The Dangers of 'Balanced' Climate Change Reporting

The Dangers of 'Balanced' Climate Change Reporting

Megan and David RappUCLA graduate student Megan Imundo and professor David Rapp examined the perils of "bothsidesism."

Journalists often strive to present at least two sides to an issue. But the tendency to appear balanced can backfire when it lends credibility to an idea that most experts consider unmerited, according to new Northwestern University research assessing climate change coverage.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, found that “bothsidesism” or creating a false balance in reporting can make people doubt the scientific consensus over climate change and question whether it exists at all.

However, the researchers also showed that when people are reminded that experts actually agree climate change is a real problem, the effects aren’t as strong.

“Climate change reporting sometimes involves interviews with a climate scientist who believes climate change is a thing, and someone who is opposed to it,” said professor David Rapp, a psychologist and learning scientist at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “This misrepresents the scientific consensus as split.”

Rapp and co-author Megan Imundo, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former member of Rapp’s lab, performed three experiments to test what happens when two sides are positioned as “equivalent” when there actually is more evidence on one side than the other. 

Previous research suggests that giving too much weight to people who dismiss climate change gives them a legitimacy they haven’t earned and threatens efforts to raise awareness and prompt action. It essentially gives both trained climate scientists and those who lack scientific expertise, such as politicians, an equal platform.

In their experiments, Rapp and Imundo tested how people responded to statements from climate change deniers, either alone or paired with evidence-based arguments from legitimate climate scientists.

They found that hearing or reading contrarian views, such as “climate change is not a problem” reduced the faith they had in the true experts, even when the statements were paired with the views of trained climate scientists. This pattern held firm regardless of the source of the contrarian viewpoint.

One strategy did help, however. When participants read a statement emphasizing the broader consensus of experts on climate change, it reduced the weight they gave to climate change deniers.

The results suggest that providing a strong statement of evidence “may be a promising way for journalists to accurately reflect expert consensus on debated issues,” they wrote. “It can ensure consensus ideas are not reimagined as controversial issues, while allowing for fringe voices to be heard (if that’s considered an important goal).”

Rapp studies memory, language, and why we’re so susceptible to inaccurate information. He contributed to a section of The Covid-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook, outlining the dangers of “a false sense of balance” on vaccinations.

A journalist, for example, may interview a person who is pro-vaccination and someone who opposes vaccines, as if they represented equal sides in an ongoing scientific debate.

But as with climate change, bothsidesism in the vaccinate debate “makes it seem like there are two equivalently appropriate and empirically supported views,” Rapp says. “They aren’t equivalent – there is enormous scientific and health professional support for vaccination, and very little evidence supporting anti-vax claims.”

It’s important to convey expert consensus if it exists because “people often lack the time or skills to critically evaluate information,” Rapp says.

“We focused on false balance with respect to climate change, but contrarian viewpoints regularly appear in contemporary discussions on issues from vaccine skepticism and wearing masks to the prevention of COVID-19 transmission to the use of alternative medicines," he says.

Read the full study, "When Fairness is Flawed: Effects of False Balance Reporting and Weight-of-Evidence Statements on Beliefs and Perceptions of Climate Change.”


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 12/16/21