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|December 4-10, 2008
How American journalism is forsaking truth for balance
by Dylan Otto Krider
The American journalists at the Environmental Journalism Conference look like a group under siege — and they are. The profession is suffering layoffs, budget cuts, declining circulations and constant pressure by interest groups tasked with influencing their reporting. On the opposite side sit their European counterparts, soft-spoken, polite, if looking a bit confused by this strange foreign culture before them. The two groups form a panel offering presentations at the conference.
The University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, which is hosting the event, takes advantage of the fact that Boulder boasts the highest concentration of atmospheric scientists in the country to try to give journalists better tools for environmental reporting.
Len Ackland, founding director of the center, says that journalists who cover the environment face the challenge of trying to figure out which scientists are accurate and which are not. The center’s goal is to make that difficult task a bit easier.
“The idea is that [the environment] is a very complex subject, and the more you know about a subject, the more you can report on it,” Ackland says.
Ackland says the center’s advisory board has wanted to get more international for some time because environmental issues are global issues, and journalists from both sides of the pond can learn from the different approaches.
The host of today’s conference is the center’s co-director, Tom Yulsman. He opens his introduction with a quote from Piers Corbyn, an astrophysicist at London’s Weather Action forecasting organization, printed as part of a 1995 Reuters article published in the Washington Post:
“[S]ome skeptical meteorologists and analysts assert that global warming reflects a natural cycle of temperature fluctuation and cannot be decisively tied to human actions. ‘As far as we are concerned, there’s no evidence for global warming, and by the year 2000 the man-made greenhouse theory will probably be regarded as the biggest scientific gaffe of the century.’”
Some of the journalists chuckle.
“For American journalists, objectivity reflects that journalistic value we hold dear, which is to provide appropriate balance,” Yulsman says.
To provide balance, doubters like Corbyn have been given a soapbox long after their views were found hilariously wrong, he says.
“Did that desire to be balanced in our coverage actually skew our coverage and delay reporting on an emerging scientific consensus about the human causes of climate change?” Yulsman asks.
It is not that the question is difficult to answer, so much as that the conventions of mainstream journalism in America have left reporters a choice between being truthful and appearing to be objective. In American journalism, reporters are taught to tell both sides of the story, to remain balanced and to keep their own experiences and opinions from influencing their reporting.
On the surface this seems an admirable goal. But when appearing to be objective means giving equal weight to those who are patently wrong, the truth is compromised, undermining the entire point of journalism.
This slavish approach to “objectivity” may be exactly what is undermining the credibility of the industry by making journalists easy prey for groups with a vested interest in misleading the public. It may very well be the profession can only be saved by violating its own standards.
Never become the story
David Baron, producer of “Shifting Ground” for NPR, opens his presentation by asking panelists how many would consider themselves environmentalists, but the Europeans don’t play along.
“You mean, do I believe in what I report?” asks one.
“But all Europeans are environmentalists,” another chimes in.
“Once I heard George Bush say that [he was an environmentalist], I thought I could,” quips Susan Moran, a freelance environmental and business reporter for the Economist and others.
And Baron is forced to admit that his presentation is not going the way he planned.
“It’s my impression that Europeans are more comfortable saying, ‘Of course we want to clean up the air.’ I’ve been an environmental journalist for 20 years, but I don’t want to be called an environmentalist,” Baron says.
The way he sees his job reminds me of Dragnet: “just the facts.”
He shows some slides from a story he did on a family divided by the introduction of wind farms to their small, rural community. An activist might avoid reporting negative aspects of wind power, but as a storyteller, Baron says he loves complexity and seeks the gray.
“I try to play it down the middle,” he says. “If someone says something ridiculous, I don’t include it, but I do try to show both sides of
Some of the European journalists challenged that notion that they are “activists” on environmental issues.
“I’m not sure journalists should tell people to change their way of life,” says Susanna Baltscheffsky, a writer who covers environmental issues for Svenska Dagbladet in Stockholm, Sweden. “Am I an activist? No, but I can tell the stories. Why do we consume the way we do? And that needs to be based on facts.”
Yulsman eventually asks the obvious follow-up: why did you get into environmental reporting?
It is a difficult one for the Americans to answer without exposing some potential environmental proclivities. One credits a love of the outdoors. Another found it an easy transition from business reporting. All said they love the variety of topics they are able to cover.
A reporter must always be wary about revealing personal details that might suggest a lack of professional distance. Above all, the “I” must never intrude on the story.
“I” did a story on climate change for the Houston Press in 2002 on a global warming skeptic by the name of Gerald T. Westbrook, who debunked climate science for corporate audiences.
I had planned to write about dissent in the scientific community on this allegedly controversial topic until Westbrook was unable to name any scientists who agreed with his assertion that humans weren’t warming the Earth.
