Want to Know about Global Warming? Study Says You May Have to Work at It

March 2, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — In order to be well-informed on complex issues such as global warming, people need to get their information from a diversity of news sources such as newspapers, television, magazines and the Internet, according to a University of Texas at Austin researcher.

This may be bad news for people who prefer to let information find them.

Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations LeeAnn Kahlor and advertising graduate student Sonny Rosenthal surveyed more than 800 respondents from around the country about the news sources they use to obtain information about global warming. The researchers then measured the complexity of each subject's knowledge of global warming and correlated that with their media use.

The results, published this month in a special issue of Science Communication, showed the number of news sources used, as well as the effort reported to find those sources, are good predictors of accurate global warming knowledge.

One reason for this relationship, according to the authors, is that when people get global warming information from a variety of news sources, they are more likely to expose themselves to different perspectives on the myriad factors affecting global warming.

"Sometimes people become invested in a particular news source, or technology, such as RSS feeds, because it is novel and seems efficient," Kahlor said. "While our ability to control our sources of information may engage us in a particular topic, we're not exposed to alternative opinions and—ultimately—this may work against us."

The medium matters—television news is visual and brief, whereas print news typically provides more depth, and online news sources offer both visuals and depth. The study suggests higher levels of knowledge about global warming when media are used in combination.

"These findings have implications for the news industry," Kahlor said. "Right now, no one knows what the future holds for the news industry—but wherever we find ourselves down the road we need to make sure audiences still have access to diverse information.

"There is such a thing as streamlining the newsgathering process too much. Here we see evidence that audiences—and by extension reporters—need to continue to cast their nets widely to get the whole story, particularly when it comes to really complex topics."

For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, Moody College of Communication, (512) 475-8071; LeeAnn Kahlor, 512-471-8498.