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This item was posted on January 5, 2011, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Joe Romm, climate change coverage, climate skeptics.
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As an environmental journalist, I just can’t get no respect. On the one hand, I’m part of a “cabal” that has been manipulated by propagandists. On the other hand, my woeful scientific ignorance is getting in the way of accurate reporting.

Well, none of these things were actually said about me personally. But they have been said about some of my colleagues, and I think the critics meant it about environmental journalists generally — a group I am very proud to associate myself with.

But guess who said which of these things? When it comes to the “cabal” comment, how many hands do I see for climate change contrarians like Anthony Watts? And concerning scientific ignorance, who votes for the Rommulans?

I’ll get to the answer in a minute. But first, I have to point out that during this past year, environmental journalists have been the subject of lots of criticism, often vituperative, from both sides in the climate change wars.

If you read any number of partisan climate bloggers who claim to carry the torch of scientific truth, we’re mostly stupid, we’re hopelessly biased, we’re carrying water for warmist scientists, or we’re stenographers who copy down whatever the denialists have to say because we’re too dumb to know what false balance is.

It might be tempting to conclude that since we’re catching hell from both sides, on balance we’re probably getting it about right. But I think the topic is too overwhelmingly complex, and there are too many people covering the issue in myriad ways (daily reporters, magazine writers, bloggers, documentarians, even formerly ink-stained-wretch academics like me), to make such a sweeping generalization.

The fact is that there is some downright dreadful coverage of climate change. But even among those who are trying to get it right, now more than ever journalism is the first draft of history. And with such a complex and contested topic as climate change, it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t always get it just right the first time around.

So we need to take criticism of our coverage seriously. But as with any story that we cover, we also need to carefully consider the sources of criticism and their evidence.

So who were the sources of the criticism I mentioned at the outset of this post?

It was Anthony Watts who attacked an environmental journalist about his alleged scientific ignorance. He did it in a recent post excoriating Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh for a piece he wrote on the possible connection between global warming and snowstorms. Here’s an excerpt:

Bryan Walsh deserves a giant watermelon for his journalistic efforts this Time around in his annual piece on global warming causing blizzards.

He comes out swinging right away:  ”A big winter snowstorm provides more fodder for the global-warming skeptics. But they’re wrong

Oh really?  Bryan, if you can find any (credible) scientist that [sic] wants to go on record supporting your contortionist logic with respect to this holiday blizzard, please quote them directly on the record, and do not cherry-pick their blog postings or opinion-editorials.  Is this the type of new “green journalism” expertise that we can expect from the vaunted and much lauded Climate Science Rapid Response Team?  Preemptive straw man arguments that would make the master blush?  This article is just another in a long line of really speculative pieces that reek of scientific ignorance.   Enough of it, please!

Let’s put aside the fact that Walsh probably didn’t write the “But they’re wrong” bit. (It was the subhed for the piece, so it almost certainly was written by an editor.) And the fact that the “much lauded Climate Science Rapid Response Team” is not a journalistic endeavor, let alone “green journalism.”

Walsh’s actual blog posting examines several theories for how colder and snowier winters in Northern mid-latitudes may be linked to a warming atmosphere. And to my eye, he explains those complex scientific theories well. He also makes this essential point:

The systems that govern weather on this planet are incredibly complex, and our ability to understand why individual events occur — and to forecast them for the future — is still imperfect.

That more than anything is what drives — and distorts — so much of the stubborn debate over climate change. Just because climate models predict that the planet will continue to heat up in the future as we continue to pour greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere doesn’t mean that warming will be a steady, even process. Far from it — and as parts of the planet warm far faster than others, extreme events, including winter ones, may become more common.

Walsh should be applauded, not excoriated, for such a careful and nuanced treatment of the subject. The fact that it enraged Watts so much says much more about him that it does about the quality of Walsh’s journalism.

So what about the “cabal” comment?

It came in the comments section of  Joe Romm’s recent “2010 Citizen Kane award for non-excellence in climate journalism” post. Let’s put aside the fact that in his post, Romm lists Anthony Watts as a journalist (not even remotely close) and instead get right to the comment in question. It came from Brad Johnson, “Climate Editor” at the Center for American Progress:

The interesting question, of course, is to understand *why* the journalism is so bad. For the explicit propaganda organs (FoxNews, Watts) it’s easy to understand — they have a partisan, pro-pollution agenda. But NYT and BBC don’t. They demonstrate the influence of the less visible efforts of the propaganda campaign against climate science — particularly the influence of economists, for whom global warming doesn’t exist, or even for ones like Stern and Krugman, the damages are entirely manageable even under catastrophic scenarios.

