Must-read study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The medias decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”

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"Must-read study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The medias decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”"

One of the country’s leading journalists has written a searing critique of the media’s coverage of global warming, especially climate economics.

How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change is by Eric Pooley for Harvard’s prestigious Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Pooley has been managing editor of Fortune, national editor of Time, Time‘s chief political correspondent, and Time‘s White House correspondent, where he won the Gerald Ford Prize for Excellence in Reporting. Before that, he was senior editor of New York magazine.

In short, Pooley has earned the right to be heard. Journalists and senior editors need to pay heed to Pooley’s three tough conclusions abut how “damaging” the recent media of the climate debate has been:

  1. The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap and trade. It failed to recognize the emerging consensus … that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones…. The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.
  2. The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centered on the short-term costs of taking action–i.e., higher electricity and gasoline prices–and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.
  3. Editors failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story. In general, global warming is still being shoved into the “environment” pigeonhole, along with the spotted owls and delta smelt, when it is clearly to society’s detriment to think about the subject that way. It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.

Precisely.

Pooley is one of the few major journalists in the country who understands that global warming is the story of the century — and if we don’t reverse our emissions path soon, it will tragically be the story of the millennium, with irreversible impacts lasting for many, many centuries (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“).

In a conversation Saturday, Pooley told me, “I think this is the only story going forward.” That’s why, although he remains a contributor to Time magazine, he is devoting most of his time now to researching and writing a book on the politics and economics of climate change.

The first step for Pooley was an analysis of media coverage over the past 15 months. In a long introduction to the different roles reporters can play, Pooley notes:

Being a referee is harder than being a stenographer because it requires grappling with the substance of an issue in a way that many time-pressed journalists aren’t willing or able to do.

He decided to examine media coverage surrounding the 2008 Senate debate over the climate bill put forward by John Warner (R-VA) and Joseph Lieberman (??-CT):

News coverage of the Lieberman-Warner debate included some shoddy, one-sided reporting and some strong work that took the time both to dive into the policy weeds–evaluating the economic assumptions used by the various players–and step back to portray those players as com-batants in a war for public opinion. But most of the reporting was bad in the painstakingly balanced way of so much daily journalism–two sides, no real meat.

He then explains his research:

My analysis of news articles published in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and newsmagazines between December 2007 and June 2008 suggests that for most reporters covering this story, the default role was that of stenographer–presenting a nominally balanced view of the debate without questioning the validity of the arguments, sometimes even ignoring evidence that one side was twisting truth. Database searches yielded a sample of 40 published news and analysis stories that explored the cost debate in some de-tail (see appendix). Of these, seven stories were one-sided. Twenty-four stories were works of journalistic stenography. And nine stories attempted, with varying degrees of success, to move past the binary debate, weigh the arguments, and reach conclusions about this thorny issue.

The bottom line:

The media’s collective decision to play the stenographer role actually helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.

He makes another interesting point, one I would not have expected from a journalist

Mainstream news organizations have accepted the conclusions of the IPCC but have not yet applied those conclusions to the economic debate. The terms of that debate have been defined by opponents of climate action who argue that reducing emissions would “cost too much.” So the battle has been fought over the short-term price of climate action and its impact on GDP, while overlooking an extremely important variable, the long-term costs of inaction and business as usual.

Although Pooley doesn’t make the point, the problem he identifies is compounded by the fact that the mainstream economic community also overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the cost of inaction, a central point of my ongoing series on voodoo economists (see, for instance, Part 3: MIT and NBER (and Tol and Nordhaus) — the right wing deniers love your work. Ask yourself “why?” and Part 2: Robert Mendelsohn says global warming is “a good thing for Canada.”).

That means when the media goes out looking for a well-known climate economist to quote in an article, they typically end up with someone who doesn’t understand the scientific urgency and those who misunderstand the economics [more on that in Parts 5, 6, and 7 of the series].

If you really want to understand the fact that even a very strong cap and trade bill “would have a marginal effect on economic growth,” the best place to go is the the International Energy Agency and IPCC and McKinsey (see “McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero“).

