Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the “climate beat” for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader’s position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:

As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”

Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:

In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”

which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I’m always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren’t juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:

“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”

Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:

Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.

Dykstra’s advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It’s certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn’t mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:

  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?

It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn’t feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More “not taking sides” like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:

he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:

The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported … but that is simply not the case … in April, 2009.

Where’s Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?


Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from livius.org is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis “Two-Face”, but, well, ewww.


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