The battle of hearts and minds continues when it comes to climate change. Scientifically based articles emphasizing urgency quickly fade from memory, and skeptical coverage quickly erodes trust in the facts even faster, a new study shows.
Researchers at Ohio State University have identified an alarming trend among the American public. Specifically, a tendency for accurate, evidence-based reporting of the environmental crisis to quickly fade from memory.
Additionally, exposure to climate-skeptic coverage increases the rate at which people are prone to forgetting scientific reports on the matter. At the very least, it underscores the importance of ensuring the sustainability of quality journalism in this area and the need for local authorities and governments to continue and intensify public information campaigns focusing on the environment.
The results come from a study involving 2,898 online participants, who participated in four stages of an experiment in the fall of 2020. The first part of this study involved reading authentic articles in popular media reflecting a consensus scientist on climate change. For the next two stages, participants received either another scientific article, or a climate-skeptical opinion, or an article on the partisan nature of the climate debate, or an unrelated piece of writing.
The final stage of the experiment was to ask everyone who participated what their beliefs were about climate science and politics. At the end of each step, participants were also asked if they thought climate change was happening and had a human cause. Attitudes were measured by their preference for government action and renewable energy.
Overall, accurate reporting has had an effect on everyone involved and has even caused a shift in political attitude in favor of parties, leaders and movements that want to take action to protect the environment. However, these results were short-lived and largely disappeared by the end of the study. Of those who read climate-skeptical writing in stage two, all gains made in stage one were reversed. Those who received articles on partisan debate showed no measurable 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,” said Thomas Wood, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University. “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 moves away very quickly. The news media is not designed to act this way.
“It is not true that the American public does not respond to scientifically informed news reporting when exposed to it.” But even factually accurate science reporting moves very quickly away from people’s frame of reference,” he continued. “Science reporting not only changed people’s factual understanding, it also changed their political preferences. This made them think that climate change was an urgent government concern where the government should do more.
In 2020, Environmental Journal published an article on the discourse of climate denial, including how to recognize arguments to delay action on the crisis.