There’s also the enviro-journalist cabal that have complicated reasons for muddying the science, that reflect decades of being manipulated by propagandists.

Johnson did not elaborate, even after he was asked to clarify who he felt was part of the “cabal” and what their “complicated reasons for muddying the science” might be.

I believe that in Johnson’s view, I am part of that “cabal.” That’s because I cover climate science in terms of risk, uncertainty, complexity, and nuance, and that my writing often is cast in shades of gray.

UPDATE 1/5/10: The journal Nature has just published a piece headlined “Why dire climate warnings boost climate skepticism.” Does it vindicate a more nuanced style of coverage? Have a look at the paper and then leave a comment here. (Not surprisingly, Joe Romm doesn’t think so. He was quick to say that Nature “blew” the story.)

I am not at all surprised to hear that partisans like Romm and Johnson consider nuance to be a “muddying of the science.” But I never expected to be accused of being part of a politically motivated conspiracy. I expect that from the Right, not the Left. Now I realize that they view anything other than simplistic black and white coverage of climate change as being the enemy of action, and thus their enemy.

Based on what I know about the science, I earnestly believe that societies need to do much more to respond to the increasing risks posed by climate change. That said, as a journalist, my primary mission is to get as close as possible to the unvarnished truth, whether the facts dictate that it be painted in black and white, which is sometimes the case, or shades of gray, which is necessary at other times.

And if that means I can’t get no respect, so be it.

UPDATE 1/15/10: So speaking of respect, I may or may not deserve any (comments welcome!), but new research suggests that reporters at major newspapers in the U.S. and the U.K. do.

My colleagues Max Boykoff and Roger Pielke, Jr. in collaboration with Ursula Rick, have just published a study appearing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, evaluating a final set of more than 200 articles on sea level rise. The stories appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, The Times (of London), the Guardian and the Telegraph.

Major papers like these are, according to the researchers, “important indicators of larger media trends.” Moreover, they are “frequent sources for stories that cascade through other media such as television, internet, and radio outlets.”

As part of the study, they compared the content of the articles to the actual peer reviewed scientific literature. And here’s what they found:

. . . reporting on sea level rise among the sources that we have examined has been consistent with scientific literature on the issue. While there have been challenges over time regarding US and UK media coverage of anthropogenic climate change (e.g. Boykoff and Mansfield 2008), this study has found general success in media portrayals of this facet of climate science.

After reading an earlier version of this post, Pielke emailed me to say that he thought the new paper he co-authored with Boykoff and Rick was “directly relevant.” And he added this:

Watts and Romm define the “goodness” of journalism according to how well journalists help to advance their agendas, and in both cases there are in fact journalists happy to do so.

In our paper we apply a different standard of evaluation — how well does the reporting actually reflect the content of the science, and we report some good news.

If you want respect, then you have to be clear about what it is you are doing.  I think that many journalists are not so clear about what their role in fact is – are they Advocates?  Educators? Scribes? Mirrors?

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This thing has 8 Comments

  1. spyder
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I bow with respect, thanks for all of your continuing efforts.

  2. Posted January 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Spyder: LOL! (But just so you know, I don’t look anything like Rodney Dangerfield!)

  3. spyder
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Here is a post and thread that shows how the battle over environmental journalism is carried on by the flakes and fools such as Bell writing in Forbes.

  4. jeff
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Let’s focus for a moment on the Bryan Walsh/Watts Up example as instructive.
    You note that Walsh should be applauded for his “careful and nuanced treatment of the subject.”
    The subject, of course, is the fact that it’s darn cold outside.
    It’s important to know that Watts is up in arms because Time was never “careful and nuanced” about warm weather events.
    The complaints about AGW reporting really fall into three categories and yes, the criticism is shifting:
    From skeptics- You were an eager mouthpiece for every non-sense claim linking weather to climate, and now you wanna bash me for noting it’s warm outside- and suddenly that’s all “nuance” piling up on our streets?
    From the Rommulans- Dude, you’re an enviro reporter, we assume your on our side, get back with the program, this is politics!
    From the scientists- our silence, in fact complicity, in the period several years ago when you trumpeted the wildest scenarios and most goofball weather/climate claims in no way prevents us from today criticizing you for failing at the time to highlight the caveats about uncertainty. In short, when we told you it would get warmer, we noted that it could just as well get colder in clause 4 of footnote 12 of each and every paper that we stuck behind a pay wall. It’s not our fault you only read our press releases.

  5. hunter
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Yes, you enviro journalists are that bad and worse.

  6. BlueRock
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    > Let’s put aside the fact that Walsh probably didn’t write the “But they’re wrong” bit.

