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:
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?