“Crappy Headline” Ruins New York Times Story on Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather

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"“Crappy Headline” Ruins New York Times Story on Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather"

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Ah, kismet.   So I’m about to start writing a post criticizing the New York Times for the dreadful headline it ran on John Broder’s Thursday piece, “Scientists See More Deadly Weather, but Dispute the Cause,” when who should call me on the phone?

Broder was calling for some comments on climate politics, as he does every six months or so.   I said I thought the headline did not accurately reflect the story he wrote.

Broder called it a “crappy headline.”  He said of the two scientists he spoke to and quoted — NOAA’s Thomas R. Karl and NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth — “they don’t dispute the cause.”

Note:  It is always tricky when a reporter is talking to a blogger, so I specifically asked for permission to use each of these two quotes, and he gave it.

I have written about the work and the words of both Karl and Trenberth a number of times and, as readers know, each understands that climate change is contributing to more extreme weather.  The story makes that clear.

What is especially dismaying about this kind of misleading headline is that most people never read beyond the headline and NY Times headlines sweep across the internet.  This one appears to have been repeated at least 55,000 times.

The grim statistics on how few people actually read newspaper articles was something my parents, who were both in the newspaper business, told me repeatedly.  Here are some stats I found on the web:

[Readers] see 56 percent of the headlines. But they are aware of only 25 percent of the text, and read just a portion of that. Only about 13 percent of the stories in the paper are read in any depth – that is, at least half-read. And that’s under the best of circumstances: These test subjects, frequent newspaper readers, were uninterrupted, supervised, and given prototypes with well-written, compelling stories.

One  should assume that the majority of people never get very far beyond the headline, which is precisely why it is incumbent upon editors to try as hard as possible to write a headline that accurately reflects the story, even as they inevitably try to make it as punchy as possible so people will actually read the story.

I am fortunate in that I get to write my own headlines, which isn’t true of most reporters.  That means there is no one to blame but myself if I have a bad headline or, when I’m in a hurry, rely too heavily on the headline of a story I am writing about or reposting.  But when I have a poor headline, it is virtually never because the headline doesn’t accurately reflect the story — the worst blunder for editors, I think.  Also, I can and do fix headlines where flaws are pointed out to me, something I’m not certain I’ve ever seen the New York Times do, although I have seen Bloomberg and others do that (mostly when they are correcting the story though)

There is really no excuse for the NYT headline.  If we look at the actual Broder story, we find this:

Government scientists said Wednesday that the frequency of extreme weather has increased over the past two decades, in part as a result of global warming caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere….

Presenting a new NOAA report on 2011 extreme weather, Dr. Karl said that extremes of precipitation have increased as the planet warms and more water evaporates from the oceans. He also said models suggest that as carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere and heats the planet, droughts will increase in frequency and intensity.

“But it is difficult and unlikely to discern a human fingerprint, if there is one, on the drought record of the United States,” he said.

Some other climate scientists were more categorical about the human contribution to extreme climate events.

Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a university-sponsored institute in Boulder, Colo., said that when the greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels is added to the natural variability of climate, weather disasters can be expected to occur more frequently.

“Global warming is contributing to an increased incidence of extreme weather because the environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities,” Dr. Trenberth said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Records are not just broken, they are smashed. It is as clear a warning as we are going to get about prospects for the future.”

Karl can certainly sound more cautious, especially on attribution for specific weather events, but nobody who talks to the director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center for any length of time would be confused about what he understands.

Here is Karl in an AP story also from Thursday, “Extreme Weather Events Unprecedented, Scientists Say”:

Tornadoes, floods, wildfires, snowmelt, thunderstorms, drought — for Americans, it was a spring to remember.

Government weather researchers said yesterday that, while similar extremes have occurred throughout modern American history, never before have they occurred in a single month, as they did in April….

Contributing to the thrashing were the La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, and the increase of moisture in the atmosphere caused by the warming climate.

While Karl cautioned against focusing on any single cause for the unusual events, “clearly these things interconnect,’’ he said.

Here is Karl in Friday’s ClimateWire story, “2011 already among most extreme weather years in history”:

Overall, NOAA experts said extreme weather events have grown more frequent in the United States since 1980. Part of that shift is due to climate change, said Tom Karl, director of the agency’s National Climatic Data Center.

