Think Tanks That Deny Climate Science Get More Coverage Now Than Five Years Ago
On Thursday, July 25, the Trump International Hotel will host the Heartland Institute’s 13th annual climate denial conference.
We analyzed the extent to which prominent climate-denial think tanks associated with this conference have been covered over the past five years by the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation and the national television news networks.
Rather than decline, media coverage of five prominent think tanks that tout climate change denial has risen over the past five years, with conservative media and even some mainstream media providing an uncritical platform for them
Below are our full findings, first for newspapers, then for television. A methodology section follows after the findings.
Top 50 Newspapers:
- From 2014 through 2018, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation were cited or published 528 times on issues related to the climate crisis. The Daily News (New York) was the only paper that did not mention one of the five featured think tanks.
- Of the 528 mentions, 315 (60%) presented arguments or comments by think tank representatives as legitimate views, were op-eds or columns by or supporting the positions of the think tanks, or were editorials citing research by the think tanks.
- 84 op-eds were published by one of the five think tanks over a five-year period by 25 newspapers. The Wall Street Journal published the most (18), followed by the Orange County Register (9) and USA Today (8). Notably, only one of the 84 op-eds, published by USA Today, identified the think tank’s financial relationship to the fossil fuel industry.
- Only 92 of the 528 pieces (17%) noted the relevant think tank’s relationship to fossil fuel interests. Of the instances in which the relationship was mentioned, more than half involved the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
- Forty-five of the articles (9%) were explicitly about climate denial and deniers.
- 177 articles (53%), excluding opinion pieces, used a denier argument or comment to provide false balance with the scientific understanding of the climate crisis.
- The New York Times had the most mentions of the think tanks, with 84 pieces. While 34 of those pieces provided false balance, the paper also published 17 pieces exposing climate denial and didn’t publish any op-eds by the think tanks or by those citing the work of the think tanks.
- The Wall Street Journal had 44 mentions over the five-year period. Of the 44 mentions, 27 or 61% were op-eds by think tanks or other opinion pieces in support of their position. Only one piece in five years acknowledged the relationship between one of the think tanks and fossil fuel interest.
- Of the five, CEI was cited or published 183 times, making it the most frequently mentioned think tank. The Heartland Institute was second at 148, followed by Heritage with 127 mentions over the five-year period.
- The year 2017 featured the most mentions (149) of any year during the period. That year also represents the highest percentage (40) of articles that “balanced” the accurate, scientific consensus with the position of a denier think tank.
- 2018 was similar to 2017 with 102 mentions, 35% representing false balance.
National Television News Networks:
- From 2014 through 2018, denier think tanks’ positions or representatives were featured 62 times on national television news networks.
- Eighty-one percent of segments featuring a climate denier think tank either presented its views unopposed or featured its views as a “balance” to climate science or solutions. Roughly 14% were segments exposing denial. The remaining segments, roughly 5% were neutral.
- Fox News Network and CNN account for 89% of segments featuring the think tanks. All of the 28 segments that aired on Fox legitimized denier arguments.
- Fifteen of the 27 CNN segments used deniers to provide “balance.” Notably, CNN employed Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation as a correspondent from early 2017 until his nomination for the board of the Federal Reserve on March 22, 2019.
- Only nine segments (14.5%) directly refuted the arguments of the relevant think tank or exposed their financial relationship to fossil fuel interests. Seven of these segments aired on CNN, and two were on MSNBC.
- Of CNN’s seven segments refuting denier think tanks, five were promoting the program The Wonder List with Bill Weir. In April 2015, the program host, as part of a feature on melting glaciers, attended and interviewed participants at the Heartland Institute’s annual climate conference.
For this analysis, we searched print newspaper articles and television transcripts on climate change that featured mentions of the Heartland Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato, Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation for the years 2014 through 2018, as well as 2019 through June 19. Articles and transcripts were not included in the analysis if the mention of the think tank did not relate to the topic of climate. We also excluded articles that mentioned one of the think tanks in an article related to climate but did not cite the think tank’s position or quote an affiliate of the think tank.
Op-eds and editorials were evaluated for agreement or opposition with the think tank mentioned, and op-eds written by members or affiliates of the think tank were identified. All opinion pieces and articles were reviewed for acknowledgment of the think tank’s financial ties to fossil fuel interests, and to what extent the piece or article provided a platform for claims by the think tank that contradict the scientific consensus on the climate crisis or advanced climate denial arguments.
The list of the top 50 U.S. papers by circulation was compiled using data from Cision in May 2018 and is limited to English‐language, subscription newspapers. Many significant local dailies are not included, such as The Palm Beach Post and The Charlotte Observer. The same is true of papers that cover Capitol Hill, like The Hill, Politico, and Roll Call (although the list of digital media includes Politico.com). This analysis also does not include radio, local television or online news articles.
We used Nexis to search the top 50 U.S. newspapers* and television transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and NBC).
* The newspapers are The Arizona Republic, the Arkansas Democrat‐Gazette, the Atlanta Journal‐Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, the Chicago Sun‐Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), The Columbus Dispatch, the Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, the Detroit Free Press, the East Bay Times, the Honolulu Star‐Advertiser, the Houston Chronicle, the Indianapolis Star, the Kansas City Star, the Las Vegas Review‐Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the Miami Herald, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Daily News (New York), the New York Post, The New York Times, Newsday, The Oklahoman, the Omaha World‐Herald, The Orange County Register, The Oregonian, the Orlando Sentinel, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post‐Gazette, The Sacramento Bee, The San Diego Union‐Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, the St. Louis Post‐Dispatch, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, The Star‐Ledger, the Sun Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, The Times Picayune, USA Today, The Virginian‐Pilot, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.