Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad

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"Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad"

“You must realize that having to portray an illegitimate debate fries the circuits of the mainstream press.”

Here’s how The Economist introduced its interview of Jay Rosen:

JAY ROSEN is a professor of journalism at New York University and an insightful critic of the media. Earlier this year he wrote an essay on “the actual ideology of our political press”, which we praised and discussed on this blog. Mr Rosen has a blog of his own, PressThink, and his work has been published in Columbia Journalism Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. He has also written a book, titled “What Are Journalists For?“, about the rise of the civic-journalism movement. This week we asked him some questions over email about the press and its failings.

Rosen wrote a terrific comment for my August 29 post, “What’s the difference between climate science and climate journalism? The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive.”  Since it was #52, I suspect many missed it, so I’ll repost it below.

First, though, here are a couple of choice excerpts from Rosen’s Economist interview that readers identified:

I do not think journalists should “join the team”. They bridle at that, for good reason. Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviours, and this is how we distinguish politics from journalism. I think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which a serious journalist is engaged.Suppose the forces that want to convince Americans that Barack Obama is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States start winning, and more and more people believe it. This is a defeat for journalism””in fact, for verification itself. Neutrality and objectivity carry no instructions for how to react to something like that. They aren’t “wrong”, they’re just limited. The American press does not know what to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and “report both sides” reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there are such limits. But with this denial they’ve violated the code of the truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?

… When journalists get attacked from the left and the right, they take it as confirmation that they’re doing something right, when they could be doing everything wrong. There’s a certain laziness that creeps up too, which you can hear in phrases from the commentariat like “extremists on both sides”. No attempt to actually examine centre and margin and compare them across parties; instead, this sorry act of positioning, in which the political centre is associated with truth, common sense and realism. This is a very common prejudice in political journalism.

I might add that even I routinely get attacked from both the left and the right, but somehow I don’t think most journalists would conclude that I’m in the political center — even though from a hard-nosed climate science perspective, I am, in many respects.

Here is Rosen’s comment on my post.  Note:  I asked Rosen if he had any tweaks — since the commenting process does not allow edits — and what follows reflects his changes:

Thanks to Chris Mims for mentioning my work in the context of this debate about climate science and science journalism. (Click here for the essay I wrote on the actual ideology of the press.) I cannot weigh in on the merits of the dispute with Andy Revkin, since I do not know enough of the underlying science and have only followed the debates about climate journalism from a certain distance. But I thought I would add some speculations on what might be causing these disputes. That is all I can add: my speculations. Participants would have to decide how well they apply to the given case.

One factor to consider is “¦ how does a journalist establish authority in an area like climate change that is different from the kind of authority a scientist-or for that matter an elected politician-can claim? Speaking not about Revkin but a hypothetical beat reporter following the story, there may build up a kind of dissatisfaction with the role that is left to the journalist. After all, the scientists produce the new knowledge and have the important debates. The politicians have to interpret public opinion and decide on social policy. What’s left for the journalist to do? Merely to summarize what these other actors are doing and interpret arcane studies to broader audiences? Maybe that feels insufficiently grand.

And please note that as the scientific consensus gets stronger, these feelings may run deeper. In that context, a narrative like “scientists behaving badly” solves the status anxiety problem, which our hypothetical journalist may not even be aware of. Because a story like that is not going to be told well by the scientists involved, and policy-makers may be unaware of it, while the public certainly won’t know without being informed by the journalist. Now there’s a chance to recover a kind of authority unique to the journalistic class. Remember: the more educated and informed our beat reporter is, the greater this “itch” to carve out a special role may be.

A second factor I would like to mention involves a phrase we have probably all used at one time or another. “There’s a legitimate debate to be had about”¦.” I invite you into this phrase. A typical construction might be, “There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how high marginal tax rates should be, even if the goal is to re-distribute income”¦.” The operating system for mainstream journalism knows what to do when there’s a legitimate debate to be had. But when there’s an illegitimate debate going on (and getting louder) that same system tends to break down, especially when the culture war and partisan divide are confounded with the issue, as they are here.

A New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC or CNN reporter receives from his professional peers and traditions no clear instructions for how to handle an illegitimate debate, meaning one that should never have arisen, because it is based on phony selection, manufactured doubt, and highly ideological reads of the available evidence. The louder the din, the more wary the mainstream journalist is of “choosing sides.” But what if choosing sides is exactly what the journalist would have to do to portray things as they really are?

This leads to a third factor. Let me repeat my question: what if choosing sides is exactly what the fair-minded journalist would have to do to portray things as they really are? Here, I’m afraid, self-image conflicts with reality. That’s painful. People flee pain. The reality is it is very, very hard for a mainstream news person to say, “These people have the facts on their side, these people are manufacturing doubt and manipulating the case, and everyone should realize this is a phony debate- okay, is that clear?” This almost never happens. But in the mind of our hypothetical reporter, portraying things as they really are-that, is, truth-telling-always and everywhere trumps all other factors. The very bedrock of their self-image is “let the chips fall where they may, we tell it like it is.” Giving that up would be like saying to the self, “my career has been a waste.” Or: “I am a fraud.”

