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This item was posted on January 6, 2011, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Shrieking Stupid Heads, climate change coverage.
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Then directs ludicrous attack on the target of Forbes’ ludicrous attack

Yesterday, I bemoaned the fact that I can’t get no respect — or, more precisely, that my fellow environmental journalists can’t. We’ve found ourselves attacked from both the Left and the Right over our coverage of climate change.

Today, a RealClimate post brought to my attention yet another attack, this one in Forbes by Larry Bell. He accuses the “mainstream media” generally (not environmental specialists per se) of ignoring “good news” about climate. And in their guest commentary, Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia do an artful take-down of Bell, showing how 10 of his 11 assertions of good news are pretty much nonsense. For the details, see their commentary.

But lest my fellow journalists take comfort in two scientists springing to our defense, consider their blistering conclusion:

Ultimately, though, the criticism of the press is ludicrous. The naysayers ought to be thrilled at the lack of interest in climate change shown in the press, at least in North America. The longer we delay, the bigger the topic gets, and the more ridiculous the refusal of the press and policy sector to grapple with it becomes.

I have a mixed reaction to this charge, to say the least.

On the one hand, I find much to criticize in coverage of climate change, particularly on commercial television. So much so, that I have cancelled all but basic cable service to my home — because I find both network and cable television to be a vast, brain-eroding wasteland.

One of the things that put me over the edge was CNN’s shameful “Global Warming: Trick or Truth?” series (one segment of which I took apart here).

There are, of course, some notable exceptions in television, including CNN’s own Planet in Peril series. But these are the exceptions, not the rule, especially in cable.

And to be honest, I just can’t get past the shrieking stupid heads that pass for news there, however entertaining they might be.

But I did say I had mixed feelings. That’s because generalizing about “the press” refusing to grapple with climate change is itself patently ludicrous. Especially in the age of Web 2.0, there simply is no one “press.”

Even within just one category, and in one city, we have on the one hand, the New York Times, and on the other, the New York Post. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the coverage of climate change in the tabloid. But what about the Times? Has it neglected the story of the century?

In a post at DotEarth yesterday, Andrew Revkin convincingly defended his colleagues against that charge:

While climate pundits sit inside the Beltway dictating posts, Justin Gillis has been traveling to mountain peaks and ice sheets to tell the story of accumulating carbon dioxide and diminishing glacial ice. The reporters who produced this year’s outstanding “Beyond Fossil Fuels” series traveled the globe, as well, building on years of prior coverage that first crested with our multi-year Energy Challenge series.

In this series, Elisabeth Rosenthal reported what I consider the most exciting story on energy and development in years — a vivid description in words,video and photography showing how a single solar panel has had an utterly transformative impact on a household and village in rural Kenya. If you want to build climate resilience in poor places, bring people education (kids reading by electric lighting), information and paths to prosperity.

Many other newspaper reporters have also done excellent work on climate change. Peruse the winners of and runner-ups for the Society of Environmental Journalists Awards for Reporting on the Environment and you’ll find many excellent examples over the years. (And actually, not just print stories at newspapers.)

Of course, there is much more to “the press” than major newspapers. To offer just one excellent example, there is High Country News here in my neck of the woods. Their “Hot Times: Climate Change and the West” was a remarkable, award-winning effort consisting of no fewer than — damn it Tobis and Mandia, count them! — 15 separate major stories.

This is “a refusal of the press” to grapple with climate change?

How about the burgeoning Web sector of the media? The “What’s Up With the Weather?” interactive Web site examining global warming, produced by NOVA, Frontline and WGBH, doesn’t look at all like a “refusal” to me. (Neither did the series of television programs that this was based on.)

And neither does The Daily Climate newsroom, dedicated entirely to climate change news. Or Climate Central, for that matter.

But hey, I guess the New Yorker has been a real slacker when it comes to climate change coverage, with light-weight articles like Ryan Lizza’s 9,477-word “As the World Burns” last October.

So I have some advice for Michael Tobis, Scott Mandia and other scientists who are frustrated that they haven’t been able to get their message across to the public and want to blame it all on journalists: Take a look in the mirror first. Then let’s talk.

The truth is that together, we have much to bitch about, but also much that should make us proud.

