The Island of Doubt

Fixing journalism

Covering climatology may not be the biggest challenge facing today’s mainstream news outlets and the journalists they employ, but it certainly has exposed a serious weakness in conventional news reporting. That weakness, as I implied in my previous post, is a pathological fear of taking sides, even then the “sides” in question are reality and fantasy.

Part of the problem is endemic to much of what passes for science journalism, which is too often practiced by journalists who know so little about the subject they’re covering that they can’t properly evaluate the reliability or trustworthiness of potential sources. The result is that sources with no credibility in the field routinely appear alongside genuine experts as part of an effort to provide balance.

There are plenty of good science journalists who, either through academic training or just plain hard work, are capable of telling the difference between an expert and a kook. (See Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs to name two.), but after years of slashed science-section budgets, when even the likes of the New York Times see fit to seek out the thoughts of Christopher Monckton on matters climatological, something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

More and more, the failings of the media to offer responsible coverage of climate change are attracting attention. Some of the observations carry a whiff of naivete — I have little doubt that some of my criticisms could fairly be so criticized — but they are worthy of exploring. Consider, for example, a recent Real Climate post on the latest bout of misreporting on the climate front, in which the group laments the “sizeable contingent of me-too journalism that is simply repeating the stories but not taking the time to form a well-founded view on the topics.” They ask:

But isn’t it the responsibility of the media to actually investigate whether allegations have any merit before they decide to repeat them?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? That, at least, used to be part of standard operating procedure for any reporter investigating something that involved “allegations.” And even if myriad non-journalist bloggers are tempted to pass on unchecked allegations as fact, surely any respectable news outlet’s staff should know better, no?

It has been argued by countless others that today’s continuous news cycle leaves no time to verify allegations. But that doesn’t make it ethical. And that doesn’t explain failing to vet your sources before you give them your stamp of approval. Treating a propagandist with no credibility as a full-blown expert is incompatible with a respect for the facts. To repeat, we’re not just talking about third-rate British tabloids like the Daily Mail. The New York Times‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal’s decision to treat Monckton and Roger Pielke Jr. as climate scientists is bizarre, to the say the least.

There’s very little readers and viewers can do about this unless they know more about a subject than the journalist who is misleading them. But there is something sources can do. At first, Joe Romm’s suggestion seems like a good starting point.

Scientists should refuse to grant interviews … without a third-party present or an agreement to allow a review of any quotes used.

I’d agree that refusing to grant interviews to reporters or an entire media outlet that has demonstrated it doesn’t understand the need to get it right is a viable option. Scientists who do so will be accused of harboring an ideological bias, but chances are their peers will know enough to dismiss such allegations (before passing them on as fact).

But many a responsible journalist will have trouble agreeing to the presence of third parties or an obligation to supply quotes (or more) to a source prior to publication. Editors, publishers and news directors tend to fire staffers who engage in such practices, and the reasons are valid. News organizations have a real interest in ensuring they can’t be scooped by the competition or, in some jurisdictions, find themselves on the receiving end of an judge’s injunction against publication.

More fortunate science journalists didn’t used to have to worry about such things, and if there’s one section of a newspapers where the reporters used to be able to get away with letting sources or other outsiders read a story before publication, it was Science, where ensuring the story gets the facts and context right can be tricky. But as the past few months have shown, covering climate science can be just as political as, well, politics. Journalists and editors are going to have to think long and hard about what’s acceptable today.

At the end of the day, though, the obligation not to mislead an audience, either by generating coverage that you know is laden with falsehoods, or failing to be relatively confident it isn’t false, remains. And the best way for scientists to play a role in ensuring the media respects that obligation is to boycott any reporter or any organization that won’t accept that responsibility.


  1. #1 Dunc
    February 16, 2010

    At the end of the day, though, the obligation not to mislead an audience, either by generating coverage that you know is laden with falsehoods, or failing to be relatively confident it isn’t false, remains.

    It does? I thought the one and only obligation was to make money

    They don’t print this shit because they can’t tell the difference between experts and cranks, but because it sells papers. End of story. They’d tell you the world ended yesterday if they thought people would buy more papers as a result.

  2. #2 Erasmussimo
    February 16, 2010

    Might I suggest that a more practical means to providing the “independent observer” is to record the conversation? Hold it over Skype or use a webcam. That way the scientist can post the actual conversation if he is misquoted.

    As to the matter of insuring veracity, I suggest that that the only real solution is the wisdom of the readership. The only people who bother to watch Fox News now are those who desire biased news. The truth will out. As newspapers become less reliable, people will turn to more reliable sources. The only print source I bother reading for science news is The Economist. Otherwise I find the web a more complete and more reliable source, usually because the reliable outlets link to the original source material. I think that linking should become the hallmark of good science reporting.

  3. #3 Mike the Mad Biologist
    February 16, 2010

    I agree with Erasmussimo: I’ve actually made that a condition of being interviewed–I find the interview proceeds much better this way. Ultimately, to get good behavior from reporters, you have to be willing to walk away, otherwise they’ll walk all over you.

  4. #4 Survival Acres
    February 16, 2010

    It is a no-win situation for the scientist (now). The media is willing to lean whichever the way the wind blows. They are no longer interested in the truth, just public opinion, even if it is (dead) wrong.