And so it is very likely that the enormous institutional pressures against declaring, “These people have the facts on their side, while these people are manufacturing doubt, so everyone should realize that this is a phony debate”¦” are going to be obscured somehow in the mind of our hypothetical journalist. Rationalizations will creep in. You must realize that having to portray an illegitimate debate fries the circuits of the mainstream press. It’s cognitively dissonant in the extreme. Therefore when something comes along that promises relief from that situation, it is likely to be seized on with a certain enthusiasm, or even abandon, that will look very strange to outsiders. When those outsiders point this out, there is likely to be hot resistance. Consider the stakes: the whole of a professional self.

I hope these speculations are of some assistance in bringing clarity to the situation.  Let me repeat once more:  I cannot say that any of the factors I mentioned bears on Revkin’s work but they do, I think, enter into the difficulties the press has had in reporting well on climate change.

Hear!  Hear!

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53 Responses to Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad

  1. homunq says:

    “You must realize that having to portray an illegitimate debate fries the circuits of the mainstream press.”

    This is the best statement of the issue I’ve seen.

    There is one point I’d expand on: how this pressure is incessant.

    The press is vulnerable to all kinds of bandwagon effects. For instance, the Gore-the-emotionless-robot-who-claims-he-invented-the-internet bandwagon so well-documented by The Daily Howler; or, on the other side, the negative view of Bush near the end (no less a bandwagon because I agree with it). But there will never be a bandwagon of press correctly showing a debate as illegitimate. The peer pressure just doesn’t work that way. Any journalist who takes that position is courageously stepping beyond the norm of neutrality; and from outside, they’re no longer a peer, and they exert no pressure on those still striving to live within that norm.

    That’s why the work you do, Joe, is so important. It’s a labor of Sisyphus to convince the press to tell the truth on this, so thank you for pushing on that rock.

  2. homunq says:

    Mr. Rosen

    I just said that there will never be a positive bandwagon of reporters choosing truth over neutrality. But nothing would please me more than if you have some idea how I might be wrong.

    Deepest regards,
    Homunq

  3. Dan Miller says:

    This is very informative. As someone who gives talks on climate change, the lack of coverage of the “biggest story in history” leaves me baffled. Obviously, the lack of accurate coverage in the media is a key reason why the public and, therefore, our elected leaders are not engaged. I would appreciate Jay Rosen’s thoughts on what we can do to get the media to accurately portray the situation.

  4. Robert says:

    CNN Money are currently running a video called “Invasion of the pine beetle”. Curiously no mention of climate change. http://money.cnn.com/

    We get a CNN channel in the UK. They are running some sort of “green world” series every day this week which I await with interest. Freeview channel 84.

  5. mike roddy says:

    Very well put, Jay Rosen. Your essay needs to become widely distributed.

    The continued pandering to an illegitimate debate on climate science is obviously causing huge problems in our society. Eyeballs and advertisers drive this perhaps more than journalists’ instincts.

    The other issue is a simple lack of courage. As you pointed out, the journalist’s charge is telling the truth, a tradition that goes back for centuries, especially in this country. In an age of concentrated power and the public’s reliance on abstract representations of reality, the urgency is far greater. When it comes to global warming, it is the survival of our species in something resembling its current form that is at stake, and the science states this clearly.

    The right wing media are of course hopeless, but more discouraging have been the performances of formerly respected outlets such as the New York Times (feeding the controversy) and CBS (60 Minutes puff piece on the Tar Sands). Sure they’re dependend on oil company revenue, but so what? Are we now a country of whores?

    Being a journalist is a low paying and often denigrated profession, redeemed only by those magical times when someone tells truth to power. The ones who have clearly lost this mission must go on interior journeys, and tell the people the truth about the horrors that the oil, coal, and timber companies have wrought on humanity. The inevitable reactions from the dark side must be greeted with quiet anger, and well detailed scorn.

  6. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    The press seems to think people can’t take the truth about global warming, everyone will self-destruct and we’ll have mass chaos.

    Why else not cover it? It’s our future, it really is the biggest story of our era as humans.

    Unless not covering it has something to do with money and not losing your job as a journalist…

  7. Jack Repenning says:

    You seem to confuse “taking sides” and “telling a truth which happens to be closer to one side than the other.” Or at any rate, you seem to attribute such confusion to journalists in the broad. Surely, though, these are different things? When Woodward and Bernstein truthfully reported that the Watergate break-in was connected to multiple government agencies, and ultimately to the Committee to Reelect the President, they came down very near one end of the political spectrum, very far from the other. But they weren’t “taking sides, ” only telling the truth.

  8. I did scoop you on this one, Joe, (if citing an article in the Economist can be called a scoop) but it didn’t get much notice. I am happy you are highlighting it too.

    I’m glad that Rosen’s insights are getting some attention in the climate sphere, since they are precisely applicable to the ways in which journalism is failing us.

    I have been a big fan of Jay’s ever since the beginning of my fifteen minutes of fame episode last year. A search for “Rosen” on my blog turns up a bunch of similarly applicable pieces by Rosen.

    Journalism has consistently failed on the climate change story, never more so than over the past year or so. Rosen’s insights help us understand how and why. It’s not all about corporate pressures within the press. There are cultural pressures withing the journalistic elite as well. Propagandists have discovered these weaknesses and are vigorously exploiting them, and encouraging them as well.