“Extremes of precipitation are generally increasing because the planet is actually warming and more water is evaporating from the oceans,” he said. “This extra water vapor in the atmosphere then enables rain and snow events to become more extensive and intense than they might otherwise be.”

As for Trenberth, he said last year

It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.

And that’s from a front-page New York Times 2010 article on last summer’s extreme weather headlined … wait for it … “In Weather Chaos, a Case for Global Warming!

And that makes the “crappy headline” doubly frustrating, because the NYT got the headline right last year.  If only there were some group of people at the newspaper who oversaw the reporters and wrote all the headlines and thus could give them some consistency and continuity over time.  A blogger can dream….

Related Posts:

  • Exclusive interview — NCAR’s Trenberth on the link between global warming and extreme deluges: “I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
  • Media wakes up to Hell and High Water: Moscow’s 1000-year heat wave and “Pakistan’s Katrina”:  BBC, Reuters, USA Today, Time link warming and extreme weather; Trenberth, Stott, and Masters explain the science
  • Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change

 

Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Mike Roddy

There are two possibilities here: either Broder’s editor seized on Karl’s sentence about the difficulty of associating climate change with drought, and was too careless to read the entire article, or….

The New York Times is still trapped by its advertisers, and is intimidated by wealthy subscribers in Manhattan who receive vast income from fossil fuel companies through their managed portfolios. Times executives cravenly seek their approval.

My sense is the second scenario. Broder himself has written some bad pieces in the past in giving “balance” nods to discredited scientists or even crackpot deniers. And Revkin recently dredged up the Medieval Warming Period as a way to imply that maybe it’s the sun, for heaven’s sake. I can’t believe that Broder (at least in the past) and Revkin are that ignorant. More likely is their hearing footsteps from the Times’ executive offices.

June 18 at 1:52pm

frankthecrank

Human copy editors write newspaper headlines. More often than not the headlines are adequate. But they make mistakes, too. Anybody who believes oil industry execs are phoning the heds in has a screw loose. Spending a night in a newsroom at watch the process and you’ll understand.

June 19 at 10:38am

Tenney Naumer

Over the last 5 years, the headlines in the Grey Lady so often completely misconstrue the actual meaning of the article when about climate change that it seems more purposeful than accidental.

June 19 at 1:55pm

Sonny Whitelaw

LOL! Best comment I’ve seen in a long time

June 19 at 10:06pm

lelandpalmer77

The New York Times and the Washington Post are propaganda outlets. The “whoops I wrote a bad headline” technique is just part of this. This is the incompetence excuse, used over and over by the Bush administration. No, the people in the Bush administration were not so much incompetent as deliberately malign.

We’re going to have to accept the fact that we live in a fascist state disguised as a democracy, sooner or later, I think. In the meantime, we have to stop treating propaganda as news.

June 18 at 2:03pm

Peter S. Mizla

Well said- and so true.

June 18 at 2:41pm

Richard Brenne

“Scientists See More Deadly Weather” – Woo-Hoo!

“…but Dispute the Cause” – D-OH!

This brings up several points. One is that Joe writes the best headlines of anyone, often clever but always giving the best impression of the post’s content.

Another is that Broder wrote a decent article and talked to the two best sources about this. Trenberth and Karl have published important papers together and I think they’d be in agreement about this if you had them in the same room together. One factor is that Karl as director of NCDC is representing that institution and by extension NOAA, the Department of Commerce and the U.S. government, while Trenberth has no such limitations and so is freer to be more candid.

While Karl knows far more about this than I ever will, I still feel a couple of his quotes here could be cleaned up (as most quotes can – Trenberth’s here are typically accurate and candid for him, but they’d be unusually accurate and candid for anyone else).

Where Karl said “But in the early part of the 20th century, there was also a tendency for more extreme events followed by a quiet couple of decades” I think it would’ve been good to add, “But with a degree and a half Fahrenheit and about 6% additional water vapor added since a century ago, I don’t think that we’re going to see a quiet couple of decades now, in fact I think the weather of each decade is likely to become more severe than the previous.”.

When Karl said “But it is difficult and unlikely to discern a human fingerprint, if there is one, on the drought record of the United States” I think it would’ve been better to say “As with tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, with drought it is difficult to see a trend within the tremendous natural variability of weather when you’re looking at mostly 20th Century data. I think these trends are just beginning to emerge now in the 21st century and will only become clearer as the century progresses. The severity of the worst storms of all kinds and all precipitation events will increase, as will heat waves, heat records of all kinds and droughts.”.