Update 1/7/10: From Keith Kloor’s post this morning:

Journalists exhibit “a lack of interest in climate change” when they aren’t “blowing the story” because of their membership in a “cabal” that has been “manipulated by propagandists” for decades.

Yep, makes sense to me.

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This thing has 27 Comments

  1. Posted January 6, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Part of the problem journalists have is that they will not look at some of the most interesting stories to come out of the climate science debate – the Hockey Stick affair and the British establishment’s coverup over the Climategate inquiries are obvious examples.

    Environment journalists seem to see themselves as part of a movement rather than as truth-seekers. They have become “environmentalist journalists”. Their output inevitably therefore comes over to the public as, at best, boring and more often as plain propaganda.

  2. Gabriel
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    It is true that there is some great work out there covering climate, but what I think the real point of the RealClimate post is that it is still nowhere near adequate. Climate change, if geophysicists and biologists are to be believed, is an existential threat in this century. It requires a massive level of awareness, and our society is refusing to connect the dots.

    Climate coverage is still a backwater for the most part, if it had anywhere near the coverage of Lindsey Lohan then we might not see our government taken over by anti-science polluter funded idealogues. It needs daily coverage, like sports, style, food, stocks, etc. As long as articles like the Forbes column can be published full of such demonstrable nonsense and lapped up by conservatives, our ignorance of climate science leaves us incapable if pulling our heads out of the sand and actually facing down the climate threat.

  3. Posted January 6, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Gabriel: The authors of the RealClimate post did not say that “there is some great work out there,” but that “it is still nowhere near adequate.” They spoke of the “near-silence of the media” on climate change; the “lack of interest in climate change shown in the press”; and the “ridiculous refusal of the press” to grapple with climate change.

    Those were their actual words. No nuance. No shades of grade. Not even the faintest scintilla of an acknowledgement that, as you say, “there is some great work out there.”

    And that is an insult to a good number of journalists, some of whom (myself included) have toiled for decades on this beat. And I don’t think it was a mere oversight either.

    As for climate change getting the kind of daily coverage that sports does, for those who are interested in the topic, there is an ever-increasing amount of material out there on a daily, and even hourly, basis. But whether you and I like it or not, the audience for this material is exceedingly miniscule. And let’s face it, with 10 percent of Americans out of work, and countless others underemployed and struggling just to get by, I don’t see that situation changing in a big way any time soon.

  4. Bill Kovarik
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    To “Bishop Hill” (whoever you actually are):

    There was no “hockey stick affair.” The criticism of the Mann / IPCC temperature reconstructions proved unfounded. Meanwhile, subsequent research has strongly affirmed a warming trend. Even most AGH deniers have conceded that.

    You also say that “Environment journalists seem to see themselves as part of a movement” Just wondering if you are even grasping the point of this conversation, which has to do with uncertainty, nuance, balance and expectations. Some journalists who report on the environment are not advocates, and it makes some of the scientists uncomfortable given the enormity of the issues.

    “Inevitably … boring..” ? I think your bias against the press is showing here.
    Seems to me that anonymous snipers in blog comments are the real bores.

  5. Posted January 7, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    The news reports generated by the journalists go through a filter–the editors. They are the gatekeepers. That is their job. Their impact on stories must not be underestimated.

    Of course, this does not mitigate a lack of understanding of climate change on the part of the journalists or a lack of understanding on the part of researchers of the constraints in media.

    However, if we are looking for root cause on our failure to deliver the climate change message then we must answer this question: How do we deliver the coming tragedy to the public without painting a target on our back?

    It is fear, and our desire for comfort, that keeps the message of climate change on the back burner. No one wants to be a target so we all are a bit too careful on this topic.

    Journalists, scientists, researchers, writers, and editors are doing the best job they can on climate change. The climate issue draws us all to it. Some are just drawn to it sooner than others are. So fear not, at some point the reality of climate change will surface for the public.

    It is a certainty.

  6. Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I’d hardly define Bishop Hill as “anonymous”…anyway, anybody having the bad luck of getting news coverage from the BBC knows what the Bish is talking about: the climate change “message” is repeated again, and again, and again, in an unrelenting mantra so much so that you can always guess from the start where things are going to end (usually, a “sobering message” that “scientists say it’s worse than they thought”).

    That’s as much “news” as reading of the latest exploits by the President of Belarus on local State-sponsored newspapers…nothing ever really happens.