    Also, recall Krugman, “centrism is a pose rather than a philosophy”.

  9. catman306 says:

    In the real world, where I reside, you can substitute almost any profession that controls information or techniques that threaten the Status Quo.

    “Unless not covering it has something to do with money and not losing your job as a journalist…”
    Substitute scientist, medical doctor, landscaper, architect, or any other.

    Speaking the Status Quo Party’s talking points will keep you working. Telling too much truth will get you fired. The Status Quo doesn’t like truth one little bit, but embraces half-truths at every opportunity.

  10. Fabulous!
    I think journalism was forever changed by the OJ trial. Everything’s got to fit that pattern now. Or not.

  11. richard pauli says:

    Joe and Jay… thanks for this great discussion.

    Lets not forget that journalism is a profession serving a business. And news industry publishers hold their own rules:

    – All journalists will construct the kind of message the publisher wants you to convey – often with the exact content required.
    – You can only disobey this explicit rule if you craft and deliver a message that the preponderance of the audience wants to hear.
    – Messages falling outside of these requirements are not welcome. Journalists will not be employed long for doing so.

    It is beyond being an advertiser supported industry – journalism in America is a vehicle for delivering advertising and messages in the news stories. If there is any content or news story that reduces the audience, or ticks off the advertisers, then it shall not run. For most editors, this is not even a conscious decision. It is automatic.

    Global warming is the perfect example because the story very quickly challenges carbon fuel commercialism – which includes energy, cars and too many products that must be heavily advertised. (Why does ANY energy company NEED to advertise?) As an exercise, one might categorize and count the types of commercial ads – you may see there are very few without a carbon fuel connection.

    Jay might agree that it is a common responsibility for the editor of a business-owned news publication to promote any news story that the advertiser WANTS to see covered – either specifically or in the general industry. It will be covered – all attempts will be made to dress it up as news: “Detroit rolls out 2011 line.” In my region it becomes obvious that when advertisements for the lottery are run, we get a few more news stories about local lottery winners.

    The mantra of the investigative journalist comes out of the Nixon/Watergate story: “Follow the money!” It is too bad that almost any news publication is a business vehicle, not a truth delivery system.

    And that is why it is so interesting to see alternative media on the Internet, so much of it is funded differently – it allows a different style of journalism to flourish. More information flows.

    And now more than ever, the news consumer can dig through original sources and get tremendous background on stories. This is much the case with global warming, where a very large segment of the news audience can get a solid education in the fundamental science. News consumer as self journalist.

    Thanks again Joe for respecting and nourishing these changes.

  12. Jay Rosen says:

    Jack Repenning says: “You seem to confuse ‘taking sides’ and ‘telling a truth which happens to be closer to one side than the other.’ Or at any rate, you seem to attribute such confusion to journalists in the broad.”

    No, I was trying to explain how in certain situations like this one escapes from telling a one-sided truth are sought by journalists trying to carve out a professional identity. But it’s not because I’m confused about the difference.

    A general word of advice: if you are trying to understand the behavior of professional journalists, and you leap to explain what they do by reference to where their publication gets it money, you are usually going to go wrong. For the journalists themselves, as distinct from ownership, factors such as status among peers, trying to carve out a unique space for their authority, a self-image as mavericks and gadflies who annoy interest groups, the need to generate a good story or to shock a distracted public into paying attention have far more explanatory power.

  13. David Lewis says:

    Revkin was on NPR recently (“Climate Scientists Move Forward after Scandal” – Talk of the Nation, transcript available) discussing one of his concerns du jour along lines applicable to this discussion.

    Revkin tells us that James Hansen should be taken no more seriously when he makes statements about what climate policy should be than Pat Michaels who works for the denial machine at Cato.

    Revkin: “when Jim Hansen was talking about his view of crime at legislation, for example, his experience as a climatologist really has marginal significance. That’s an arena, you know, where you’re dealing with economics and the costs of energy and equity issues, about, you know, fired coalminers versus hired wind turbine builders. So many of those issues involve so many sectors of society that everybody can be in that game. And that includes Exxon Mobil…and that includes scientists who are libertarians. If it’s okay for Jim Hanson to do that, it should be okay for Pat Michaels at the Cato Institute to do that”

    When Einstein wrote FDR warning him it was “conceivable” that an atomic bomb could be built, and that the German government was acting as if they were also aware of this fact, Revkin would have told us that Einstein may be a great physicist, but when it comes to atomic bomb policy we should all pay equal attention to “scientists” employed by propaganda organizations such as the German American Bund.

    The Bund would have told us that Hitler is America’s friend, and besides all this talk about anyone creating bombs of heretofore unimaginable power from some exotic radioactive metal is just more junk science.

  14. David Lewis says:

    the “when Jim Hansen was talking about his view of crime at legislation”, is from the NPR published transcript, but what was said on the show was “climate legislation”.

  15. This essay explains a lot. I’ve been puzzling over why journalists treat this story so poorly, and now I know why!

  16. Prokaryotes says:

    David Lewis, well put.

    Let’s remember this “He (Revkin) suggests that these scientists don’t help themselves much when they adopt a defensive tone.”

