Media bias and the climate issue
By Fuhai Hong and Xiaojian Zhao
“In an irony heaped on an irony, Anthony Watts is lying and exaggerating about a research paper on exaggeration and information manipulation – to stoke the conspiracy theory that climate science is a hoax.” –Sou (HotWhopper) in response to Anthony Watts on WUWT
How do individuals manipulate the information they privately have in strategic interactions? The economics of information is a classic topic, and mass media often features in its analysis. Indeed, the international mass media play an important role in forming people’s perception of the climate problem. However, media coverage on the climate problem is often biased.
Media reporting our paper are vivid examples of the prevalence and variety of media bias in reporting scientific results. While our analysis investigates the media tendency of accentuating or even exaggerating scientific findings of climate damage, the articles misinterpret our results, accentuate and exaggerate one side of our research, and completely omit the other side.
In our research, we analysed why and how a media bias accentuating or even exaggerating climate damage emerges, and how it influences nations’ negotiating an International Environmental Agreement (IEA). We set up a game theoretic model which involves an international mass medium with information advantage, many homogenous countries, and an IEA as players in the game. We then solve for its equilibrium, which, in plain English, means that every player in the game is maximizing her payoff given what others do. The players may update their beliefs in a reasonable way (by Bayes’ rule in our jargon) if they are uncertain about the true state of nature on climate damage. In our model, media bias emerged as an equilibrium outcome, suppressing information the mass media held privately.
The climate problem is important because it involves possibilities of catastrophes and long-lasting systemic effects. The main difficulty of the climate problem is that it is a global public problem and we lack an international government to regulate it. Strong incentives not to contribute and benefit from others’ efforts (free ride) lead to a serious under-participation in an IEA, which further makes the IEA mechanism unlikely to provide enough public goods. The current impasse of climate negotiations showcases this difficulty. The media bias we focused on might have an ex post “instrumental” value as the over-pessimism from the media bias may alleviate the under-participation problem to some extent. However, the media bias could also be detrimental, due to the issue of credibility (as people can update their beliefs). As a result, the welfare implication is ambiguous.
Why certain media have incentives to engage in biased coverage does not mean “justifying lying about climate change.”
Media skeptical of anthropogenic climate changes claimed that our paper advocated lying about climate change, and they used this claim to attack the low carbon movement. Townhall magazine published an article entitled “Academics `Prove’ It’s Okay To Lie About Climate Change” right after our accepted paper was made available online. Further attacks came in; the main tones remained the same. Neglecting the fact that our analysis focuses on media bias, many of the media seemed to tactically avoid discussing media bias (because they knew that they were very biased?), and focused on attacking scientific research on climate change, as if this was the topic of our paper. They often misinterpret the notions “ex ante” and “ex post” (e.g. Motl), believing it to reflect when countries join the IEA in our model, rather than the timing in which we assess the information manipulation. Our conjecture is that most of these media reporting our paper did not actually read through our paper.
As our simple model cannot capture all directions and aspects of media bias on the climate issue, especially those showing up in the coverage of our paper, we call for further scientific research on media bias in reporting scientific results. Furthermore, while the economics profession has the common sense that the global public nature and its associated free-riding incentives are the main difficulty of the climate problem, we find that the media coverage on the climate problem significantly lacks attention to these issues.
Finally, consider the end of an article in the Economist magazine, in which the author concludes that “In some cases, scientists who work on climate-change issues, and those who put together the IPCC report, must be truly exasperated to have watched the media first exaggerate aspects of their report, and then accuse the IPCC of responsibility for the media’s exaggerations.”
Fuhai Hong is an assistant professor in the Division of Economics, Nanyang Technological University. Xiaojian Zhao is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Together, they are the authors of “Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
The American Journal of Agricultural Economics provides a forum for creative and scholarly work on the economics of agriculture and food, natural resources and the environment, and rural and community development throughout the world.
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Image credit: climate change headlines background in sepia. © belterz via iStockphoto.