Of all the climate scientists I spoke to, the only skeptic anyone could name was Patrick Michaels, a Cato Scholar who had received money from Exxon Mobil.
But he became incensed by my suggestion that he doubted humans contributed to climate change.
“I didn’t say that!” he told me. “Did I ever say that? Did I ever say that?... Why don’t you do a story about how groups distort what scientists are saying?”
I was floored.
From the looks of things, scientists’ opinion on humanity’s role in climate change was not a matter of consensus, but unanimous. A later study in 2004 by Naomi Oreskes could not find one journal article from the past 10 years with the keywords “global climate change” that questioned a human role.
Although the media were reporting that scientists disagreed about the role humans were playing in global climate change, taking time to find and include the “other side” in their reportage, the scientific community was much more united than reporters were leading their readers to believe.
I did a research assistantship involving CO2 back when I was an astronomy/physics major before my quarter-life crisis, yet my impression about the scientific view of global warming was completely off base. I believed there was a controversy with some scientists opposing the view that humans had anything to do with the phenomenon.
When I share this with the panel, Baron, who admits interviewing Patrick Michaels a time or two, says he believes reporters did their best during the early 1990s, when consensus on global climate change reached a scientific tipping point.
“In the early ’90s there were still legitimate questions [about global climate change], but it tended to be small questions,” he says.
Some satellite data were considered faulty, for example, but the gaps in information were closed quickly.
“So to the extent Europe was ahead of the U.S. … was Europe ahead of us, or were they jumping the gun?” he asks, referring to the gap between European reporting on the topic and that in the United States.
In the case of genetically modified foods, Europe seemed to move past the science into the emotion of the issue.
“Were they too fast, or were we too slow?” Baron asks.
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of the Environmental Studies Program and Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU, says as bad as the current emphasis on balance may be, other options are probably worse. He worries about giving reporters the freedom to decide what views to include.
“I’m in the minority opinion in thinking journalism has done a pretty good job over the last 20 years in reflecting consensus,” he says.
Pielke, who doesn’t watch television, says he feels like he needs to read two papers while in England to get at the real story.
Still, the good work of print journalists doesn’t seem to filter up to the cable news, where liberals have just started matching the conservative infrastructure with Countdown and Rachel Maddow.
“You have to be really careful. There is definitely a consensus, but the minute you get into questions like what degree of glacial meltoff is due to climate change, you get vastly different points of view and risk being misleading,” Pielke says. “It’s a perilous road we go down when we ask journalists to evaluate scientific and technical arguments.”
Don’t reporters make these decisions all the time? I decide what issues I deem important, and chose to speak with Pielke when it could easily have been someone else. Do my experiences invalidate my reporting?
When Anderson Cooper became emotionally involved in the suffering he witnessed first hand in Katrina, his ratings soared.
On the flip side, two of Katie Couric’s low moments (there have been a few) came when she stripped away her humanity to act as a conduit for Rush Limbaugh’s charges that Michael J. Fox had not taken his medication and that Elizabeth Edwards ought to be criticized for continuing her husband’s campaign when her cancer relapsed.
What was absent was Couric’s personal experience: her father had Parkinson’s and her sister, Virginia State Sen. Emily Couric, dropped out of her race for lieutenant governor when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but continued working in the senate for six years as she received treatment.
Her willingness to play devil’s advocate and yet remain mum on what she knew only illustrated how a reporter learns to detach herself from her own knowledge. Couric knew firsthand that Fox’s medication could not have been timed the way Limbaugh suggested. She understood better than most that cancer victims don’t necessarily want to stop living just because they’re dying.
“One could say she was giving Fox a chance to respond,” Ackland suggests.
True, but doesn’t a reporter also send a message about what questions, in their journalistic judgment, have merit over others?
Doesn’t asking Limbaugh’s question grant it a certain legitimacy the same way one legitimizes global warming skeptics by giving
them an equal platform with a representative of the vast majority?
“This is drifting way off from where the conversation originally started,” Ackland says. “I need to go pretty soon. Is there anything more you’d like to ask?”
Having mostly worked for alt weeklies, I have only skirted the boundaries of mainstream reporting and take any opportunity to probe a reporter about how certain stories come to be reported, often asked with the same sense of befuddlement as my British colleague, and usually centered around the central question: when Erika Lovely recently wrote a story for the Politico reviving the false notion that there’s controversy surrounding the science behind global warming, was she getting played or playing dumb? In stark contrast, was her willingness to consider the data supporting Gore’s ability to create cold weather wherever he speaks in that same issue intentionally ironic?
One doubts a single reporter in D.C. honestly questions whether bullets were fired in Kerry’s direction in Vietnam, but countless hours and column inches were devoted to probing this very question. It was not the reporters’ job to judge the politically motivated claims that tried to downplay his wartime experience.