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/05/06/national-academy-of-sciences-letter-defending-climate-science-integrity/#comments

    Further, Einstein observed, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” http://climateprogress.org/2010/05/24/exxonmobil-annual-meeting-grandchildren-global-warming/#comments

    On the bottom line, these US/EU – major newspapers NYT, BBC or SPIEGEL, lack credible science journalism …

  17. Andy says:

    Mr. Rosen: thank you for such an informative post.

    Hit me on the head with a 2X4 but I don’t understand why journalists in the fashion of Woodward and Bernstein would have a hard time siding with one group if that group’s predictions were consistently correct and the other’s weren’t?

    Are you stating that most journalists are incapable of good investigative journalism?

    Is this why Sarah Palin and her clones are allowed to make so much noise? Why Sen. Grahm can state that tar sands mining blends in with the landscape? Doesn’t anyone remember the reaction to the first Saturday Night Live skit of Palin where suddenly the Nation finally felt it was OK to laugh about such a ridiculous person? It was a real world “the emperor has no clothes” moment.

    Why didn’t professional journalists bring us that moment?

    Is Joe Romm an investigative journalist with his posts acting as a serial article on his findings?

    I know Rosen caveated his post with his lack of climate science knowledge, but I want to add that climate scientists are not at one extreme in their views – if anything they are too centric as evidenced by how the real world is heating and reacting faster than they predictions.

  18. Jeff Huggins says:

    I enjoyed the piece, and thanks to Jay Rosen for it.

    That said, in my view — admittedly based on a quick reading — the tone of the piece, while factual and straightforward, also seemed to be a slight bit “apologetic” (probably not the right word) in the sense of implying that this is just the way it is.

    By now, on this particular issue, we should be “hammering” news organizations and journalists about these problems until they actually change and give society the climate change reporting necessary to help us all make genuinely well-informed, responsible, and wise decisions. The media, and journalists, are dropping a VERY BIG BALL on this issue, given its immense importance, and these sorts of paradigms and discomforts and traditions on the part of journalists are actually going to contribute to immense harms to millions and millions of people, to other species, and etc. etc. etc. In short, it MATTERS a lot that these problems exist, and journalists weren’t born yesterday, nor are problems with climate change reporting new.

    So, in my view, it’s not really tolerable — that is, we shouldn’t tolerate it — that the media and journalists have these confused paradigms and discomforts. Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP CEOs have confused paradigms and discomforts, and those permit them to continue doing what they do. Coal execs have confused paradigms and discomforts, and those permit them to continue doing what they do. Indeed, it can probably be said that it is the net combination of all of our confused paradigms and discomforts that results in a continuation of the problematic status quo. Put another way, it’s VITAL that journalists understand this problem and change/improve their ways to become much more effective in their reporting of climate change.

    So, what am I suggesting? Jay Rosen has hit many nails on the head. The same issues can also be put in different ways. And, the more that these issues are conveyed and clarified, the better. But, given the stakes involved with climate change, it will not be sufficient to point these problems out if the media and journalists don’t actually change. The (necessary) goal is to make the media and journalists MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE — that is, if the actual public good is to be achieved. I’m not sure if the media will actually take note, and change, on the basis of periodic polite pieces such as this.

    Thus, I’d enjoy hearing from Jay about what he and other journalism professors and leading schools of journalism are doing, and will do, to “prompt” the press to get its act together, quick.

    I enjoyed the piece, but it seemed a bit too passive and polite, and in a sense apologetic, relative to what I think is called for at this point. After all, it has been nearly 30 years since Walter Cronkite introduced a segment on climate change on the CBS Evening News, and our use of oil and coal are still increasing, the Senate failed, Copenhagen fell flat, and we are still spinning our wheels. The media have done a dismal job. No more apologies for them. The question is how we prompt them to do a whole lot better — insistently until they do.

    Thanks for the piece, Jay. Any comments?

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  19. Seth Masia says:

    This is absolutely right on. It’s exacerbated by the fact that political disputes are conducted mainly by politicians, most of whom are lawyers. They are trained to find “truth” through an adversarial process mediated by a judge; the resulting “truth” is often a compromise. Whereas science uses an inexorable process that leads in a specific direction and not much compromise is allowed. The newsroom is acclimated to political, adversarial reporting first, and doesn’t often perceive that there’s a critical difference between the two modes of truth-seeking.

  20. Lou Grinzo says:

    Mike Roddy says, “Are we now a country of whores?”

    Yes, of course we are. As the saying goes, we all know what we are, it’s just a matter of negotiating a price. In the case of journalism and CC, that price is not cash payments from fossil fuel interests or anything so obvious and crass, but the factors Jay points out, particularly in comment 12:

    “For the journalists themselves, as distinct from ownership, factors such as status among peers, trying to carve out a unique space for their authority, a self-image as mavericks and gadflies who annoy interest groups, the need to generate a good story or to shock a distracted public into paying attention have far more explanatory power.”

    In other words, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen an exceedingly rare (unique?) confluence of factors: Seriousness of the CC situation, the difficulty of covering it well thanks to the high level of specialized knowledge at a time of draconian media economics, plus all these factors Jay mentions that severely restrain journalists and their editors and management from calling this non-debate what it is. The result is a combination of factors all predisposing mainstream media outlets to not cover CC in an appropriate way.