Pooley’s whole paper is a must read, especially for advocates of climate action. Yes, the media bears much culpability for the fact that, as Pooley says, “the tipping point for climate action has not yet been reached.” But so do scientists, environmentalists, and progressives. The general state of our messaging remains lousy (see, for instance, Part 4: The idiocy of crowds or, rather, the idiocy of (crowded) debates and Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?

One clear message from this study is that the climate science activists need to do a better job of spelling out the cost of inaction. Until that cost is clear to the public, the media, and policymakers, the country will never be able to mobilize to do what is needed to preserve a livable climate.

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23 Responses to Must-read study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The medias decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”

  1. Thank you for this terrific article. Refresing.

    It is about time.

    Note that the best climate journalism appears on the Internet. Possibly because broadcast and dead-tree-based media are carbon intensive and heavily subsidized by carbon products (advertising).

    Notice the new ad campaigns for oil and coal that push viewers to http://www.energytomorrow.org – a multimillion dollar funded site. Using TV ads to push viewers to a website is a very efficient tactic. (try my noenergytomorrow.org instead)

    Unless big corporate media grows up quick – they will lose all trust and loyalty. The time is about right for a video based climate news site that summarizes and links to ClimateProgress and RealClimate and other pressing stories of each day.

    There is no other more important news event, and it is happening right now, everywhere.

  2. ken levenson says:

    Yes!

    And why haven’t the big papers done a series or two or three – worthy of Pulitzer Prizes – on the subject? the silence is deafening…..

    And while I readily admit I won’t be “happy” until the NYTimes has a daily section devoted to Climate Change – preferably between International and National – my god the Times’ coverage is crap – I think Dot Earth does more damage than good ghettoizing the subject…not to mention that Andy R. has done far too much stenography over the years.

    I wonder if, as I do, Mr. Pooley sees the WaPo’s coverage of climate change leaps-and-bounds above the NYTimes coverage?

  3. Gail says:

    A quibble. Irreversible not a reversible.

  4. Joe says:

    Gail — Thanks. My voice dictation machine strikes again!

  5. Will Koroluk says:

    Good post, Joe.
    I’m a semi-retired journalist who has felt, almost from the beginnings of the climate story a generation ago, that the print media’s performance has been terrible. There are always excuses, of course: deadline pressure, space, budget. But even though those constraints exist, a much, much better job needs to be done.
    Your readers might be interested in a recent booklet called Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists and Educators. It’s by Bud Ward, and is the result of a series of workshops he held under the aegis of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at U of Rhode Island.
    The workshops involved journalists and scientists, and the resulting booklet (which can be downloaded from http://www.metcalfinstitute.org), includes chapters on Science for Journalists and Journalism for Scientists. There are also chapters on what can be done by scientists, journalists and organizations.
    It’s somewhere around 85-90 pages, as I recall, and a worthwhile read for anyone who’s concerned about the subject of Joe’s post.

  6. If anything, the WaPo is even more clueless than NYTi. They have continued carving science coverage back to the point that it’s only a half page once a week, and even than it’s frequently on marginal topics. The one reporter who was assigned to climate topics was pulled back to political coverage last year when most of the best political talent fled to Politico. I can vouch from personal experience that WaPo management strongly objected to climate science coverage more than once a week on a blog devoted to weather(!), and they banned policy coverage altogether, rendering my continued participation totally untenable.

    As for Revkin, his coverage seems to be mostly about him. I attended a presentation he gave last year as part of a seminar series on climate change, and it was all, “Here’s a picture of me at the North Pole, and here’s an article I wrote 20 years ago, and oh yeah, here’s my book for kids, too.”

  7. Gail says:

    Wow! You dictate these posts? Even more impressive!

    I always wonder how people like Jefferson and Lincoln in the olden days could write so clearly without the revision and editing power of computers.

    With quills!

  8. We might be aware of one professional organization

    Society of Environmental Journalists Climate change: A guide to the information and disinformation http://www.sej.org/resource/index18.htm

  9. Gail says:

    Richard Pauli, that is an excellent link, thank you.

  10. Ronald says:

    How many other things has the media gotten wrong?

    Remember around 1990, we had mostly credit unions overreaching in real estate loans then having a crisis that had to be cleaned up by our government. The major reason for the problems was the deregulation from the 1980’s.

