-But according to a new study, the overwhelming consensus among climate researchers is obscured by media coverage in the United States, which lends too much weight to those who are skeptical of climate change.
"It's not just false balance; the numbers show that the media are 'balancing' experts -- who represent the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists -- with the views of a relative handful of non-experts," LeRoy Westerling, a climate scientists and professor at the University of California, Merced, said in a news release. "Most of the contrarians are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials. They are not in the same league with top scientists. They aren't even in the league of the average career climate scientist."
Westerling and his colleagues analyzed thousands of print and digital articles on climate change and found climate-change deniers are given the same level of exposure as prominent climate scientists. Researchers found that even reputable newspapers with strict editorial standards create a false balance with their climate science coverage.
According to the new study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, the problem is likely to get worse as media consumption becomes more customized and targeted, allowing for spread of misinformation.
"These results show that false balance in the media is alive and well and the growing trend toward customized media that we access via the internet is feeding the disinformation trend," said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. "This study is a wake-up call for all media to do better: to check their sources in order to accurately communicate the reality of human-induced climate change, the relevance of its impacts and the urgency of action."
Authors of the new study contend that part of the problem is that climate change has mostly been treated as a political news story and not a science one.
"It's well known now that a well-financed propaganda campaign on behalf of conservative fossil fuel interests led mainstream media to frame reporting on climate change science as political reporting rather than science reporting," Westerling said. "Political reporting focuses its narrative around conflict and looks to highlight competing voices, rather than telling the story of the science."
To offer a more realistic picture of the scientific consensus on climate change, authors of the new study suggest news networks decline to elevate the views of unqualified skeptics by juxtaposing them with the perspectives of legitimate climate scientists.
"Such disproportionate media visibility of contrarian arguments and actors not only misrepresents the distribution of expert-based beliefs, it also manifestly undermines the credible authority of career climate-change experts, and reinforces the trend of non-experts presiding over public scientific discourse, which all together hinders prospects for rapid public action on climate change," researchers wrote.