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Study Maps the Relationship Between Cable News and Climate Change Perceptions

Surprise, surprise. CNN and MSNBC viewers tend to be more concerned about climate change while Fox News viewers tend to be more doubtful.

A new study finds that Fox News tends to feature guests who doubt the reality of climate change and stories that dismiss the need for action, while CNN and MSNBC tend to feature guests who assert the reality of climate change and the need for action.  Interestingly, however, Fox tends to devote more attention to the issue than either CNN or MSNBC.

These differing perspectives are reflected in the views of their respective audiences, the study finds.  After controlling for a number of other influences, including political party affiliation, CNN and MSNBC viewers tend to be more concerned about climate change while Fox News viewers tend to be more doubtful. 

The study, however, also finds important differences among politically similar viewers, providing evidence that some Republicans may be open to the prospect of action on climate change. 

The study “Climate on Cable: The Nature and Impact of Global Warming Coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC” was conducted by my American University colleague Lauren Feldman and collaborators Ed Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf (George Mason University), and Anthony Leiserowitz (Yale University).  

The study was published online this week at the International Journal of Press/Politics.  A PDF of the study is also available at the Climate Shift Project web site where Feldman serves as a faculty fellow.  

I previously discussed a conference paper version of the study in the Climate Shift report and elaborate on the study further in this post.  I asked Feldman and Leiserowitz to review and comment on a final version of this post and to confirm that the post accurately reflects the study’s findings.  Readers are strongly encouraged to download the full study.


Feldman and colleagues began their research by assessing the types of arguments about climate change typically found at MSNBC, CNN and Fox News. Across the three networks, they identified 269 primetime program-hours during 2007 and 2008 that included substantive mentions of “global warming” or “climate change,” retrieving the transcripts of these programs via Lexis-Nexis.

Using quantitative content analysis, two graduate students assessed the climate change-related arguments contained within each program transcript.   Below are the classifications that the coders used to categorize the overall tone of discussion in each hour-long transcript:

  • Accepting of climate change: At least 80 percent of the viewpoints and information presented conveyed that climate change was real and required significant action.
    • Dismissive of climate change: At least 80 percent of viewpoints and information presented challenged the reality or severity of climate change, its human causes, and/or need for action.
      • Mixed viewpoints of climate change: Viewpoints and information presented reflected roughly equal balance of time between accepting and dismissive perspectives of climate change.
        • No viewpoint:  Reporting without a clear stance on climate change.  A transcript received this code if it was completely devoid of opinions on climate change and simply recounted factual details about a climate change-related event.
        • The types of statements made specifically by the anchor, correspondents, and/or guests during the program hour were also recorded.   For each dimension below, the coders assessed whether the statements made “no mention;” made at least one statement “affirming;” made at least one statement “rejecting;” or made statements offering “competing arguments.”

          • That climate change is occurring.
          • The human causes of climate change.
          • Scientific agreement on climate change.  
          • In addition, each guest was rated as being a “climate change doubter;” a “climate change believer;” or “indeterminate.”  This allowed for the construction of variables that characterized each hour-long program as featuring “more doubters than believers,” “more believers than doubters,” or an “equal number of believers and doubters.” 

            For the combined years 2007 and 2008, Feldman and colleagues found that Fox News featured the most stories about climate change.  Among the 269 program hours identified, 182 or 68% were at Fox, 66 program hours or 22% were at CNN, and 21 hours or 8% were at MSNBC.

            Approximately 75% of the program-hours at the three cable networks occurred in 2007.  As the authors note, this attention was likely driven by key focusing events that year including the release of the IPCC report and the sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize by IPCC scientists and Al Gore. 

            Attention across the networks sharply declined in 2008, in part due to the heavy election coverage at the networks and the limited attention paid to the issue by the major presidential candidates.

            As Figure 1 and Figure 5 from the study below indicate, more than 70% of the programs at CNN and MSNBC conveyed that climate change was real and required significant action.  Similarly, 80% or more of the programs at the two networks featured more believers than doubters of global warming. 

            In contrast, at Fox News nearly 60% of programs were dismissive of climate change and the network was far more likely than CNN and MSNBC to feature doubters as guests.  [See the PDF of the study for findings on the other measures analyzed.]

            The findings for MSNBC and CNN are in line with a past study by Max Boykoff that found that as of 2006, the national trend-setting U.S. newspapers overwhelmingly reflected the consensus scientific view on climate change, a shift from a previous “false balance” approach to coverage.  In the Climate Shift report, I used a similar method of analysis as Boykoff, analyzing coverage in 2008 and 2009 at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and, finding that 9 out of 10 articles reflected expert agreement on the reality and causes of climate change. 

            Additionally, Feldman’s findings specific to Fox News are consistent with another study discussed in the Climate Shift report.  Analyzing coverage appearing between 1997 and 2007, Australian communication researcher David McKnight tracked the unique tendency by News Corporation-owned newspapers and TV outlets in the UK, Australia and the US to emphasize the uncertainty of climate change in their editorials and commentary. 