With Couric, the question about Fox’s medication had been raised, and, according to the rules of mainstream journalism, her personal feelings had to be set aside. The question had merit because people believed it had merit, not because it was in any way valid, so it was reported, thus lending it more merit for others to report. And so it goes. We know people were talking about Fox’s ruse to get the shakes because it was on Limbaugh, and what’s on Limbaugh is what’s on people’s minds.
Which leads me to another personal anecdote: when Limbaugh went on a tirade about the refilling of oil reserves in the Gulf, I called Dr. Mahlon Kennicutt who did that study. His response: “That’s about as far from the truth as can be.”
That kind of thing really pisses me off, which disqualifies me from writing about this topic. Too much first-hand experience to color my worldview.
Balance all points of view
With the removal of “objectivity” from the ethics code of the Society for Professional Journalists, journalism was severed from the last tether to reality, to float aimlessly in postmodernism. Where conservatives had been apt to mock the “moral relativism” of the secular media, liberals now had “factual relativism” to complain about, where any fact was opinion if you found someone to dispute it — and inconvenient facts tend to be the most disputed.
The most egregious example of what Chris Mooney, author of Republican War on Science, called “He said/she said/we’re clueless,” was illustrated by CSPAN, which decided to balance out the talk by Emory University Holocaust Scholar Deborah Lipstadt at Harvard University with a response by Holocaust denier David Irving.
“You know how important fairness and balance is at C-SPAN,” Connie Doebele said in defense of her channel, apparently seeming taken aback by the reaction. “We work very, very hard at this. We ask ourselves, ‘Is there an opposing view of this?’”
Interested groups exploit this convention by “working the refs” — complaining that every call that doesn’t go your way is a bad call, in the hopes of getting a bad call to go their way in the future.
Mooney says science advocates need to get better at working the media to approach parity with the groups that so effectively flog the issue.
Pielke agrees, though it would make scientists just another advocacy group that gets more accurate coverage by raising its voice rather than the validity of its arguments. He points to polls that show efforts to confuse the public have failed — more than 70 percent of Americans have believed climate change was occurring since 1997, around the same time the science hardened, which demonstrates that the promulgators of disinformation have won few converts.
Yet, organizations funded by Exxon Mobil may have met their goal of delaying government action and clouding public debate anyway. The conservative pollster Frank Luntz’s advice for how Republicans should handle the issue was to emphasize “sound science,” challenge scientific consensus, and find “experts,” no matter how out of the mainstream, to back you up.
Though the public has resoundingly called for action, Yulsman gives polls that suggest the public has been misled about how much controversy exists in the scientific community.
Sheldon Rampton of PR Watch explained the strategy to me this way: “In general, the tactic is to create enough controversy and doubt about conclusions of climatologists involving global warming that you can justify inaction by saying we need to study the problem further. The strategy is not to attempt a full frontal rebuttal of the evidence regarding global warming in the hopes of winning the argument. They just attack to create a sense that there’s a controversy there.”
In sports reporting, when Mike Tyson bit off the ear of Evander Holyfield, reporters were not expected to “balance” the negative reporting with a piece that showed Holyfield was no angel, or suggest that he, too, might have bitten off an ear or two in his day. They said, “Whoah… he just bit that dude’s ear off. WTF?”
The emphasis on neutrality is unique to “controversial” topics where well-financed interests can bring considerable resources to bear on offenders. The Observer’s environment editor admits being reluctant to address overpopulation after the horrible things offended readers said about her picture. Neutrality not only gives an easy way to appear fair and balanced, but also to avoid conflict.
This may explain why the quality of science reporting seems to be inversely proportional to its political ramifications.
Show no bias
When the Europeans at the workshop ask questions of their American comrades, which is rare, it is usually very polite and respectful, phrased in the form of a compliment, but usually in the context of, “Please, help me to understand — what is wrong with you people?”
Jowit asks the Americans about the lack of debate about whether nations should de-emphasize growth in favor of Gross National Happiness.
“It just fascinates me… America is full of some of the best brains, dynamic people, I just don’t understand… how much the political atmosphere of the last two terms has been a part of dampening down the debate, or whether it’s a broader issue because you’re in a position to be leading this debate?”
The Americans seem somewhat perplexed by this.
Finally, someone says, “I think it has been taboo partly because of how touchy the immigration issue has been.”
Leslie Dodson, a freelance television correspondent who is far too honest to remain in this business, agrees. “There’s a patriotic issue. Growth is progress, progress is growth. Entrepreneurship is a religion here... you don’t want to have the fights with your editor.”
At some networks, you can be fired for questioning the capitalist system, she says.