    I’m convinced this is not a permanent condition. Look at how the media outlets we all complain about regarding their treatment of CC talk about smoking causing cancer, HIV causing AIDS, or the “debate” over whether human beings ever landed on the moon. Eventually even the most hesitant media outlets will see so much evidence piling up that CC is real and caused by mankind’s emissions that they’ll flip from “there’s a serious debate about this stuff” to “it’s a fact” as their fundamental belief. The problem is we don’t have the 10 to 20 years it will take for them to reach that blindingly obvious conclusion.

  21. I’m a journalist, no longer in the mainstream since the mainstream isn’t interested in what I want to write. Here’s what climate scientist the late Steve Schneider told me on this subject last spring:

    “I’m pretty damn angry that media companies are putting profits ahead of truth. The media are deeply broken… That’s a real threat to democracy,” Schneider said.
    http://stephenleahy.net/2010/03/15/violent-backlash-against-climate-scientists/

  22. Jeff Huggins says:

    Regarding Stephen Schneider, Stephen Leahy’s Comment 21, and My Earlier Comment 18

    I also heard Stephen Schneider express essentially the same view as that in Stephen Leahy’s Comment 21. That illustrates why I hold the views expressed in my Comment 18 . . . that we have to move beyond the gentle criticism of the media and actually aim at Real positive change in the media, accepting nothing less. People have been gently criticizing the media for ages, and the damage keeps continuing. How many times have self-serving and confused media paradigms delayed society’s acknowledgment of key problems, understanding of them, and motivation to effectively address them, for years and decades? How many times will we repeat the same cycle? We can’t afford to repeat the cycle on the climate issue, so how do we prompt effective change now?

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  23. mike roddy says:

    Jay, #12, Richard Pauli, #11 has it right, and not you, though your opinions about reporters’ thought processes are interesting. Whether the pressure is overt or not, journalists are frightened for their jobs, which has led to the pitiful reporting about climate. The cause is not, as you put it, journalists wanting to establish an identity. Maybe they could try to do so by telling the truth for a change. Here’s an example:

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/09/19/climate-sensitivity-lukewarmers/

    Joe Romm is easily our best climate journalist, and has become a national treasure. There is a four way tie for second among Dave Roberts, Eli Rabbett, John Cook (from Australia), and Seth Borenstein. Two are scientists with their own blogs (Eli and John), and two are working journalists (Dave is grom Grist, Seth works for AP). All five are lonely flowers among the field of shitstained chaff that is US major media coverage of climate science.

    National Geographic used to have good climate articles, but the oil companies solved that problem when Newscorp (partly owned by the Saudis) bought the company. The big media companies are cowardly and compromised, and the few small progressive outlets usually have only a cursory grasp of the subject. Climate Progress back posts will give anyone a good tutorial.

    I regret to have to tell you that part of your job description should be training journalists who are going to talk about climate science to do their homework and report where it leads. The first part is not difficult, and the second may damage their ability to move up the ranks. Well, the stakes are more important than that, and sorry about that to the yuppies trying to have it both ways.

  24. peter whitehead says:

    The media treat the ‘climate debate’ as if it were a political issue, because the deniers have conned them into thinking it is one. In the long term the conservative right will pay a price for falling for climate denial – it’s not like political issues. For example, abortion can be a matter of opinion, but if it were treated like climate science there would be a faction saying abortion is impossible. Health csare is a matter of opinion; there is no serious political traction in claiming all medicine is a fraud.

    The media in general don’t get science – they give huge coverage to eg the MMR rejectionists simply to sell a story.

    The scientific establishment needs to build up a relationship with the media – they need to reach a point where journalists take it as read that a story should be ‘peer reviewed’ by someone who knows something about the topic.

  25. Anna Haynes says:

    OK, two questions.

    First – Is there a journalist in the world, to whom Rosen’s characterization applies, who would read it and say “yes, that’s me; I need to change”?

    And if not, how do we hold up the mirror in a way that *does* facilitate change?

    Second, to what degree does the problem lie with the editors? in which case, reaching the journalists isn’t going to help.
    (I’ve seen one freelance journalist whose writing in one venue is hugely different from (and better than) his writings in another, which makes it hard to believe that he’s responsible for the appalling lapses in the latter…)

  26. Anna Haynes says:

    > “The media are deeply broken… That’s a real threat to democracy,”Schneider said.”

    …which does speak to my “how to reach them” question. They won’t want to enable a threat to democracy, and Schneider’s “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t know what is going on” makes the problem & solution blindingly obvious. (to them; I hope)

    The Q then becomes whether they’re self-aware and secure enough to acknowledge that the reality isn’t the “balanced” picture they’ve been portraying.

  27. Anna Haynes says:

    p.s. Joe, **thank you** for elevating Rosen’s comment like this; which is his practice too, and is hugely helpful to those of us who try not to spend all day in the comments section & so would have missed it.

    (and hello Jeff H – you are of course correct; how bout some suggestions for ways to go about trying & evaluating possible solutions?)

