The cause for the end of the world has been imagined by screenwriters to include everything from giant insects and malevolent robots to asteroids the size of Texas. But five year ago in May 2006, Hollywood found a new menace: carbon dioxide. This scenario was different in another respect. It was supposedly true.
The documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" wasn't intended to be the blockbuster end-of-the-world tale that "Armageddon" was, but it was intended to frighten. The new film was full of disaster footage and catastrophic predictions about climate change. Its leading man: former vice president Al Gore.
The apocalyptic warning earned nearly $50 million worldwide and turned Gore into a "movie star," according to the fawning networks. Gore won accolades, including an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. Reporters and anchors on ABC, CBS and NBC also made a hero of Apocalypse Al, embracing his views and bringing on guests with the same views including one who said Gore had been busy "saving the planet - literally."
Gore received almost entirely uncritical coverage from the network morning and evening shows over global warming, despite plenty of evidence - scientific evidence - that would have discredited him and his film. Since the movie's release, nearly 98 percent of those stories have excluded criticism of the so-called "science" of the film.
Gore's film has been criticized for many errors and hyperbole regarding the past and future effects of global warming - including his exaggerated claim that sea levels will rise by 20 feet and his now-debunked assertion that Hurricane Katrina was caused by climate change. Such examples were used to scare audiences into accepting Gore's political agenda. The errors and agenda of the film prompted a British judge to rule that the film couldn't be shown in schools without a disclaimer pointing out its inaccuracies and political bias. But those critical views are regularly banished from the networks.
The Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute analyzed broadcast news coverage of Gore about climate change and mentions of "An Inconvenient Truth" between May 11, 2006, shortly before the film's release, and April 30, 2011. Here are some of BMI's findings:
- Who Needs Science?: Nearly 98 percent of broadcast stories (266 out of 272) failed to challenge the supposedly scientific claims of "An Inconvenient Truth" about global warming, including dramatic predictions of sea level rise and links between climate change and extreme weather such as tornadoes, hurricanes, fires and droughts. Many of these claims have been challenged, yet scientific criticism was barely represented by ABC, CBS and NBC.
- Gore's Way or the Highway: More than 80 percent (222 of 272) of the network stories and briefs excluded any criticism of Al Gore or his film. About one-fifth of the stories that included opposition were critical of the 2007 Live Earth concerts organized by Gore, but expressed no dissent about global warming.
- Gore For President, or VP or Czar: Gore's success with "An Inconvenient Truth," was used by all three networks to push him to run for president again or accept a position within the Obama administration. In one CBS "Early Show" interview, Harry Smith literally tried to pin a "Gore '08" campaign button on the former vice president.
- NBC the Worst: NBC has thrown objectivity out the window on the issue of global warming, preferring activism instead. In the past five years, "Nightly News" and "Today" maintained that role by including the lowest percentage of opposing views (17 percent) in its Gore/"An Inconvenient Truth" reports. Its parent company NBC/Universal also partnered with Gore for the Live Earth concerts, which were aired on its networks.
- ABC the Best: ABC news programming with "World News" and "Good Morning America," ranked best out of the three networks because they included more opposing views than the other networks. But those views were still only included roughly one-fifth of the time (20 of 95).
To improve coverage, BMI recommends:
- Don't just take Gore's word for it: Al Gore is certainly a passionate activist, but he isn't a scientist. The networks shouldn't take his interpretation of global warming science as truth. Rather, they should be skeptical because of his very real political agenda.
- Include both sides: The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states journalists should "Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant." It is the media's job to inform the public, not persuade them by leaving out alternative viewpoints. Particularly, networks should give skeptical scientists the opportunity to share their findings - just like they include scientists who say manmade global warming is going to devastate the planet.
- Recognize that advocacy is not reporting: The SPJ Code of Ethics also says to: "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."
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