Jowit is not the only one who is curious about the influence of partisan politics. Mette Dyrskjøt of the Dagbladet Børsen asks how much climate skeptics have led to paralysis on global warming reporting. Sébastien Maillard points out that, despite working for the nominally Catholic La Croix, there is no pressure to report creationism because the church officially accepts the theory of evolution. He wonders why it’s so controversial here.
You can’t explain the American journalists’ need to constantly prove their conservative credentials without mentioning the conservative infrastructure that has been put in place with talk radio, think tanks and FOX News. To do that would be to recognize an imbalance that has made “politically charged” code for “research that pisses off conservatives.”
For culture warriors, evolution is the primary threat (with any advances that make sex with multiple partners less dangerous a distant second), whereas the economic Ayn Randians are automatically skeptical of anything that might lead to public support for regulations, usually regarding health and environment.
No sooner has Yulesman put up an overhead showing the various organizations funded by Exxon Mobil to raise doubts about climate change than a journalist pounces to point out environmental groups are just as financially motivated. (And Amnesty International invents human misery to justify their funding.)
Todd Hartman of the Rocky Mountain News begins by saying, “I wanted to start off saying something nice about Exxon Mobil,” and brings up their new ads that put a greener face forward. “The ads are so good. They’re so skillful — this charming man who’s talking about electromagnetic waves — that my 13-year-old son, who’s pretty savvy and living with environmental reporters [and] is naturally wary of the fossil fuel industry, got through one of those ads and said, ‘Wow, dad, that’s really cool!’”
Journalists seem constantly afraid of being labeled liberal. They apologize frequently. Moran doesn’t hesitate to voice her opposition to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as EPA Chief because he opposed wind farms off the coast of Nantucket, but is much more delicate about making the rather obvious point that Obama might be more willing to engage in Kyoto talks. She adds a disclaimer to her comment: “Not to be partisan…”
Dodson says networks prefer to call them “environmental affairs correspondents.”
“That’s a very deliberate choice… so they could never get charged with being ‘greenies’ or ‘liberals.’”
Let readers decide
The panelists all agree it was Hurricane Katrina that brought global warming to the forefront. For those who still cling to the idea that objective reality ought to play a role in reporting, this is not good news. As Yulsman put it, “We know the name of global warming.
It’s Katrina, and its name is BS.”
Unlike global warming, the science behind global warming causing hurricanes is controversial. So, the thing that gave reporters permission to stop ignoring the scientific consensus was another media fabrication.
Chris Mooney, who is currently co-writing Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Sheril Kirshenbaum, says, “Now is the time for the awakening, for a new kind of activism. If we don’t like these things, we need to change.”
“That’s the question: what would fix it?” he asks. “I’m as pro-science as they come, but I’m not sure the scientific community asks themselves this question.”
The corporate media is driven by economics without any scientific advocates capable of counteracting those other forces.
“You get people on your side who believe in [science],” he says. “Fund your own infrastructure. Analyze coverage in the media.”
If reporters are terrified of getting angry e-mails when they report on evolution, they should get some when they don’t. When Lovely’s article appeared in Politico, for example, there were a lot of voices willing to pile on that weren’t there before.
“People who cover science in the media are losing their jobs,” he says, “and the fewer of them you have, the less they are going to know.”
And the easier they will be to dupe.
Ackland says he knows many scientists who will never talk to a reporter again.
“The reason is a journalist comes in and really hasn’t done their homework and doesn’t know what questions to ask,” he says.
The Center for Environmental Journalism tries to remedy that, but the problem is only going to get worse as reporters are given less time and fewer resources to get it right.
Mooney has conducted workshops to train scientists on how to navigate the media.
“I teach them how the media works,” he says, and role-plays adversarial “crossfire” scenarios. Some have figured out the game, but Mooney’s not sure there’s been enough of an institutional change to prevent, say, Intelligent Design from exploiting the same journalistic loopholes.
“I think we’re stuck with postmodernism,” Pielke says. “Scientists are going to have to become more like the reality of the real world and learn to talk in sound bites.”
Talk about what’s important
“Maybe the media has it exactly right,” Pielke suggests.
The public cares more about Britney Spears than climate change, and the media reflects that. I suggest that maybe we don’t need more climate-change stories, but to make the ones we do have move beyond the “yes or no” question sooner.
“If you look at realclimate.org or these other single-issue sites, every third post is about skeptics,” he says.
This indicates that environmental activists are just as interested in staying mired down in the debate over consensus as the deniers. Rather than complaining about it, why don’t the people who want to shift the debate… shift the debate?
“I’m kind of guilty of that with this article,” I say.
“It sounds like you are.”
As that starts to sink in, this reporter gets the sinking feeling that, yet again, we have allowed ourselves to get played.
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