Part of me hates to put words in the mouths of such an expert as Karl, but I feel Climate Progress is the best incubation to practice with various quotes – please feel free to improve on mine.

June 18 at 2:04pm

Colorado Bob

Joe -
The Trenberth, post was June 14, 2010 , it rained 4.95 inches yesterday at Ripley, Tenn.

June 18 at 2:10pm

Colorado Bob

Ripley is just across the river from Cape Girardeau Mo, where it’s rained 28 inches since April 1st.

June 18 at 2:25pm

Colorado Bob

A screen grab of the St. Louis doppler est from yesterday and today .
Another 12″ event in Southern , Ill.
http://coloradobob1.newsvi​ne.com/_news/2011/06/10/68​28119-la-nina-gone-a-foot-​of-rain-in-iowa

June 18 at 2:58pm

Tenney Naumer

Bob, I hate to contradict you but that is central west Illinois

June 18 at 8:48pm

Tenney Naumer

Cape Girardeau is across the river from Illinois, not Tennessee.

June 18 at 8:49pm

Colorado Bob

I stand corrected.

June 18 at 9:30pm

Tenney Naumer

Bob, if you see more of these extreme precipitation events in eastern Missouri and Illinois, please let me know at apaixonada.por.rio at gmail etc.

June 19 at 1:57pm

Peter S. Mizla

The NYT in all its cowardly munificence is still tying to cover its ass before its large advertisers, like Exxon-Mobile. They will one day have the courage to tell the truth, but by then it will be too late.

We are now past tipping points (the latest extent in the arctic as of June 16th is now below what it was this time in 2007).

The NYT in the future will have to answer to its diminishing reader base for its cowardice. Profits over truth. By that time its Headquarters will be flooding- will they still be trying to placate Exxon-Mobile with headlines like this?

June 18 at 2:35pm

Peter S. Mizla

Correction:
We are now past tipping points (the latest ICE extent in the arctic as of June 16th is now below what it was this time in 2007).

June 18 at 2:40pm

Prokaryotes

“I remain baffled as to how anyone — Democrat, Republican, Progressive — can look at the evidence that’s before our eyes, look at the scientific data and not have [climate change] be the top priority of everything that we do, not only in government, but in our own personal and private lives.” — Governor Peter Shumlin, 2006.

Two weeks ago I awoke to my daughter telling me that school was cancelled because of flooding. I was awakened many times during the night by the storm, but the flooding and destruction it caused took me, and all Vermonters, by surprise. As we toured the damage, people stopped to ask me whether the heavy rain and floods we experienced this spring are from global climate change. Of course, it is hard to know for sure, but climate scientists have been predicting for years that climate change will result in droughts, floods and other extreme weather events. Indeed, over the past 10 years Vermont has experience eight of the most extreme one-day precipitation events in our recorded history.

What this tells me is that it is time for bold leadership to both to reduce our contributions to climate change and to meet the challenges of an already changing climate.

Governor Peter Shumlin agrees. That’s why on May 17 he signed an executive order creating the Vermont Climate Cabinet. This cabinet, led by the Agency of Natural Resources, is a collaboration between many agencies of state government with the charge of providing leadership to coordinate climate change efforts across state agencies and to engage Vermonters in our efforts to decrease our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

http://www.reformer.com/ci​_18283753

June 18 at 3:05pm

Prokaryotes

…according to a new poll from Yale University.

A representative survey of 1,010 adults found that 71 percent think that global warming should be a “very high,” “high” or “medium priority” for the president and Congress. Americans overwhelmingly support policy changes that would help address the issue, the poll found. Participants favored developing clean energy sources by a more than 9-to-1 ratio.

http://dc.streetsblog.org/​2011/06/16/yale-poll-ameri​cans-support-transpo-polic​ies-to-avert-climate-chang​e/

June 18 at 3:09pm

Prokaryotes

Doctors Prepare Their Professions to Explain and Treat Climate-Related Symptoms.

“I don’t go on a soapbox making a scientific case, but by the time patients come to my office, they pretty much understand something is going on,” he said. “They want to know why they are wheezing, why they have watery eyes and why their throats are swelling up. They understand the pollen season is worse this year.”

