americans to adopt more definite beliefs and support government action on the issue — but those gains are fragile, a new study finds.

Researchers have found that these accurate beliefs quickly fade and can erode when people are exposed to skeptical coverage of climate change.

“It is not true that the American public does not respond to scientifically informed news reporting when exposed to it,” said Thomas Woodassociate professor of political science at Ohio State University.

“But even factually accurate scientific reports drift away from people’s frame of reference very quickly.”

The study will be published on June 24, 2022 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Wood conducted the study with Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Ethan Porter of George Washington University.

The results showed that accurate science reporting didn’t just convince Democrats — Republicans and people who initially rejected human-caused climate change also had their opinions changed by reading accurate articles.

The study involved 2,898 online participants who took part in four waves of the experiment in fall 2020.

In the first wave, they all read authentic articles in popular media that provided information that reflected the scientific consensus on climate change.

In the second and third waves of the experiment, they read either another scientific article, an opinion piece skeptical of climate science, an article that discussed the partisan debate on climate change, or a article on an unrelated topic.

In the fourth wave, participants were simply asked about their beliefs about the science of climate change and their political attitudes.

To gauge participants’ scientific understanding, researchers were asked after each wave if they (correctly) believed that climate change was happening and had a human cause. To gauge their attitudes, the researchers asked participants if they were in favor of government action on climate change and if they were in favor of renewable energy.

Wood said it was significant that accurate reporting had positive effects on all groups, including Republicans and those who initially rejected climate change. But it was all the more encouraging as it affected mentalities.

“Not only did science reporting change people’s factual understanding, it also changed their political preferences,” he said.

“It made them think that climate change was an urgent government concern that the government should be doing more about.”

But the positive effects on people’s beliefs were short-lived, according to the results. These effects largely disappeared in later waves of the study.

Additionally, opinion pieces that were skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change reversed the gains in accuracy generated by scientific coverage.

Articles depicting partisan conflict had no measurable effect on people’s beliefs and attitudes.

Taken together, the results suggest that the media plays a key role in shaping Americans’ beliefs and attitudes on science-based issues like climate change.

“We were struck by the receptivity of our study subjects to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,” Wood said.

The results of the study contradict the media’s imperative to report only what is new.

“What we found suggests that people need to hear the same specific messages about climate change over and over again. If they only hear it once, it goes away very quickly,” Wood said.

“The news media is not designed to act that way.”

This research is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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