‘Climategate’ Affected TV Meteorologists, Study Shows

Posted: February 28, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: February 25, 2011 at 7:28 pm

By Tara Laskowski

A new paper by Mason researchers shows that “Climategate”— the unauthorized release in late 2009 of e-mails between climate scientists in the United States and United Kingdom — undermined belief in global warming and possibly also trust in climate scientists among TV meteorologists in the United States, at least temporarily.

In the largest and most representative survey of television weathercasters to date, Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and Center for Social Science Research asked these meteorologists early in 2010, when news stories about the climate e-mails were breaking, several questions about their awareness of the issue, attention to the story and impact of the story on their beliefs about climate change. A large majority (82 percent) of the respondents indicated they had heard of Climategate, and nearly all followed the story at least “a little.”

Among the respondents who indicated that they had followed the story, 42 percent said the story made them somewhat or much more skeptical that global warming is occurring. However, these results stand in stark contrast to the findings of several independent investigations of the e-mails, conducted later, that concluded no scientific misconduct had occurred and nothing in the e-mails should cause doubts about the facts which show that global warming is occurring.

The results of the Mason study, which were published in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society, also showed that the doubts were most pronounced among politically conservative weathercasters and those who either do not believe in global warming or do not yet know if they believe in global warming. The study showed that age was not a factor nor was professional credentials, but men — independent of political ideology and belief in global warming — were more likely than their female counterparts to say that Climategate made them doubt that global warming was happening.

“Our study shows that TV weathercasters — like most people — are motivated consumers of information in that their beliefs influence what information they choose to see, how they evaluate information and the conclusions they draw from it,” says Ed Maibach, one of the researchers.

“Although subsequent investigations showed that the climate scientists [who exchanged e-mails] had done nothing wrong, the allegation of wrongdoing undermined many weathercasters’ confidence in the conclusions of climate science, at least temporarily.”

The poll of weathercasters was conducted as part of a larger study funded by the National Science Foundation on American television meteorologists. Maibach and others are now working with a team of TV meteorologists to test what audiences learn when weathercasters make efforts to educate their viewers about the relationship between the changing global climate and local weather conditions.

Ultimately, the team hopes to answer key research questions about how to help television meteorologists nationwide become an effective source of informal science education about climate change.

“Most members of the public consider television weather reporters to be a trusted source of information about global warming — only scientists are viewed as more trustworthy,” says Maibach. “Our research here is based on the premise that weathercasters, if given the opportunity and resources, can become an important source of climate change education for a broad cross section of Americans.”

Write to gazette at gazette@gmu.edu