  28. If ever there is a paradigmatic example of a “fried circuit in the mainstream press” then it is the lumping together of Pat Michaels (“fraud pure and simple” — Krugman) and Jim Hansen. wrrrrr…

  29. S. Molnar says:

    My sense is that catman306 in comment #9 is closer to the truth than Rosen (although I freely admit that I am merely speculating). While Rosen speaks of the “journalistic class”, he does not address broader issues of class. There was a time when nearly all reporters were paid very little, but now the stars, including the punditocracy, make enormous amounts of money. The way to attain status and money in the field is clear, and I believe few reporters are willing to do otherwise, even in the unlikely event that their editors are willing to back them in offending the publisher and big advertisers (or maybe those who were willing to do otherwise have already been weeded out). This is no different from any other business in the U.S., where remuneration at the top has gone from something like 10 times the average salary to about 100 times the average salary in the last 30 years. The lure of mammon has attracted the corrupt and corrupted many others.

  30. Anna Haynes says:

    to Mike Roddy’s
    > “Joe Romm…best climate journalist…Dave Roberts, Eli Rabett, John Cook…and Seth Borenstein”

    …I’ll add Newsweek’s Sharon Begley (e.g.) and perhaps (new to me) the Sacramento Bee’s Rick Daysog (e.g.).

  31. Anna Haynes says:

    Prediction: we’ll start hearing “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t know what is going on” from the Tea Party and the contrarians.

    How do you counter conceptual Newspeak in a soundbite culture?

  32. Dear Anna,

    I am sorry to say that you did not go far enough — we don’t even have a soundbite culture anymore, it has already become a Newspeak culture.

  33. Let us not forget to excellent work of Elizabeth Colbert of The New Yorker.

  34. Anna Haynes says:

    Elizabeth Kolbert with a K; Steven has confused us.

  35. homunq says:

    I don’t think it has to be either/or between the different explanations of the press’s failure. Journalists have to put food on their plate AND look in the mirror; and what news is reported is neither completely independent, nor completely dependent, on the interests of owners and advertisers.

    There is a mountain of analysis of the influence of owners/advertisers. It’s important. But this is the best explanation of the journalists’ side of things that I’ve seen.

    As various people have noted, though, Rosen doesn’t offer any ways to attack the problem. I’d be very interested in what he has to say on that. Certainly, a first step would be to confront journalists with this sort of analysis when they make their usual errors.

  36. homunq says:

    Rosen comments: “A general word of advice: if you are trying to understand the behavior of professional journalists, and you leap to explain what they do by reference to where their publication gets it money, you are usually going to go wrong. For the journalists themselves, as distinct from ownership, factors such as status among peers, trying to carve out a unique space for their authority, a self-image as mavericks and gadflies who annoy interest groups, the need to generate a good story or to shock a distracted public into paying attention have far more explanatory power.”

    I’d agree, that is mostly true, for explaining what journalists DO do. Journalists are not bond traders; I doubt that many got into the field just for the big bucks.

    But “follow the money” is a decent explanation for some of what journalists DON’T do. There are definitely ways that certain exceptionally courageous journalists tend to get marginalized, both early and late in their careers. And while such examples are the exception, not the rule, their importance is not to be minimized.

    It’s a bit like Darwinian selection. If finches whose beaks are half a millimeter longer have only an extra 2% chance of reproducing, you might say that “nutrition and embryology are more important determinants of beak length than natural selection.” And you’d be right in a sense – the best way to get a quick leap in beak length might be to scatter some easily-peckable vitamins or something. But that doesn’t make selection unimportant, by any means.

  37. SecularAnimist says:

    Jay Rosen wrote: “A New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC or CNN reporter receives from his professional peers and traditions no clear instructions for how to handle an illegitimate debate …”

    The question is not whether reporters receive “instructions” from “peers” and “traditions” but whether they receive instructions from their boss — from the people who sign their paychecks — on how to handle the “debate” by giving the denialists equal legitimacy with climate scientists.

    I’m sorry, but the pattern of giving a handful of mostly corporate-funded denialist propagandists equal or greater legitimacy in so-called “mainstream” media reporting on AGW has for years been so blatant, and so overwhelmingly consistent, that it is difficult to buy the idea that it’s all the result of the “culture” or “traditions” or “psychology” of journalism — rather than the result of deliberate, intentional editorial policies.

  38. Whatshisname says:

    Professor Rosen should be writing for middle school, high school and college text books.
    The natural limits of reporting both sides is a real key. (Reporters, by the way, can see it as plain as the nose on their face.) Regardless of the story subject, the interview should be over when one side or the other stops trying to lift up the conversation and resorts to throwing monkey wrenches at, for example, the settled science of Global Warming. In the meantime, if the “other side” does happen to stumble across an acorn once in a while, then science should get the last word, the last rebuttal, because science will take that knowledge and see if it makes the world better.

    One last word to reporters: better man-up and woman-up now because things are going to get worse and your readers will blame you for hem hawing around and not telling the truth.

  39. MBrayne says:

    I suspect this might not get read much, being so far down the thread (and so long), but as a former BBC foreign correspondent and World Service editor who has been struggling with precisely this monumental failure of journalism on climate change, I have to agree with all those above who point out that this isn’t primarily about the money, but about peer-standing and culture.