    After a time we had Congress and Pres. Clinton and Bush deregulate the whole banking system as far as real estate. It should not have been hard to see that the same thing was going to happen, which it did which is what we are in now.

    The credit union problems happened in the recent past. We should have known what the government regulations did for us and what happens when the regulations aren’t there any more. It was a problem more easily understood and visible than global warming caused by greenhouse gases being emitted by Humans machines and land use. And we still made the mistakes of the past. How much of a chance do we have to avoid something like Human caused global warming which humans have never been thru before? Even if we go thru 6 degrees celsius increases, there would be a percentage of Humans who said it was all natural causes which Humans can’t affect anyway.

    We try to blame some professional group for not doing enough to sound the global warming alarm, but we haven’t done so well with even more obvious, more visible problems. It may be just part of the human condition. One of the things that make people notice something is the amount of time they spend on it. Most humans just don’t spend any time on it.

  11. Alex says:

    Voice dictation, eh? So THAT’S how you get so much interesting stuff out in a single week.

  12. I am so gratified to read such a laser sharp analysis of what many of us have been pulling our hair out over for the last few years now. So far as the mainstream media have been concerned it’s seemed like they were taken over by the pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

    Earlier this month I lamented the demise of print newspapers in my post “Headless Body in Topless Bar”
    http://creativegreenius.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/headless-body-in-topless-bar/

    What I said about newspapers I believe applies equally to the legacy TV networks and the cable news networks as well: “When a threat is as catastrophic and imminent as global climate change is, then newspapers have the responsibility to fulfill their Paul Revere role and proclaim loud and wide that “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and proclaim it until the message is delivered and people understand the most vital news of our time. This is part of newspapers’ core duty and their trust to inform.”

    With the newspaper and television news media failing their duty and trust with us I am incredibly appreciative for Joe Romm and Climate Progress because he and the others I read regularly – like Dr. James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Climate Ark, RealClimate, Grist, and so many others – have picked up the torch and ARE issuing the call. They’re doing it on line and in face to face meetings/conferences/presentations around the world.

    But those of us who share a common perspective about the urgency of our current state are in a too small minority and still have to yell and wave our arms to be noticed. So be it. I believe that’s about to change and that the cavalry has arrived with the Obama administration. I think the time has come to leverage that opportunity along with this new study’s message to successfully challenge the mainstream media and hold their feet to the fire. And to help fill the void by calling attention to what we learn from Joe Romm and the others who are sounding the alarm in the media’s stead.

    That being said, Joe is dead on right when he says we better have the right message and make it easy to grasp and simple to understand. We need a Fighting Climate Change brand with a hook as strong and appealing as Apple Computers’. The Reality Campaign is a sad marketing FAIL and an unfortunate waste of budget and airtime.

  13. paulm says:

    Until we get scientist willing to put their reputation behind what they think will ultimately happen, like Hansen, then we can expect the media to carry on as they have been.

    You some time think that these climate scientist and other notables just are not pushing the agenda to the extreme level required to convince the media and the public.

    If it really is the end of the world as we know it and the end of the future for their kids etc why the hell are they not taking more forceful and active protest?

  14. Andy Revkin says:

    Eric’s paper is a very useful exploration of the incredibly tough terrain where journalism meets climate & energy policy and politics. One update. The Times has put John Broder in Washington on the beat fulltime (answering Eric’s call for an excellent political reporter in our mix).

    More important, though, I’m afraid his entire analysis suffers from a big initial presumption — that the most meaningful step in mobilizing the country (and implicitly the world) is getting a price on greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s kind of presumed, in fact, that that’s the keystone, so that reporting on the congressional fight is the most important indicator of media success. I disagree.

    There is still lively discourse over what mix of technology and economic policy can set a course toward accelerated de-carbonization of the global energy menu. From my reading (maybe wrong), Joe here also would disagree that the protracted fight over how to put a price on CO2 should be our prime focus.

    Read here for more: http://tinyurl.com/dotTechPolicy And of course our ongoing Energy Challenge series: http://www.nytimes.com/energychallenge .