    The problem is compounded by the fact that the BBC itself shows no reticence in properly investigating things that are outside of the climate change silo. The starkness in their approach has been recently confirmed, with two news pieces juxtaposed on the BBC Radio4′s flagship “Today” programme around Dec 14: the one about climate had the journalists sheepishly accepting anything they were being told, like not-so-bright schoolchildren, whilst (minutes later!) the one about National Health System (NHS) funding saw the same journalists becoming lions and grilling the interviewees about the details of their statements like there was no tomorrow. Obviously, the average listener and reader is plenty capable to tell which topic is the more interesting and better explored/elucidated.

    I am sure even in the Soviet Union the 1,400th movie based on Socialist Realism bored the propagandists to death.

    I tell you, had a single e-mail come out from the NHS showing a tenth of what the Climategate e-mails have shown (according to the official reports), the BBC would have tore apart anybody trying to defend the behavior. But since it was climate change, heads bowed down, and the thing got shushed up.

    Funnily enough, we have now Tobis and Mandia demanding journalists behave even more sheepishly, almost as if they (and RC) were hungry for making enemies left, right and center (literally!). Imagine the public’s reaction to that.

    And so since behaving like lapdogs for a certain group of scientists didn’t build friends to anybody, perhaps it’s really time for a serious look at Pielke Jr’s suggestion: “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?”

    That’s btw why I do respect Andy Revkin (and Roger Pielke Jr).

  7. Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I’m still struck by the rhetoric coming from scientists, activists and skeptics. There’s the “near-silence of the media” on climate change, and a “lack of interest in climate change shown in the press.” But there’s also a “cabal” of enviro journalists who don’t seem to lack interest at all. In fact, they’re part of some ill-defined conspiracy to make climate change seem not so bad. And then we have journalists with “heads bowed down” hushing things up, performing like the stenographers of lefty warmist scientists, writing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again — like propagandists in the bloody Soviet Union. Wow!

    What should we conclude when people use such inflamed yet mutually exclusive rhetoric about the same group of people?

  8. Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Tom, those in the business and those following the subject know you’re right. But ask people you meet outside of work what they’ve heard about — and you’ll get what MT is talking about. This is one of those weather/climate anecdote/trend issues where the more you know about the subject, the less you know about what the average reader sees.

    I test this all the time talking to people I’ve just met, asking them if the’ve heard anything new about climate change. Have you tried this? Usually, sad to say, what they’ve heard is the Bishop Hill crap. That was only briefly dominant in the “news” in the past year, and has the half-life of old fruit, but it’s what people remember.

    Note the big spike early on and rapid decay: http://www.google.com/trends?q=climategate

    Note this for comparison; note the trend: http://www.google.com/trends?q=climate+warming

    I regret writing this. It’s not meant as criticism. It’s meant to say, the world is huge and most people aren’t paying attention.

    The Onion is more emphatic than most: http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-global-warming-issue-from-2-or-3-years-ago,18431/

  9. tomasyn
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Tom, while I can understand your frustration as one of the journalists who are doing a good job, ‘the press’ as a whole is doing a dreadful job of adequately covering what is the most important story ever. Why else are climate scientist having to do the job of journalists as well as their own? Where is the journalist exposing the writings of Larry Bell and other charlatans? Also, I think it’s ludicrous to give RC’s ‘attack’ on journalism the same ‘ludicrous’ label as the Forbes article earns.

  10. Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “the world is huge and most people aren’t paying attention.”

    So who’s fault is that? The journalists?

    As Tom said on a recent post (not sure which one), there’s a lot of other things going on in the world and in people’s lives competing for their attention. This simple fact seems to go unappreciated by many of the critics of journalists.

    Tom also makes a good argument for the density of existing coverage in all the various outlets, both mainstream and not. But this too goes unrecognized or unacknowledged by the critics.

  11. Posted January 7, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    PS, as another reality check, as I said above:
    Note the big spike early on and rapid decay: http://www.google.com/trends?q=climategate

    But think about the blogs you read yourself — is there a counting tool for them? The few, the proud, the verbose, the avid rebunkers are posting about “climategate” all the time in every climate thread opened anywhere.

    If you didn’t know from the Google tool that it was fading away to a whisper, you could imagine people still talked about it. I mean real people, in the real world.

