AUSTIN, Texas—Personal beliefs and attitudes are the primary influences on television weathercasters’ reporting on the scientific facts about politically charged environmental issues such as global warming, according to a study by the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.
The research showed that personal perspectives, not years of experience, market size, newscast position, science degrees and seals of approval from accrediting organizations, shape weathercasters’ views about climate change.
Journalism professor Kris Wilson, Ph.D., who spent 10 years in television news, including time as a TV weathercaster, and holds a doctorate in geography specializing in climatology and climate change, conducted the research.
“In order to influence public policy about global climate change, citizens need to be accurately informed,” said Wilson. “The public’s primary source of information about climate change is television. Identifying strengths and weaknesses in reporting may lead to a better informed public and eventually, better policy decisions.”
The most unexpected finding of the study was that the strongest predictor of variation in television weathercaster knowledge was the individual’s values and attitude toward the topic of climate change, not level of seniority, market size, or even a seal of approval from the American Meteorological Society (AMS) or the National Weather Association (NWA).
“Results from this study challenge the assumption that those trained in science are apolitical and offer another new twist on the concept of journalistic objectivity,” continued Wilson. “As important sources of information, many weathercasters let their own personal views about global climate change distort their accurate understanding of the science.”
While all the weathercasters participating in the study were familiar with the term “global warming,” follow-up questions revealed serious gaps in levels of scientific knowledge and misconceptions about the scientific consensus regarding the science of climate modeling.
Most weathercasters (73 percent) were aware of the scientific consensus of a global temperature increase, yet only one third accurately identified the predicted temperature increase, as well as all models’ agreement about increases in global cloud cover and precipitation that also result from increased greenhouse gases. According to Wilson, these statistics are startling given that all atmospheric models agree on these predictions and they represent basic atmospheric science that weathercasters work with daily.
Other key findings from the study suggest many weathercasters are ignorant or misinformed about on-going climate change research:
- Only 22 percent of weathercasters correctly acknowledged the theory of global warming is accepted by most atmospheric scientists, while 58 percent thought the topic was still strongly debated. The greenhouse effect is one of the most well established theories in atmospheric science, but fewer than half (44 percent) of the weathercasters knew this.
- While 80 percent of the weathercasters identified carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, only 56 percent identified CFCs as a greenhouse gas and 22 percent were able to identify nitrous oxide as a greenhouse gas.
- Most weathercasters were knowledgeable about sources of increased greenhouse emissions related to carbon dioxide, including auto emissions (87 percent) and deforestation (65 percent), but were substantially less aware of sources related to other greenhouse gases, such as landfills (25 percent) and rice agriculture (13 percent) associated with methane.
The research was conducted among 217 television weathercasters representing primetime anchors/chief meteorologists and non-primetime meteorologists. Half of those surveyed held the AMS seal of approval, one fourth held the NWA seal of approval and the remainder held neither of the voluntary credentials that on-air weathercasters can earn.
The sample also represented a broad distribution of market sizes across the United States, more than half of whom held degrees in meteorology/atmospheric science, while a quarter held degrees in journalism or communication with the remainder possessing a mix of training and education.
To download a full report of the study, “Forecasting the Future” in Science Communication, visit the faculty Web page of Professor Kris Wilson.
For more information contact: Erin Geisler, College of Communication, 512-475-8071.