    It’s very sad to witness, because it has such huge ramifications. The institution that should be (always) championing the truth is busy spreading lies. This wouldn’t matter if it was about Monica’s underwear, but we’re talking about the future habitability of the entire planet here.

  5. #5 mandas
    February 16, 2010

    Sorry James, I think you have the wrong end of the stick on this issue. You believe that one of the problems is a fear of taking sides. I think this is FAR from the case.

    Firstly, as Dunc has pointed out, the object of newspapers and TV news shows etc is not to report the news, but to make money. That they do this by presenting some form of ‘news’ reporting is simply the mechanism to make that money.

    Secondly, and more importantly, media outlets cater for their audience, and they take sides and spin their stories appropriately. Fox News may be an oxymoron, but they are hugely successful because they know their audience and present stories and opinions which reinforce their audience’s pre-existing prejudices. There is no attempt at balance or fairness, but then again, other media outlets (such as MSNBC) are just as guilty. Even blog sites like this, for all the claims of rationalilty etc, has its own spin and its own world views, and caters to an audience with similar views (plus a handful of ‘counter-point’ writers).

    There is really no way to ‘fix’ journalism, because it isn’t really broken. It’s not journalism which is broken – it’s the audience, who does not understand that they are being fed a diet of exactly what they want to hear / read / see, based on their existing world views. The only way to overcome this is to educate people to be more discerning, and to seek information from a variety of sources. But this does not mean equal time to all views – as you have said some views are not valuable and should be discounted. But once again, people need to be able to make this judgement for themselves, and the only way thay can do this is through better education.

    Now I will admit there is a big flaw in my position, and that is that there are many poorly educated people out there, and there is little prospect to improve their standards of education and discernment. And unfortunately, these people can have a big influence on Government decisions (I sound elitest don’t I?). How we overcome this is a very difficult problem, and I really won’t even pretend to offer an opinion. Maybe someone else will jump in with one.

  6. #6 Nils Ross
    February 16, 2010

    Mandas, I’m cynical enough that I’m happy to sit in the “can’t win, don’t try,” boat on that issue — at least in the short term. Building a better world with more informed people is the work of generations. Of course we have to keep fighting the good fight — but it’s not at all clear that the rate at which we’ve been fighting it is going to be sufficient to avoid disaster in this case.

  7. #7 Dr ohno
    February 16, 2010

    Because 3 ppm co2 fraud is ALL about journalism. What a joke. Stop taking your I’ll so seriously Jimmy

  8. #8 Eric the Leaf
    February 16, 2010

    I agree with Nils, which is not to say that he will agree with me. I think the dye is cast. Nature is going to push the reset button on the most biologically successful species to date on the the planet. I think we are witnessing a phenomenon, perhaps outlined best by William Catton and Marvin Harris, in which population size, intensification of production and resource consumption has outstripped the ability for the planet to replenish resources that can be renewed in viable time frames (soil, fresh water, minerals, etc.) and to cleanse itself of the byproducts of industrialization and scientific agriculture. Even if the problem of global warming, to take one example, was magically solved tomorrow, these other problems would persist and in my opinion are far more serious. For 500 years science and technology have kept pace with the cycles of intensifications and depletions, but ultimately the world is finite, and therein lies the problem.

  9. #9 Phyllograptus
    February 17, 2010

    Eric the Leaf
    “most biologically successful species to date” Only if your entirely human-centric in your thinking and basically believe the earth was created for humanities use. The dinosaurs were around for millions of years before they were wiped out in a catastrophe that had nothing to do with their “Success”. Or consider crocodiles, they have been around, essentially unchanged since the Jurassic, now thats success. We are just a fart in the wind so far my friend.

  10. #10 Dan
    February 17, 2010

    I’m not sure that the reporting of climate change is any different to the reporting – or non-reporting – of, for example, human rights abuses by the US government or US-sponsored governments. The media has never reported fairly so why single out climate change? The media, and the American media in particular, are part of the capitalist power structure which is benefiting from activities which cause climate change so what’s so shocking about their partiality when reporting it? It sounds like a dog-bites-man story; reporting fairly would surely be the surprising outcome. Of course, this doesn’t justify their activities but I think that understanding this requires looking at the systems of power and ideology involved, not at the ifs and buts of climate change.

  11. #11 Andrea
    February 17, 2010

    I’m enjoying your posts on journalism and climate change hugely, if “enjoy” is the right word considering the consequences.

    I think Dunc is right–we’re in this mess and it perpetuates because the business of newspapers these days is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, and objective reporting on actual science without controversy doesn’t do that. How you actually get accurate information to the public in such a climate (no pun intended) is beyond me.

  12. #12 Eric the Leaf
    February 18, 2010

    Fair point regarding my use of the term “biological success.” My reference was primarily directed toward the success in which humans have leveraged energy subsidies and the subsequent rate at which populations have increased. It was not directed at the duration of survival, which it could have been interpreted. I also implied, I believe, that this success was emphemeral.

  13. #13 Wadard
    February 26, 2010

    “How you actually get accurate information to the public in such a climate (no pun intended) is beyond me.”

    One thought is by canvassing advertisers to be conscientious about where they place their advertising. If a publications is in AGW denial, they should seek another.

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