            News Corp outlets such as Fox News, according to McKnight’s study, tended to depict scientific consensus views on climate science as colored by political correctness and a matter of orthodoxy.  In contrast, contrarians were typically depicted as courageous dissenters.

            Feldman and McKnight’s conclusions are also reflected in the analysis from the Climate Shift report specific to the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal opinion page.  In contrast to the news reporting at the paper which featured consensus views in approximately 8 out 10 articles, the opinion-page tended to be strongly dismissive of the reality and human causes of climate change.

            Finally, the findings from a past conference paper by our American University colleague Sol Hart are also consistent with the Feldman et al. analysis of cable news network differences.  In this paper using similar measures, Hart analyzed discussion at Fox News and CNN between 1998 and 2004, and found that Fox programs tended to feature a stronger emphasis on scientific uncertainty, Fox anchors were more likely to express doubt than CNN anchors, and that Fox interviewed a greater proportion of dismissive guests.


            As Feldman and colleagues discuss, past research assessing the persuasive effects of news has tended to focus on the role of one-sided messages or coverage.  In this research, political campaigns are believed to be persuasive when audiences tend to hear from one candidate but not the other or when a news medium tends to feature one partisan message more strongly over another.

            As their content analysis indicates, at CNN/MSNBC there is a strong one-sided outlook offered on climate change that is consistent with expert agreement but that also reflects the position of most Democratic elites.  At Fox News, there is a similarly one-sided outlook that dismisses the problem, tends to reject expert views, and reflects the position of most Republican elites. 

            Given the presence of one-sided messages at these cable networks, past research would suggest that heavier viewing of CNN/MSNBC would be correlated with stronger belief in and concern over climate change.  Similarly, heavier viewing of Fox would be correlated with more doubt and dismissiveness.

            Yet as Feldman and colleagues also review, past research additionally suggests that the persuasive influence of news can vary by partisanship and ideology. This “biased processing” of information takes place through two related routes.  

            Partisans tend to choose media that reflect their existing beliefs and attitudes and the choice to consume like-minded media reinforces and potentially increases the strength of these views.   

            Moreover, when consuming news that offers a counter-attitudinal view, strong partisans will engage in “motivated reasoning,” processing information in a way that defends or reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.   The reason is that strong partisans tend to actively argue against information that counters their beliefs and to readily accept information that confirms their beliefs.

            The findings on the one-sided nature of coverage at the cable news networks and the past work on the persuasive and reinforcing potential of cable news viewing led Feldman and colleagues to examine two related possibilities in their study.

            • First, cable news viewing may have direct influences on perceptions of climate change even after controlling for partisanship and other confounding variables.  Heavier viewers of Fox will be more doubtful of climate change and heavier viewers of CNN/MSNBC will be more concerned.
              • Second, because of biased processing, the influence of cable news viewing may vary by partisanship.  In this case, Republicans who report watching Fox News a lot would be more dismissive of global warming than Republicans who report watching Fox News only some of the time or not at all.  Similarly, Democrats who report watching MSNBC/CNN a lot would be more concerned by climate change than Democrats who watch MSNBC/CNN only some of the time or not at all.
              • To the extent that there is cross-viewing of networks, both Democrats and Republicans would be more resistant to the effects of the counter-attitudinal messages emphasized at either MSNBC/CNN and Fox respectively.


                Feldman and her colleagues analyzed cross-sectional, nationally representative survey data collected in October and November 2008 (see study for more details). 

                The survey featured 2,164 respondents and the range of survey questions allowed them to control for major demographic variables as well as many possible confounds including other forms of media use than cable news; global warming information seeking; and value constructs related to ideology and partisanship such as materialism, environmentalism, religion, egalitarianism, individualism, and approval of modern science.

                Their dependent variable estimating belief in and concern over climate change consisted of a combined index of 5 questions that measured:

                • Perception of scientific agreement.
                • Belief in human causes of global warming.*
                • Perception of global warming certainty.
                • Concern about global warming impact.
                • Estimates of the relative benefits and negatives of taking action on global warming.
                • *In the survey, climate change is referenced as “global warming.”

                  Their main independent variable of cable news viewing was measured using standard items asking respondents to rate on a scale from “never” to “often” how frequently they watched CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.  Because watching CNN and MSNBC were highly correlated and given the similarity in the content of their coverage, for purposes of analysis these two measures were combined into a single measure of MSNBC/CNN viewing. 

                  Partisanship – the key variable that might moderate the influence of cable news – was measured by asking people to self-identify as Democrat, Republican, Independent, other, or no affiliation.

                  KEY FINDINGS

                  Feldman and colleagues found that after controlling for a diversity of confounding factors, cable news viewing is significantly related to perceptions and the relationship is in the direction expected by way of the one-sided messages featured at the cable networks.  [See Table 2 of PDF for full model.]