  12. Posted January 7, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    >> “the world is huge and most people aren’t paying attention.”
    > So who’s fault is that?

    You’re getting this backwards. That’s the ground on which the journalists and scientists and rebunkers are all working — a large and mostly oblivious world.

    The rebunkers want you to think they’re successful because people are ignoring the scientists. They’re taking credit for the way the world works.

    The scientists and those of us who like science think people ought to pay more attention. Some of those folks imagine that journalists could, by trying harder, actually get people to pay more attention.

    Do you think journalists _could_ change how much attention the climate news gets?
    Do you think the journalists are already doing everything appropriate for the news?

    Is there a better way to present the news, if it’s really important people change?

    Let me preach to you for a moment, or rather borrow from a real preacher:

    “Billy Sunday said, ‘Paul said he would rather speak five words that were understood than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. That hits me. I want people to know what I mean, and that’s why I try to get down where they live. What do I care if some puff-eyed, dainty little dibbly-dibbly preacher goes tibbly-tibbling around because I use plain Anglo-Saxon words.’
    ‘They say to me, “Bill, you rub the fur the wrong way.” I don’t; let the cats turn ’round.’”

  13. Menth
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an instructive graph:


    There are plenty of journalists that have done a fine job of exploring the issue. If what they’re hoping for is more Joe Romm-style freakouts from mainstream journalists then god help us all.

    More influential in this is the nature of argument and the human mind.

    See: Roger Pielke Jr’s “Iron Law”

    Of course many of these folks wouldn’t bother to listen to mister Pielke because anyone who isn’t “all apocalypse all the time” is “unhelpful”.

  14. spyder
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I was pretty sure that RealClimate was a webblog, dedicated to the public access of critical information, regarding the Earth’s climate. As such, it too would be a vehicle of a free press. Are they seriously complaining about their own journalistic tendencies?

  15. Michael Tobis
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Look, I am glad this topic is on the front burner again. I’ll respond at length soon.

    But the sentence was not in an article about the mainstream press; it was an article about denialist BS appearing in a respected business publication.

    Certainly there has been great stuff out there. Elizabeth Kolbert is particularly exemplary. But that would have been a distraction from the thrust of the argument.

    Bell says “the press is biased, look at these stories it didn’t carry”. We demonstrated that for the most part they were not real stories. This means that the accusation of bias toward alarm carries no serious weight. Now it seemed worth mentioning that many of us see the press overall as having a bias, instead, toward complacency.

    We certainly did NOT say, and speaking for myself I certainly do NOT believe, that nobody ever writes anything good ever! (As spyder points out, I would be shooting myself in the foot as I consider myself a journalist as well.)

    But I’m happy the occasion has arisen to discuss the role of the press in our quandary. It’s odd though. I have tried to start that conversation so many times in the past and failed. It’s as though people find an offhand tangential comment more interesting than a considered commentary!

  16. Posted January 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    In analyzing these things it is good to remember the Overton window. What journalists have done is to open the window to our dearly loved Christopher Monckton because he provides entertainment value, while closing off the extreme on the other side, this produces a destructive asymmetry, where the public is trying to middle between the NIPCC and the IPCC, and the Fred Singers of the world have by playing the refs, achieved their goal and that is what MT was talking about.

  17. Anna Haynes
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    What Hank, MT and Eli said.

    Tom, it’s hard for us east african plains apes to digest, when our hackles are up; I hope you can reflect on what these three have been saying.

    Re the NYT, I do remember a number of stories on bark beetles that gave no-to-short shrift to climate change, and reports on Bjorn Lomborg’s film that didn’t bother to ask who funded it.
    I consider this to be suboptimal.

  18. TimG
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I am struck by how much communication in the media is done with short hand catch phrases which mean different things to different people.

    For example, RC ‘debunks’ the cooling oceans claim by claiming that scientists have successfully beaten the misbehaving data into submission and it now shows that there was really warming. What RC does not explain is the massive jump in 2003 which can only be explained as bad splice between XBT and Argo datasets and that the cooling is likely still there but hidden by the adjusters.

    What this means for people who believe in the AGW narrative is they can the oceans not are cooling. For people who dispute that narrative they can claim the oceans are cooling.