    It does not say that anywhere in Walsh’s article. How could you miss that? It’s just Watts doing what Watts always does: lie, twist and distort.

    > Let’s put aside the fact that in his post, Romm lists Anthony Watts as a journalist…

    Romm: “Anthony Watts does more than any person in the blogosphere to spread anti-scientific disinformation. Although he was a TV weatherman, he isn’t a ‘journalist’…”

    So, your claim is 100% factually wrong. I note that in all of your rhetoric directed at Romm, you never actually give an example of where he is factually wrong.

    Climate science journalism has, overall, been *atrocious* – and the sloppiness you have just demonstrated is an example of that.

    You’re probably not going to like the evisceration performed here: http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/climate-change-journalism-massacring-the-messengers/

  7. Posted January 17, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    BlueRock: Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Once you’ve calmed down, go back and actually read what I wrote and also what Greenfyre wrote (as opposed to what you think we wrote). Then we can have an honest debate.

  8. BlueRock
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Tom Yulsman:

    > BlueRock: Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Once you’ve calmed down…

    Tom, why are you becoming so hysterically angry?! ;)

    > …go back and actually read what I wrote…

    I clearly did. You can tell that because I’ve quoted you and pointed out glaring errors. Why have you ducked them? Is accuracy and honesty not important to you?

    Perhaps you’re referring to “Let’s put aside the fact that Walsh probably didn’t write the “But they’re wrong” bit.” This does not help you – the word ‘wrong’ appears nowhere on the page you linked to.

    > …what Greenfyre wrote…

    “Evisceration” was too strong, I admit – but you really could do with taking a critical look at what you’re writing – see my previous comment and Greenfyre’s recommendation that “the onus is on you to clarify, substantiate and/or retract.”

    > Then we can have an honest debate.

    For that to happen you would need to respond to the clear errors in your defensive piece that fails to portray the widespread failure of journalists to convey the threat and urgency of climate change.

    > My colleagues Max Boykoff and Roger Pielke, Jr. …

    You consider the perpetually not-quite-right Pielke Junior a “colleague”? Not a good admission for those of us who have a reasonable grasp of the climate science misinformers, e.g.:

    * http://climateprogress.org/2009/07/28/the-lies-of-roger-pielke-jr/

    * http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/08/another_pielke_train_wreck.php

    * http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/10/pielke_pity_party.php

    > Johnson did not elaborate, even after he was asked to clarify who he felt was part of the “cabal”…

    How do you know Johnson saw the comment that followed his? You don’t.

    Also, your obvious attempt to portray Dr Romm as “partisan” and the ‘other side of the same coin’ to (radio weather presenter) Watts is just ignorant nonsense.

    Finally, your belief that you “cover climate science in terms of risk, uncertainty, complexity, and nuance” is actually your prejudices and ignorance of the science clouding what climate scientists are telling us. There are many, many clear, unequivocal calls to action from the planet’s experts – here are just a few:

    * The American Geophysical Union: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system … are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. … Evidence from most oceans and all continents except Antarctica shows warming attributable to human activities.”

    * American Physical Society: “Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. … The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”

    * The Geological Society of America: “This position statement summarizes the strengthened basis for the conclusion that humans are a major factor responsible for recent global warming;…”.

    * American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.”

    - American Chemical Society: “Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles. There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities. The threats are serious and action is urgently needed to mitigate the risks of climate change… The costs of unchecked climate change in economic loss, human misery, and loss of ecosystem services are likely to be enormous.”

    Many more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change

    Your “nuanced” assessment of climate science is not superior to all of these scientific bodies and experts. If you are communicating anything other than the dire urgency or reducing carbon pollution, you are confused and failing the public.

This thing has 3 Trackbacks

  1. Posted January 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    [...] Quality Coverage Finally, major media get good marks in a forthcoming paper assessing 20 years of news coverage of the projected rise in sea levels in a warming world by Ursula Rick, Maxwell Boykoff (of “balance as bias” fame) and Roger A. Pielke Jr., all at the University of Colorado. The reports largely tracked the scientific consensus at the time, according to the study, forthcoming in Environmental Research Letters. Also, I encourage you to check out Tom Yulsman’s post, “Environmental journalists: Are we really that awful?“ [...]

  2. Posted January 7, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    [...] “blow the story” every single time they publish. That recently prompted Yulsman to ask: Are we really that [...]

  3. Posted January 17, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    [...] BPSDB Tom Yulsman at CEJ is upset. Apparently people are criticising media coverage of climate issues, leading him to ask “Environmental journalists: Are we really that awful?“ [...]

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