    [JR: I do not agree with what you have written Andy, and I do not disagree with Eric. The only plausible choices for achieving 450 ppm (or better) are incredibly strong government regulations and/or a high carbon price. So far, only the second is on the table politically. Given the public’s current state of understanding of climate, a fight over how to put a price on CO2 is a very reasonable thing to do. Ideally, it wouldn’t be “protracted.” If it is, then it was even more necessary. It is unrealistic to think that this can be done without a high CO2 price, as the recent IEA reports make crystal clear.

    There may be a “lively discourse over what mix of technology and economic policy can set a course toward accelerated de-carbonization of the global energy menu,” but I would actually attribute that to the lack of understanding of the science, of how dire the situation is, which the media itself shares some blame for.]

  15. paulm says:

    We are missing the point and the boat on the opportunity that the down turn is presenting.

    It is disappointing to see that our leaders are not getting it – look at all the money they have committed to try and kick start the old consumer base paradigm that got us in to this dilemma and which is relentlessly driving our CO2 upwards.(Climate change envoy calls for state aid to create low-carbon economy)

    You can see how it happens, with the mad panic that has engulfed us all as we stare over the cliff at the gaping depression sucking us in.

    This year is it!

    If we don’t switch our bail out packages and infrastructure spending towards obtaining the target for 100% CO2 reduction. then we are hosed for sure. There won’t be a second chance. We will have wasted the money, the political effort and the time (the oh so precious time) correcting the more urgent at the expense of the most essential.(Climate change in 2009: the defining issue)

    We won’t make it below 3degrees then! And that means we are looking at +5degrees eventually. (I think we are probably past the tipping point at this time, but lets not go there until we have to)

    It must be fate that Obama arrived at this moment. If he is able to realize that this is the most crucial point in the history of mankind and is able to engage the international effort needed, then there is hope.

    God bless America.

  16. Barry says:

    The quality of climate change coverage is inversely proportional to the amount of carbon-advertising next to it.

    Subscribers don’t even cover the cost of newsprint, ink and delivery for newspapers. It’s the advertisers that pay the salaries and operating expenses.

    Dot Earth is one of the most prolific sources of climate change coverage in the major newspapers. But it is often festooned with ads for luxury autos (hyper-carbon), world trotting travel (hyper-carbon) and sprawling showcase homes (hyper-carbon). And i feel the coverage reflects that reality. Few advertisers pay to support a voice saying their product is dangerous.

    Until the newspapers develop sources of funding that aren’t hyper-carbon based we will not get climate change honesty from them.

    I can think of several models for alternative funding for newspapers…or at least climate sections of newspapers…such as those used by educational institutions and even Obamalike-web-funding.

  17. Gail says:

    Paulm,

    I don’t claim to know what is in the heads of scientists however, given the government attempts to muzzle Dr. Hansen and the public vilification he has received, it’s reasonable to assume that some scientists are reluctant risk their careers. Also, they are often very specialized and don’t necessarily see the big picture.

    I agree with Creative Greenious, we need a big umbrella movement. Environmentalism is too fragmented to influence governments all over the globe.

    Barry is correct about the media, which is way too timid, and is dependent on advertising.

    Perhaps the intertubes came along in the nick of time!

  18. Eric Pooley says:

    Joe, Thanks for shining your light on my paper. And thanks to the commenters. I’ll second Will’s recommendation of Bud Ward’s book, but I won’t wade into the NYT v WaPo debate except to say that the Times’ new environmental reporting unit — and the addition of John Broder to it — is a very encouraging sign.

    I think Andy underestimate the potential impact of a carbon price. I’d argue that a well designed cap-and-trade system is likely to be the most powerful accelerator of clean energy technologies. Not the only thing we need, by any means — certainly we need a suite of solutions, including RPS and phased-in performance standards for coal-fired power plants, and certainly we need to ask hard questions about the total mix of action and investments. (My paper’s focus on cap and trade wasn’t meant to imply that those things aren’t also important.) But putting a price on carbon — including a price floor — will harness a level of private investment far beyond anything the federal government itself can spend. It will generate a great deal of money for R&D and a consumer energy-price cushion. And a mandatory declining cap on emissions is the way to ensure that GHG pollution actually gets cut — a carbon tax won’t do that. There’s reason to be skeptical of Washington’s ability to produce a good bill. But here’s another way of looking at this: Why has the path to legislation been painful and protracted? Because this really does matter. Certainly the fossil fuel interests believe it does, otherwise they wouldn’t be going after it hammer and tongs.