    A true objective look at the data would conclude that uncertainties introduced by the data splice make it impossible to draw any conclusions about the long term OHC and that it is possible that the oceans are not warming as predicted.

    I am starting to have a lot more sympathy journalists because it is clear that they are dealing with a technical topic and they have no technical authority which they can truely trust to give them an objective answer. This makes it very difficult to sort out competing claims and ‘we just do know’ is rarely a story that graps public attention.

  19. Anna Haynes
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    What data could we collect that would shed light on this “don’t diss journos” flap?

    (Set up & survey readers’ circles from various news outlets, to measure (and compare) their readers’ grasp of climate science?)

    If journalists are doing a good job, we should be able to see it in their readers’ level of informedness. No evidence-free assertions needed.

    (similar comment left at RC, 8 Jan 2011 at 8:59 PM)

  20. Posted January 8, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for commenting and keeping it civil!. And I’m sorry I haven’t joined in today. I have been utterly distracted by the horror in Arizona. I can’t think about climate change communication right now. I’m too focused on this and the issue of violent, apocalyptic rhetoric from the Right — as well as how all of this will ply out politically. I’ll be back once I settle down…

  21. TimG
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Tom Yulsman,

    Don’t forget that Discovery channel hostage taker was motivated by the ‘violant and apocalyptic rhetoric’ from environmental movement.

    The attempts the media to immediately protray these kinds of crazy acts as something unique to the ‘right’ is pathetic. Violance is violance and must be condemned.

  22. Posted January 9, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    In my classroom I see 100 students per semester. None of them have any clue that there is a coming crisis that should be the Top Story of the Century. OK. They are 18 and care more about Jersey Shore than reading solid news sources. I will forgive them to a degree.

    I do public lectures every semester and people are shocked when they hear the likely impacts of what even a 2-3C increase will bring. We can only hope for 2-3C on our current trajectory of apathy and emissions.

    I work with many academics day in and day out who are not scientists and they are shocked when I tell them about the risks we are assuming by a business as usual emission scenario.

    I work with scientists with backgrounds in physics, chemistry, and astronomy every day and even those that understand humans are dramatically altering the planet are surprised to hear about the risks associated with a 2xCO2 or 3xCO2 world.

    So why are all of these people clueless about the huge risks we are accepting? As I told Tom in a private email: “Fingers can be pointed in many directions including toward scientists and media. Both have failed to truly educate the public about how serious the situation is even though within both groups there are very vocal foot soldiers. We need both ARMIES to be more vocal.”

    Although not a scientific analysis, you should look at the link below where I show how the coverage of climategate was unfair. This says a lot about why the Story of the Century is not.

    Climategate Coverage: Unfair & Unbalanced

  23. TimG
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Scott Mandia,

    Once again journalists are found getting smacked by both sides!

    As far as I am concerned the climategate emails were shameless whitewashes that ignored the real complaints of sceptics and beat up a few strawmen. I think the media has failed because it assumed that these panels were impartial and refused to cover the numerous conflicts of interest that ultimately compromised the report findings.

    Of course you disagree but that does not mean you are right nor that the media should have exclusively parroted your version of reality.

    I also find the references to ‘foot soldiers’ and ‘armies’ to be in appropriate given recent events.

  24. TimG
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    that should have said ‘the investigations into the the climategate emails…’

  25. Posted January 9, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Scott: Thank you for your comments. In response, I’d like to share this with you: After listening to rock and roll with the volume set to 11 for my entire youth, I now have constant buzzing in my ears and I’ve suffered hearing loss.

    These days, I mostly listen to jazz, with the volume turned down to a safe level.

  26. Posted January 9, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink


    You are so lucky. My volume only goes to 10. Though I spent my youth listening to The Doors and Bob Dylan, I have tickets to see Lady GaGa next month. Go figure.


    My email to Tom was from two days ago before recent events.

  27. L. Carey
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Shorter Tom Yulsman, via a fable: The Fire Department must not be criticized because when the orphanage caught fire, although most of the firefighters preferred to stay at the station and play cards and some organized to spray gasoline on the flames, a few firefighters actually showed up and threw some water on the fire. Since a few firefighters responded appropriately they should be praised, the laggards and arsonists should be ignored, and there’s no problem with Fire Department.

This thing has 4 Trackbacks

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  2. Posted January 7, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

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