“I give multiple etiologies,” he said, referring to the causes of illness, “but climate change is one of them.”

Prolonged allergy seasons, re-emerging illnesses and more extreme weather events are spurred on by climate change and will systematically affect human health.
http://www.nytimes.com/cwi​re/2011/06/15/15climatewir​e-doctors-prepare-their-pr​ofessions-to-explain-8660.​html

June 18 at 3:15pm

Prokaryotes

scientists agree that some of the calling cards of climate change — heavy rains, prolonged drought and unusual warmth — are ultimately setting the stage for diseases to prosper.

And extreme weather events and their aftermath leave communities with problems that simmer below the surface such as trauma and depression. They also exacerbate other physical maladies, including high blood pressure and heart disease.

— This article only scratches the surface, regarding health/psychology, but i would say better than nothing.

June 18 at 3:32pm

Alexander Ač

And then it is new positive feedback loop between global warming, wildfires and NO2! http://www.loe.org/shows/s​egments.html?programID=11-​P13-00024&segmentID=1

June 18 at 3:15pm

Prokaryotes

Nice “Listen Feature”, Thanks!

June 18 at 3:21pm

Prokaryotes

Climate change raising tick threat for northern moose.

Moose living in northern states such as New Hampshire and Minnesota face an increased threat from blood-feeding ticks and deer-borne parasites because of shorter winters caused by climate change.
http://www.reuters.com/art​icle/2011/06/18/us-moose-t​icks-idUSTRE75H1UJ20110618

June 18 at 3:35pm

John Mason

It’s still as plain as night follows day: climate will always influence weather, so if the climate changes, as has occurred and will continue to do so, that in turn will let forth its own influence on the weather, even if we mitigate things by cutting back on the prime variable at work i.e. manmade GHGs. If we fail to mitigate things then all bets are off.

Cheers – John.

June 18 at 4:04pm

Richard MacKinnon

The act of denying climate change has led to not only billions of dollars of lost property but the death of 10s of thousands of people. Climate change deniers are guilty of crimes against humanity and need to be treated as such so that at least some people can be saved that otherwise won’t. Profit over human lives doesn’t fly any more.

June 18 at 4:34pm

Dan Satterfield

I noticed that as well and wonder why to this day newspapers have different people writing headlines than the writer of the story! How many times I have seen a great story shot in the foot by this I cannot count.

June 18 at 5:05pm

Mary Mactavish

Back when I worked in newspapers, we cut and pasted headlines with x-acto knives and rubber cement, and getting just the right headline to *fit*, size-wise, was a magical skill. It was a lot tricker than making a complex idea fit into a 140-character tweet ;) I’m thinking that the new skill is in getting people to click on or share something that looks either provocative or like it will uphold their worldview. That this was passed around so much makes me think it worked.

June 18 at 5:15pm

Tenney Naumer

Back when I worked for Elsevier and went through the transition from lead to photoprinting, I had to notice where those xacto knives cut off the tops and bottoms of letters – LOL

June 19 at 2:06pm

John Earl

NYT=CYA

June 18 at 6:03pm

robertdotnagle

So what would have been a better headline?

June 18 at 7:46pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

First five words.

June 18 at 9:16pm

sandyok1950

By the time this year is over, anyone who “disputes” the cause of climate change will be either burned alive, drowned by the floods, or swept away into a tree by a tornado of hurricane to die.

June 18 at 8:05pm

chas_rasper

It amazes me that Think Progress will allow a whacko comment like this to stand but will delete any and all comments from sane people who question what is printed as ‘facts’ on this blog!

June 18 at 11:33pm

Tenney Naumer

Joe Romm prints facts. Get used to it.

June 19 at 2:04pm

Prokaryotes

Water is the new liquid gold in Texas.
Oil companies that need water for “fracking” wells compete for access.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/i​d/43443146/ns/business-us_​business/t/water-new-liqui​d-gold-texas/

June 18 at 8:32pm

Prokaryotes

Water: Our Most Precious, Most Wasted Resource
http://webecoist.com/2008/​12/13/water-precious-resou​rce/

We not only exchange water for “fracked water” (which eventually ends up contaminated with uranium), we explore the stuff which is responsible for the drought in the first place!

