It's not easy being Fox News in today's highly politicized media environment. When it says it's "fair and balanced," the mainstream media sneer disbelief. When the cable news ratings leader reveals figures proving its coverage is balanced on a specific hot-button issue, it gets slapped for pandering to conservative dogma.
That's a conclusion one might reach from a first-of-its-kind study in the authoritative International Journal of Press/Politics of how Fox, CNN, and MSNBC cover the issue of global warming. The bottom line: Being balanced and providing supportive and critical views of global warming is actually biased because it gives critics a louder voice. Worse: Fox covers global warming about twice as much as CNN and MSNBC combined, meaning those critics get much more airtime, another sign of bias.
"Although Fox discussed climate change most often, the tone of its coverage was disproportionately dismissive," says the study by four professors, two from George Mason University, the others from Yale and American University. They wrote, "Fox broadcasts were more likely to include statements that challenged the scientific agreement on climate change, undermined the reality of climate change, and questioned its human causes."
The new study looked at global warming stories on the three networks in 2007-08, the peak of coverage of the issue. Of 269 stories, 182 were on Fox, 66 on CNN, and 21 on MSNBC. About 60 percent of the Fox stories had a "dismissive" tone, while less than 20 percent were "accepting" of global warming. Over 70 percent of those on CNN and MSNBC accepted the global warming argument, which the study authors also endorse. There were no "dismissive" stories on MSNBC, and just 7 percent on CNN, a proper balance, the study suggests. [See our slide show in opinion: 5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics.]
The authors also looked at the opinions of guests. Here Fox again out-balanced the competition. Of Fox's 149 guests, 59 believed in global warming, 69 didn't, with the rest someplace in the middle. Of CNN's 53 story guests, 41 were "climate change believers" and nine were "doubters." On MSNBC, 11 of 20 guests were believers.
The study acknowledges that Fox was the most balanced from the numbers perspective, but the network still gets an F. The reason, it says, is because viewers are influenced by what they see, and seeing more critics of global warming makes more viewers critics. "The more often people watched Fox News, the less accepting they were of global warming. Conversely, frequent CNN and MSNBC viewing was associated with greater acceptance of global warming," the study concludes.