  19. @Ronald – I think you mean the Savings & Loans crisis, not credit unions. Credit unions weren’t the problem, it was S&Ls. Two totally different kinds of financial institutions.

  20. Roger says:

    Wow, we’re getting warmer–in terms of hitting the nails on the head. A novel couldn’t be more thrilling than this real-life Earth-at-stake adventure!
    My God, corporate income and profits versus the future of the planet.
    It it weren’t all true and tragic, I’d think it was a “Twilight Zone” story.

    Paulm, I also wonder why there aren’t more demonstrations, etc., but I think it’s all part of the complexity of a never-before-seen, s-l-o-w crisis.
    I’m sure you’re aware of the student-driven http://www.powershift09.org, and its planned 10,000-strong meeting and lobbying in WDC from 2/27 to 3/2. Also, there’s the http://www.powerpastcoal.org group, and many others forming.

    One more thing, recalling the civil defense concept that goes back to “The British are Coming” and extends to today, isn’t the government somehow obligated to clearly warn it’s citizens of danger? What’s up with that?
    Why spend $20 billion of taxpayer dollars on climate research and then not get the word out about all the dire consequences (climatescience.gov)?

  21. Ken Fabos says:

    I urge scientists in climate and related disciplines to make the effort to write to media outlets every time they get things wrong. Flood their mailbags with demands for corrections! Do it on the stationary of your scientific institution. Use the credentials and affiliations that you have. Consider it part of a wider effort to educate.

    A letter from a layperson like me is easily dismissed, especially if they are getting a lot of letters of support from climate science deniers, but from the heads of faculties and from senior scientists at climate relevant institutions, most editors will at least read them and be much more likely to publish them. At best they will be made more aware of how far from reality some of the garbage they publish really is, at worst they may publish such letters in order to perpetuate controversy and consequently attract some readers – but still publish them. Don’t let silence by scientists on misrepresentations of science be counted as some kind of agreement.

  22. J4zonian says:

    “But most of the reporting was bad in the painstakingly balanced way of so much daily journalism–two sides, no real meat.”

    In trying to get people to adopt a diet more in line with the 21st century and oncoming climate-related agriculture troubles, shouldn’t we be using language that doesn’t glorify meat? There are dozens of different words that could have indicated a lack of profundity or substance, ‘profundity’ and ‘substance’ being 2.

    “2 sides, nothing to bite into like a fresh, organic, no-till garden-grown carrot”

    OK so that’s a little overboard, but you get the idea. Come up with your own.

  23. Gina Maranto says:

    Thanks for this post. Pooley’s report seems pretty much on the money, especially with his invocation of Goldmark and the failure of so-called journalistic balance. But, in fact, balance, with regard to science reporting, is a problematic approach most of the time. Scientific uncertainty is not the same as scientific untruth (e.g., the prime drivers of the increase in greenhouse gases may or may not be human; but that doesn’t mean the levels of greenhouse gases aren’t going up). At the same time, giving non-scientists equal standing in terms of evidentiary claims does nothing to further understanding (if I think my kid developed symptoms of autism around the same time as he received a vaccine and, therefore, the vaccine is responsible for his autism, this does not constitute a claim that should be weighted equally against biomedical or epidemiological studies).

    And I can agree, too, that many media outlets failed; but others did not. I wrote one of the first national magazine articles on global warming for Discover magazine back in 1986, and there was then, and has been since, solid and consistent reporting by numerous journalists in print, radio, and television, in local, regional, national, and international markets that has looked intelligently and comprehensively at the debates–scientific, political, and economic–about the issue. I get a bit weary, at this late date in the world’s history, of people–yes, even people within the media–engaging in reification. The media is not a unitary phenomenon.

    If we had to identify one principle cause for the distortion of scientific opinion regarding global warming in the last decade, we could be fairly safe in looking one place: the Bush administration, viz. the Waxman report. http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/index.php/csw/details/house_oversight_report/ Of course, if we were trying to understand the complex response to a complex phenomenon, we’d look, with greater particularity, far beyond.