Weathercaster IstockA while back a study landed on my desk that looked at American weather reporters’ views on global warming. The study, conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, found that while 54 percent of weather reporters indicated that global warming is happening, a whopping 25 percent indicated it isn’t, and, perhaps more surprisingly, 21 percent say they don’t know yet. It showed that the majority of weathercasters in the US (61 percent) feel there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about the issue of global warming.

This is significant because the research shows that many media consumers look to their local TV weathercasters for information about global warming. (About a year ago, I wrote an overly hopeful post about the great untapped potential of weathercasters as climate education heroes.)

Today, a related set of findings was released by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication about television news directors’ views on climate change. Because more Americans get their news from TV—especially local TV news—than from any other news source, TV news directors are arguably the most influential “gatekeepers” of climate change information. News directors make the decision as to which stories will run, and how the issue will be covered—they are also directing the weathercasters.

For all those reasons, the numbers are sobering. But there’s a bright spot. This research also points to opportunities for climate policy advocates to help news directors cover climate issues more often and more thoroughly.

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    • While more than half of news directors (53 percent) say that global warming is happening, 21 percent say it isn’t, and 26 percent say they don’t know yet.
    • Notably, just over half say global warming is caused mostly by human activities (52 percent), while a third say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment (34 percent).
    • Most news directors say they have thought a lot about global warming (82 percent) and are well informed about the different causes of global warming (83 percent). Somewhat fewer, however, feel well informed about the ways in which we can reduce global warming (66 percent). More than half say they need more information to form a firm opinion on global warming.

    Perhaps more promising, nearly two-thirds of news directors say the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless or what other countries do (64 percent) and nearly three-quarters say citizens should be doing more (64 percent)—or much more (7 percent)—to address global warming. Fewer than 3 percent experienced obstacles to climate reporting in the form of pressure from station owners or advertisers.

    Climate change is covered relatively infrequently on local TV news; fewer than half of news directors (44 percent) say their station reports on climate change once a month or more.

    But quality television reporting on climate change is constrained by factors beyond the personal beliefs and knowledge of directors and weathercasters. Nearly all the news directors in the survey say additional training and education for their weathercasters (89 percent), and their news staff (92 percent), would help them cover climate issues. Additionally, they say that access to climate scientists for on camera interviews (87 percent), access to high quality graphics/animations to use on-air (86 percent), and access to peer-reviewed journals (79 percent) would be beneficial.

    Additionally, only 10 percent of news directors say they have a full time science or environmental reporter—and most often, it’s the weathercaster who ends up reporting on climate science. Directors say they’d like to cover local climate stories—but those stories may be inherently difficult to come by.

    The most trusted sources of climate change information are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (92 percent), the National Weather Association (87 percent), the AMS (86 percent), state climatologists (86 percent), television news directors’ own TV weathercasters (86 percent), climate scientists (77 percent) and peer-reviewed journals (77 percent). News directors express considerably more trust in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (66 percent) than do TV weathercasters (44 percent) Notably, the least trusted sources of climate change information are politicians (14 percent) and religious leaders (24 percent).

    All of this is a bit discouraging. But there are some lessons here for climate policy advocates when it comes to reaching these important gatekeepers—provide training, provide access to experts for interviews, provide graphics, provide local angles and stories…and don’t leave it to politicians to do the talking!

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