Watts Up With That?
March 30, 2010*

Only 4% trust politicians on climate change information.

In January and February 2010, using a web-based method, we surveyed all broadcast TV members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the National Weather Association (NWA) using member email lists provided by the two professional associations. All participants were offered $30 to complete the approximately 20-minute survey. Of the 1,408 names and email addresses provided by AMS and NWA, 35 people were ineligible because we determined that they no longer worked as TV meteorologists, and 44 email addresses proved to be incorrect (and despite an active search, correct email addresses could not be located).

Therefore, the valid initial denominator of our sample was 1,373. Fifty-nine of these people refused to participate, 743 did not respond, and 571 completed at least some portion of the survey, yielding a minimum response rate of 41.6% (which assumes that all non-respondents were eligible to participate).

Selected excerpts:

Summary of Findings and Interpretation
This study was the largest and most representative survey of television weathercasters conducted to date. The on-line survey of broadcast television members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and National Weather Association (NWA) was intended to be a census of the nation’s TV weathercasters. A total of 571 respondents completed at least some portion of the survey, a minimum response rate of 42%, and an adjusted response rate of 52%.

While consultant research on TV weather and weathercasters abounds, most of that research is proprietary and often the weathercasters themselves don’t know the results of that research. Our top-line findings are being distributed directly to survey respondents and their professional associations, and additional detailed analyses are being prepared for submission to peer-reviewed journals and conferences.

Our findings confirm that TV weathercasters play – or can play – an important role as informal science educators. Nearly all of our respondents (94%) said they work at stations that do not have anyone else covering science or environmental issues full-time. This number verifies other research showing that only about 10% of TV stations have a dedicated specialist to cover these topics. By default, and in many cases by choice, science stories become the domain of the only scientifically trained person in the newsroom—weathercasters.

Two-thirds of our respondents report on science issues once per month or more frequently and one-third would like to report on science issues more frequently. Topics they cover range from astronomy to zoology, and many weathercasters have become the point person for expertise on plate tectonics in local TV newsrooms on the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

TV weathercasters embrace the idea of expanding their role beyond forecasting to becoming “station scientists,” a proposal advanced by the AMS to make the weathercasters the “go to” person in a TV newsroom on a variety of science topics. Four out of five of our respondents (79%) indicated they were comfortable serving in this role and only 9% indicated they weren’t. In many cases this means weathercasters will need to seek out more resources and training in order to cover issues outside their own specialty of meteorology.

Climate change is already one of the most common science topics TV weathercasters discuss. Nearly all of our respondents (87%) had in some way discussed climate change as part of their duties. The most common venue in which they discuss climate change is in community speaking
events (87%), which is also the venue they say is the most appropriate place for them to do so (82%). The second most common way weathercasters discuss the topic is in anchor “chit-chat” (49%), usually going into or out of the on-air weather segment.

Often a news producer stacks another weather related story before or after the weather forecast and this is a place weathercasters can face climate change questions or comments from an anchor. Only about a third of weathercasters say they discuss climate change during the on-air weathercast (37%), or in reporter packages (33%), the most important reason being lack of time (79% and 75%, respectively). Only about two-thirds felt that it is appropriate to discuss climate change on-air (62%), and approximately three-quarters felt it appropriate on-line (72%), as many report a concern about audience “backlash.” Many weathercasters also use other avenues to discuss climate change including the news station’s blog (31%) and station’s web site (28%), on the radio (29%), in personal blogs (25%), and in newspaper columns (14%).

Weathercasters hold a wide range of beliefs about global warming.
Survey participants responded to a variety of questions assessing their beliefs in and attitudes about “global warming,” questions that have been used previously in our public opinion research.2 More than half of our respondent (54%) indicated that global warming is happening, 25% indicated it isn’t, and 21% say they don’t know yet. About one-third (31%) reported that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while almost two-thirds (63%) reported it is caused mostly by natural changes in
the environment. Half indicated that they have thought “a lot” about global warming, and a large majority said they are fairly or very well informed about the causes of global warming (93%), the consequences of global warming (89%), and the ways to reduce global warming (86%)—numbers that are much higher than public responses to the same questions. Over half of weathercasters indicated that humans could reduce global warming (58%), and that the U.S. should reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do (63%). Almost half (47%) felt they needed some or a lot more information before forming a firm opinion about global warming, and almost one-third (30%) said they could easily change their mind about global warming.

Just over one quarter (27%) agreed with the statement by a prominent TV weathercaster: “global warming is a scam.”

Only one third of TV weathercasters believe that there is a scientific consensus on climate change.

Despite the strong scientific consensus among climate scientists, almost two-thirds (61%) of TV weathercasters think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening. Perhaps partly as a result, 79% of our respondents indicated that coverage of climate change science must reflect a “balance” of viewpoints just as coverage of political or social issues are covered. Prior research conducted by others, however, has shown that “balanced” news coverage about climate change is misleading in that it tends to give audience members the false impression that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.

Weathercasters express varying degrees of trust in sources of climate change information.
Overall the most trusted sources of climate change information are state climatologists (85%), the NWA (83%), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service (82%), peer-reviewed journals (80%), the AMS (79%) and climate scientists (73%).

The least trusted climate sources were politicians (4%), religious leaders (11%), mainstream news media (18%), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (44%), and other TV weathercasters (53%).

Full report here as PDF file: TV_Meteorologists_Survey_Findings_(March_2010)