    I heard from a former colleague last night (discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended screening at the Frontline Club of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert – yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy) that the internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

    For years, I used to be part of those BBC’s editorial discussions – albeit before my own climate change alarms went off. I know that in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events, almost always involving human conflict and ideally including numbers of the dramatically dead. And for clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. (Our World Service bulletins at times used to drip with blood, and still often do.)

    Journalism needs a narrative of baddies and goodies. And where the climate is concerned, of course, we ourselves, all of us, are the baddies. That’s a hard story to sell or tell.

    I am tragically certain, wearing now a still newish psychotherapist’s hat and putting it horribly bluntly, that Western-style journalism (reflecting as it of course does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion) will only take climate change seriously, as a fact, once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.

    The Pakistan floods were shocking, as were the Russian summer peat fires. But in order for enough of humanity to wake up (as we all ultimately, or course, will), tragically in every way not enough people died. Ouch. This is how we are programmed by evolution, to pay attention or not. It has to be personal, people-related and for most of us, including our newsrooms, things just aren’t hot enough yet, or sufficiently and personally uncomfortable. (Ecocide of almost every other species and the ecosystemic collapses of 90% and more that are already observable don’t, I fear, hit home emotionally.)

    My former colleagues at the BBC, good men and women all, are trapped in our old news paradigm of “balance”, of news being only what’s new and different, of scepticism/cynicism towards all authority (on which we were all in fact very badly served by the Watergate model of journalism, however justified at the time).

    In the in many ways laudable and appropriately thoughtful culture of the BBC, and of public service British journalism, debates have to presented as having two sides – sometimes to such absurd extent that Allan Little, one of our best reporters with hard experience of covering Sarajevo in the mid-90s and much more, speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying 2+2=4 and the other 2+2=6. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.

    I wish I were wrong. But until something Very Very Big happens, I think mainstream journalism, as indeed mainstream politics and economics, won’t change. The financial crash wasn’t big enough. Nor was this summer. One shudders to think what might (and will) be.

  40. Yoron says:

    How come everything in the American debate becomes politicized?

    Doesn’t seem to matter what facts are presented. It’s enough with one ‘smart guy’ naming it someones ‘band-wagon’ for facts to lose all importance, instead become political, ideological, issues? The saddest thing is that the rest of Europe seems to import this kind of ‘critical thinking’ making it into its new ‘journalisms’.

    The emperor’s new clothes, distributed in Technicolor Cinemascope world-wide. Can’t see any bigger difference between that and the Eastern version of religious beliefs, only difference being that you exchange a belief in God for a ideological belief.

    And the effect is the same as we can see in the Muslim counties. A almost fanatical belief in the right of ones view, and the unworthiness of those others. What happened to unpleasant facts here? The only facts people seems ready to tackle is those that will increase consumption?

  41. Chris Winter says:

    Just a thought: A number of comments here have argued that the flawed “balance” of mainstream media on climate change is imposed on reporters by editorial policy “flowed down” from the corporate owners of the media — as opposed to what might be lumped under the heading of “social factors.”

    If this is true, and if it has increased in recent years, the year-by-year turnover rate among reporters might shed some light on the question. I’m assuming that there’s a certain percentage of reporters (a high percentage, I hope) who by nature would like to tell the story straight, and who will walk when prevented from doing so.

    Of course, it may be hard under current conditions to separate this from staff reductions caused by shrinking revenues. But such a study may be worth doing.

  42. Leif says:

    In the interest of getting your excellent post top billing for a bit longer, MBrayne,@39, Thank you.

    Climatic disruption does appear to be a perfect Civilization Ender in that before the majority realizes the dilemma it will be too late for meaningful mitigation.

    We in the west have a democratic, (kinda), system and freedom of speech and press. For the public to be able to make sound political judgments the free press is required to present FACTS in understandable format. Obviously severely lacking in general. For the press to awaken to their responsibilities, death and destruction clearly attributed to AGW on a much larger scale than exhibited to date is required, as you state. With the press clearly beholden to their jobs and those jobs beholden to big money interests and the functioning status quo, what is left?

    A big THANK YOU Climate Progress and commentators All for your efforts.

    Two Palms Up,
    Leif

  43. @39 M Brayne I agree -climate change is an old, tired been-there, done-that story. That’s why the climategate crap took off, it was new and had conflict. When I started as a freelance enviro journalist 15 years ago local /regional papers and magazines couldn’t get enough enviro stories. Same with nationals. Now many of those publications are gone and there is little room/interest in the enviro story unless its a mega-disaster like the Gulf spill. And that sucked up all the “enviro space”…

    The only way forward is supporting independent on-line publications that do good work.

  44. homunq says:

    One thing which might satisfy the media’s need for a story would be to start calling the other side “polluter front-groups” or “polluter front-men” instead of “deniers”. That would allow a he-said-she-said narrative on our terms, instead of on theirs. Something like this:

    “You took money from the Koch brothers/BP/Exxon/…”

    PFM: “No, just from the Cato/Hoover institute, they’re independent, and less than half of their funds come from oil companies.”

    “This report says it’s more than half.”

    PFM: “I didn’t need the money, anyway, I’m independently wealthy”

    “Oh, so you’re just a polluter dupe, not a polluter shill?”

