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Global Environment > America's Blindfold Media

Where there's smoke,
there's media, but little more

By Ross Gelbspan
Commenting from Boston

Although the scientific community has known since 1995 that we are changing our climate, the US press done a deplorable job in disseminating that information, and all its implications, to the public.

In 1997, Bert Bolin, a Swedish meterologist who was, at the time, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declared: “The large majority of governments, while recognizing uncertainties, believe that we know enough to take action now. This position was supported by an independent group of 2,000 scientists.”

Or, as James McCarthy, who would later chair Working Group II of the IPCC, noted several years ago: “There is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what what is happening to the climate.”

That is something you would never know from the press coverage.
If the public relations specialists of the oil and coal industries are criminals against humanity, the US press has basically played the role of unwitting accomplice by consistently minimizing this story, if not burying it from public view altogether.

There are a number of reasons for this—none of them, given the magnitude of the story, justifiable.

All eyes on politics

On a somewhat superficial level, the career path to the top at news outlets normally lies in following the track of political reporting. Top editors tend to see all issues through a political lens.

For instance, although climate change has been the focus of a number of feature stories (and small, normally buried reports of scientific findings), the only time it has gained real news prominence is when it has played a role in the country’s politics. During the 1988 presidential campaign, the first President Bush slapped the label of “ozone man” on Al Gore because of his book, Earth in the Balance. Most recently, the issue surfaced when President Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto [Protocol] process. Again, the coverage focused not on climate change but on resulting diplomatic tensions between the United States and the European Union.

Nor have American journalists paid much attention to the growth of renewable energy around the world. Wind power in Europe, as one example, has been growing at a rate of 40 percent a year—much of it in the form of offshore wind farms. “It’s going so fast now because there is a race to go offshore, with manufacturers and utilities competing for the jobs,” said Corin Millais of the European Wind Energy Association. “Companies are now talking of wind fields, like oil reserves or coal reserves, waiting to be tapped,” Millais added.

The next reason the issue is so neglected by the US media has to do with the campaign of disinformation perpetrated by big coal and big oil. Although that campaign targeted the public and the policymakers, it also had a profound effect on journalists.

For many years, the press accorded the same weight to the “skeptics” as it did to mainstream scientists. This was done in the name of journalistic balance. In fact, it was journalistic laziness.

The ethic of journalistic balance comes into play when there is a story involving opinion: Should abortion be legal? Should we invade Iraq? Should we have bilingual education or English immersion? At that point, an ethical journalist is obligated to give each competing view its most articulate presentation—and equivalent space.

But when it’s a question of fact, it’s up to a reporter to dig into a story and find out what the facts are. The issue of balance is not relevant when the focus of a story is factual. In this case, what is known about the climate comes from the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

If balance is required, it would suggest that a reporter spend a little time reviewing the literature, talking to some scientists on background, learning where the weight of scientific opinion lay—and reflecting that balance in his or her reporting. That kind of truly accurate balance would have reflected the position of mainstream scientists in 95 percent of the story—with the skeptics getting a paragraph at the end.

Today, that is finally beginning to happen.

A separate explanation for the failure of journalists to cover the climate crisis is that few journalists are comfortable with complex scientific information. Although a small number of news outlets have permanent science or environmental reporters on their staffs, more typically scientific and environmental stories are covered by general-assignment reporters with no background in complex, scientific data. That lack of preparation is compounded by the daily deadlines that frequently deprive reporters of the time to fully digest complex scientific papers.

In fairness, the problem is compounded by many scientists. In their public statements, most scientists use extremely conservative and qualified language. One way to cut through this problem is through the time-honored use of background conversations with scientists. On the record, scientists typically speak in terms of probabilities and estimates and uncertainties. As a result, they sound to an untrained reporter as vague, wishy-washy, almost indecisive. But off the record, when asked to distill the implications of their findings, many scientists would make such statements as, “This is scary as hell.”

Any reporter who really wanted to make climate change more accessible to a general audience would need to look no further than the weather reports. One of the first signs of early-stage global warming is an increase in weather extremes—longer droughts, more heat waves, more severe storms and much more intense, severe dumps of rain and snow. Given the dramatic increase in extreme weather events, one might think journalists, in covering these stories, would include the line: “Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” They don’t.

A few years ago, a top editor at a major TV network was asked why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to weather disasters, the network news broadcasts did not make this connection. The editor said, “We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition to our top executives at the network.” (The GCC was, at the time, the main fossil fuel industry lobbying group opposing action on global warming.)

The editor agreed that it would be very useful to the public in covering severe floods, droughts and storms to note that “scientists associated this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” But in the end, he confided, the industry basically intimidated the network into dropping this connection from its coverage. The threat was implicit: If the network persisted, it ran the risk of losing a lot of lucrative oil and advertising dollars.

On another level, slightly removed, coverage of the climate crisis has been one of the many casualties of the takeover of the news industry by a small number of massive media conglomerates. One result is that marketing strategy is replacing news judgment. Another result is that most newspapers have been cutting staff and failing to provide reporters with the time they need for thorough reporting of complex stories. At the same time, they have sacrificed real news coverage to increase readership and advertising through more celebrity coverage, more self-help articles and more trivial medical news.

There are enough aspects to the issues that surround this story—science, extreme weather, technology developments, oil-industry movements, terrorism and security, diplomatic tensions, economic ramifications—that it should be in the paper three times a week. By underreporting this story, the press is failing to move the conversation toward solutions and, in the process, ignoring the positive potential embedded in the climate crisis. There are solutions—some of which could, if implemented, also hold the key to solving some of the most intractable problems facing humanity today.

Ross Gelbspan is the author of Boiling Point
(See Boiling Point article).