                  Specifically, heavier viewing of CNN/MSNBC was significantly correlated with greater levels of concern and belief in climate change while heavier viewing of Fox News was significantly related to more doubts. 

                  Next, they added to their regression model interaction terms, a statistical procedure which allowed them to estimate how the influence of cable news varies by partisanship.  In this case, both the interactions between Fox News viewing and partisanship and MSNBC/CNN viewing and partisanship were significant.  Yet the precise nature of the interactions was somewhat unexpected.

                  As depicted in the figure below from the study, Republicans who are heavier viewers of Fox News are more doubtful of climate change than their lighter viewing counter-parts. This finding is consistent with past theorizing that Fox reinforces and strengthens the views of Republicans who are predisposed to be more dismissive of the issue.  

                  Similarly, Democrats who watch Fox News appear to be somewhat resistant to the typically one-sided messages found at the cable network, processing the counter-attitudinal arguments in a way that defends their pre-existing beliefs and opinions on climate change. 

                  Yet notice the relationship in the figure for CNN/MSNBC viewing.   Heavier viewing Republicans have higher levels of belief and concern than their lighter viewing counterparts.  Think of the relative differences plotted in the figure for CNN/MSNBC viewing as what communication researcher Douglas Hindman calls “belief gaps.”  Rather than rejecting the one-sided arguments in line with scientific consensus found at MSNBC/CNN, these two channels appear to have direct persuasive effects on their heavier Republican viewers, closing the partisan gap in beliefs displayed at the left side of the figure. 


                  Feldman and colleagues are careful to emphasize the limitations of their study.  Since the analysis is based on cross-sectional data they are not able to demonstrate causality in the observed relationships.  Moreover, as they explain in detail, they are not able to completely rule out that Republicans who frequently watch MSNBC/CNN may be less ideologically conservative than their heavy Fox News counterparts and this in part may relate to their results [see Table 3 and pages 18-20].

                  In addition, they reason that one possibility for the persuasive influence of MSNBC/CNN among Republicans is that on climate change they simply may have less background knowledge and solidified views than Democrats and are therefore limited in their ability to counter-argue against attitudinally inconsistent information.  Moreover, they suggest based on past research that Republicans may have a greater tendency towards a “need for closure.” They tend to be less comfortable with ambivalence, and as a result may be more susceptible to persuasion when encountering strong messages on an issue.

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                  Based on the findings relative to the influence of CNN/MSNBC viewing, a key implication they emphasize is that it may be possible to engage Republicans on the issue of climate change with effective messages in support for action. How these arguments are framed will add meaningfully to their success, the subject of research that I am currently working on with Maibach, Leiserowitz, and others.  In this research, it is also important to understand how message strategies can boomerang or backfire

                  Yet there is another possibility not raised by Feldman and her colleagues that I think merits consideration.  The survey was taken in October and November 2008 during a presidential election campaign when Democrats were far more enthusiastic and engaged than Republicans.  This context-dependent difference may relate to the results showing Democrats as better able to counter-argue against counter-attitudinal information found at Fox News.  

                  It is also important to understand where Fox News might fit among the range of factors shaping wider public ambivalence about climate change.  In this case, as I reviewed in the Climate Shift report and a recent chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change & Society, factors related to the performance of the economy; the left-right swings in political mood of the country; the visibility of Gore as chief messenger on climate science and policy; the policy dependent nature of perceptions; and the tendency to define climate change exclusively in terms of science or environmental impacts; are all major influences on perceptions that may also link to the influence of Fox News. 

                  Feldman and her colleagues are currently engaged in further investigation of cable news influences using panel data collected during a non-election period, research which is likely to improve our understanding of these processes and have further implications for effective public engagement.


                  Lauren Feldman, Edward W. Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, & Anthony Leiserowitz (2011). Climate on Cable: The Nature and Impact of Global Warming Coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. International Journal of Press/Politics DOI: 0.1177/1940161211425410 [PDF]


                  This study examines climate change coverage on the three major cable news channels and assesses the relationship between viewership of these channels and beliefs about global warming. Evidence from a content analysis of climate change coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC during 2007 and 2008 demonstrates that Fox takes a more dismissive tone toward climate change than CNN and MSNBC. Fox also interviews a greater ratio of climate change doubters to believers. An analysis of 2008 survey data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults finds a negative association between Fox News viewership and acceptance of global warming, even after controlling for numerous potential confounding factors. Conversely, viewing CNN and MSNBC is associated with greater acceptance of global warming. Further analyses reveal that the relationship between cable news viewership (both Fox and CNN/MSNBC) and global warming acceptance is stronger among Republicans than among Democrats. That is, the views of Republicans are strongly linked with the news outlet they watch, regardless of how well that outlet aligns with their political predispositions. In contrast, Democrats don’t vary much in their beliefs as a function of cable news use. This asymmetry suggests that some Republicans, who as a group tend to be predisposed toward global warming skepticism, are less skeptical when exposed to information on the reality and urgency of climate change.


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