June 18 at 8:37pm

mrsmerrifield69

“We must be doing something to the planet” and “We have more bad weather now than we used to have.”, was not science, it was omen worship and superstition wrapped in a comfortable lie of “science”.
It’s the glossy eyed grunt of SAVE THE PLANET that will mark our place in history.
If you really think the crisis is real, at least start acting like it is. Somebody? Even Obama never even mentioned the “crisis” in his state of the union address.
The world has walked away from climate crisis from CO2 and now you remaining faded doomers still out there 25 years later look like the dude that still shows up to the party in disco duds.
So WAS threatening our kids with a death by CO2 just to get them to turn the lights out more often worth it after all? Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of the obviously needed population control.
Nice job doomers. At least us real planet lovers are happy a crisis was averted. Maybe you just hate humanity, condemning billions to a death by CO2 so flippantly and with such glee.

June 19 at 12:29am

Tenney Naumer

Wow! Get a clue. Last year, the heat wave in Russia was responsible for 30,000 deaths. It was a one-in-a-hundred-thousand-​ years event. This year the American Midwest is suffering the worst flood in history. Colorado Bob just noted 3 extreme precipitation events in less than a week of 10 inches or more in the Midwest.
Your rhetoric is so extreme that I don’t expect that any of the above will sink in, however.
We actually love humanity and hope to save it, despite its obviously flawed examples.

June 19 at 2:02pm

Richard Brenne

and how did you know about my disco duds?

June 20 at 12:19am

Bert Thompson

Why is the cause of global warming even an issue? It’s real, & we have to do something about it WHATEVER causes it. If the earth were threatened by a meteor, would we be arguing about whether it was human caused instead of planning to deflect it? How does claiming that global climate change is manmade serve as an argument to avoid action?

June 19 at 1:25am

Curt Allred

To some fundamentalist Christians, it’s all part of what is supposed to happen when Jesus comes back again. So if you fight against global warming (and other manmade or natural problems), that are supposed to be hallmarks of the “end times”, you’re fighting against Jesus’ return in glory.

June 19 at 7:30am

Don Strong

Did cigarettes caused your heart attack?

June 19 at 9:38am

David V. Tiffany

And it’s not just Global Warming. News media tend to headline their false equivalence attitude, when the reality is far different. This leads to the kind of public ignorance that the media were supposed to combat. Hah!

June 19 at 9:55am

Marge Fields

Have you ever seen the movie, “Day After Tomorrow”? About global warming and nothing is done to comat it until it is too late. The interests of the big corporations are of much more importance the the possibility of disaster. They will wait until too late.

June 19 at 8:29pm

Jerry Galloway

Ohhh, that Left-Wing Media..

June 19 at 1:21pm

Sonni Will

I love this cartoon!

June 19 at 2:49pm

Lauren Daniell

I live in Ft. Worth, Texas; it is frickin’ 104 degrees outside right now, we’re set to have the warmest June on record and 3/4 of the state is in an Extreme Drought. Yet, it’s probably the epicenter of Global Warming Denial. Sigh. When will we learn?

June 19 at 4:37pm

Randall Breneman

Hey, remember back in the mid-70s when the NOAA and NAS were blaming severe weather, including a record number of tornadoes on global cooling? And how, lately, both unusually warm and unusually cold winters are blamed on global warming?

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

June 19 at 5:15pm

Richard Brenne

No, I don’t remember NOAA or NAS doing that. Do you know of any scientific papers NOAA or NAS published in that regard then?

June 20 at 12:22am

John Atcheson

The New York Times is afraid of angering right wing deniers — they default to “balanced” reporting — you know, 20 lbs of truth on one side of the balance beam and 20lbs of pure BS on the other.

June 20 at 12:18pm

Karl Burkart

Isn’t there a process to review the intentions of headline copywriters? It seems that this particular NYT editor had a skeptical point of view despite the actual content of the story.

June 21 at 8:28pm

Kelly McCartney

I read that analysis the other day. The headline writer probably just scanned the first graph. Sadly.

June 21 at 10:21pm

Karl Burkart

Yep!

June 24 at 5:52pm

Sarthak Talwar

The act of denying climate change has led to not only billions of dollars of lost property but the death of 10s of thousands of people. Climate change deniers are guilty of crimes against humanity and need to be treated as such so that at least some people can be saved that otherwise won’t. Profit over human lives doesn’t fly any more.

June 24 at 2:02am

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