  45. Anna Haynes says:

    Hey, I had a thought, re something that can be done to help the journalists learn to do increasingly reality-based climate reporting -

    (and IMHO it is a very, very good idea)

    Poynter offers online training for journalists at NewsU.org – and while they *do* offer a course in covering climate change, it doesn’t even touch on the “street smarts” a journalist needs to avoid being hoodwinked (as I noted here, last fall).

    What can we do to get NewsU to create&offer a “street smarts for climate journalists who want to report reality” course?

    Tobis’s red-vs-blue dialogue should be part of it.
    Pointers to SkepticalScience & to Kate’s Credibility Spectrum should be part of it.
    The “delayers’ global warming quiz” and Scott Mandia’s(?) pointing-out-where-it-misleads should be part of it.
    The global warming quiz that some climate folks have been working on should be part of it.
    The “how to detect lying-with-statistics” efforts of Foster & Tobis should be part of it (has “fun with numbers” been added to the existing course ( newsu.org/courses/covering-climate-change ) yet?)
    A pointer to the NCSE Climate Desk (that Randy Olson points out we need) should be part of it.

    And I am feeling like a compleat idiot for not having thought of this sooner.

  46. Anna Haynes says:

    …and the course should be created by someone(s) who, from their blog postings, clearly understands the scope and consequence of the “hoodwinking” problem – someone who’ll think ahead & whose efforts won’t just get trumped by the next move of the charlatan tree lobster (#118, link)

  47. Jay Rosen says:

    Very good post, MBrayne @39, especially this part:

    “I heard from a former colleague last night… that the internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.’”

    That is indeed a monumental failure– of imagination.

  48. I have a nephew who is a working journalists.
    I was curious about how he saw this issue
    My nephew responded thusly
    Well, I think he’s right in some regards, but his biggest failing is a common one —- lumping reporters into an enormous homogenized group. I don’t cover climate, so I can’t really speak directly to that topic. But, in general, we’re thousands of individual writers who handle situations differently.

    I have been told by sources that I covered their particular pet topic differently than other reporters, which I would imagine is not uncommon. People have a perception of who we are as professionals, and it’s usually not any more accurate than other stereotypes.

    It’s my job to assess each story differently and decide how much credence to give the different players. Though I’m sure reporters fall into the trap as often as everyone else, the idea that there are two sides to every story is usually bullshit. It’s a way for simple-minded people to try to understand a complex universe in black and white. Differing opinions are usually much more nuanced than they’re portrayed. Sometimes there’s only one side. Other times there are dozens of them.

    Regardless, reporters need to decide with each story what the reader needs to know in order to fully understand the situation. The fact that there is opposition on any topic is usually worth a mention, and it should be mentioned in context of the larger story. It’s up to the reader, not the reporter, to decide who’s full of crap.

    Bottom line we as individuals are responsible. I hear that.

  49. A little stunned to hear that I had a hand in bringing together the two great curmudgeons of my media diet, Romm and Rosen, but glad that it happened.

    The only thing I think Rosen missed: outside the specialty science press, a lot of people who report on science do not actually have formal scientific training, and I think this makes them too scared to act on their convictions – or even to have any in the first place. Although I think he’s getting close when he points out that the journalist may feel insecure and dissatisfied with his or her role in the process.

    This, by the way, is why I rely on people like David Roberts at Grist and Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. It’s not just that I agree with their politics – it’s that they have a freaking point of view. Even some of the anti-climate change blogs seem more honest than mainstream coverage, at least on that count.

    [JR: Curmudgeon? Ah, if only my father were alive to hear that....]

  50. Anna Haynes says:

    re MBrayne @39 on the BBC’s “global climate destabilization isn’t news” internal editorial thinking, this might explain why there was no answer from BBC’s Richard Black to my Q asking who edited his recent story (
    http://climateprogress.org/2010/09/16/richard-black-bbc-bad-climate-
    reporting/ )
    Do the Brits not have transparency in government?

  51. Anna Haynes says:

    > a lot of people who report on science do not actually have formal scientific training

    Plus they’re subject to Alpha science Male Syndrome -
    http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/hot_air.php

  52. I’ve been saying for a while that the way to get an innocent person the false reputation of having murdered someone is to accuse that person in the press of having murdered two people. Of course, the innocent person will deny it. The press will split the difference.

    With further regard to this idea:

    “speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying 2+2=4 and the other 2+2=6. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.”

    please don’t miss this parable, of the two scientists who disagreed on whether they were seeing a duck:

    http://drboli.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/the-duck/

  53. Jay Rosen says:

    Several people asked me what I have to say to journalists who are allowing the manufacture of phony doubt to pass into the news system. It is a question I have addressed. In fact, it came up recently when I visited Australia (where concern about climate change is very palpable in the political environment) and addressed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about web journalism, the art of explanation and public understanding. There’s a pretty high quality video of my talk. A questioner asks me about climate change and the manufacture of doubt. I starts at 51:58 and my answer runs to 1:00.15 There’s a follow up question about the same issue that runs to 1:06.00

    http://fora.tv/2010/08/13/Jay_Rosen_The_Future_of_Context