“U.S., Europe worlds apart on climate science coverage,” is a fascinating piece of media analysis by Midwest Energy News.
In a well-sourced analysis, international freelance writer Tom Vandyck explains why “European journalists accuse their American counterparts of maintaining a false balance in their reporting, pretending climate science is still in doubt, and offering politicians cover for inaction.”
Ironically, while Cristi Kempf, the national foreign editor at the Chicago Tribune, tries to defend her paper, she actually makes Vandyckj’s case:
“We don’t have set policy on climate change,” she said. “You have to remember that most European newspapers are papers with point of view, maybe liberal or right wing. Most U.S. papers still do try to retain that objectivity. We will print stories that bring both sides of the view.”“We will print stories about climate change presenting it as fact, and we will print stories about people who say climate change doesn’t exist. It’s very obvious that a lot of people, including members of the U.S. Congress, believe it’s not true.”
… “When people say they are disbelievers of climate change, you have to point out that most of this has been debunked. I would say most of our stories – 75 percent – are overwhelmingly showing that climate change exists. Ice is melting, animals are dying – that kind of thing. And then every once in a while, you get something else.”
In his news room, Joseph Pulitzer displayed the motto, “Accuracy! Terseness! Accuracy!” At the Tribune, I guess the motto would be “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy! Something else!”
As TP Green’s Brad Johnson notes, “One might hope that a major newspaper might aim for a higher rate of accuracy on an issue of civilizational importance than three out of four.”
“Objectivity” is not the same thing as repeating falsehoods. Journalists aren’t supposed to be stenographers.
The whole story is reposted below.
By Tom Vandyck
When it comes to reporting on climate change, European media are from hothouse Venus, and their American counterparts are from considerably more frigid Mars. The divide between them may be having a profound impact on climate and energy policy in either part of the world.
European journalists accuse their American counterparts of maintaining a false balance in their reporting, pretending climate science is still in doubt, and offering politicians cover for inaction.
But while that may have been true just a few years ago, it is changing now, say American editors.
For Peter Vandermeersch, editor-in chief at the traditionally conservative daily NRC Handelsblad in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, there is no debate about climate change.
“Absolutely, that’s a given”, he said. “The conviction has grown that climate change does exist, and that humans play a major role in how it evolves.”
“There’s almost no discussion about it”, agreed Wouter Verschelden, editor-in-chief at the progressive daily De Morgen in Brussels, Belgium. “The nonbelievers have been marginalized, and they aren’t taken seriously anymore. We don’t have to convince our readers anymore of the fact that there is climate change, and that it’s caused by humans.”
‘He said, she said’ journalism
According to Vandermeersch and Verschelden, who are both alumni of Columbia University’s vaunted Journalism School in New York, American news media still make the mistake of giving climate skeptics a disproportionate voice, and perpetuating a debate that has long been settled among scientists.
“In a sense, you’re lying to your readers,” says Verschelden. “You’re creating a ‘he said, she said’ story, and looking for an argument that just doesn’t always exist.”
“Journalism in 2011, in Europe, but also in America, ought to be saying, ‘These are the facts, they all point in the same direction, and therefore it’s our job to say that’s how it is,’” said Vandermeersch. “Doing that in a thorough, well-founded, and well-argued manner, is better journalism than just giving equal time to both sides.”
Cristi Kempf, the national foreign editor at the Chicago Tribune, disputes that characterization.
“We don’t have set policy on climate change,” she said. “You have to remember that most European newspapers are papers with point of view, maybe liberal or right wing. Most U.S. papers still do try to retain that objectivity. We will print stories that bring both sides of the view.”
“We will print stories about climate change presenting it as fact, and we will print stories about people who say climate change doesn’t exist. It’s very obvious that a lot of people, including members of the U.S. Congress, believe it’s not true.”
Still, the Europeans’ position has merit, says Max Boykoff, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Boulder, who has done extensive research on the issue.
“Within the top U.S. daily print media there has been this reliance on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting that worked to the detriment of accurately reporting whether or not humans contribute to climate change”, he said. “I found over in the U.K. press, that hasn’t been as much of an influence – in fact, that they’ve been reporting it quite accurately.”
“I think the objectivity standard that U.S. newspapers apply has probably outlived its usefulness on this particular issue”, said Mark Neuzil, a professor of environmental communication at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “At some point you’re not being a decent and good journalist when you’re giving equal weight when 97 percent say one thing, and 3 percent say the other, unless you point that out really clearly.”
“You can’t say there’s a false sense of balance”, said Kempf. “American papers still have that wall between an editorial page and a news page. It’s naïve to believe that a journalist doesn’t have a point of view, but you try to not insult your readers. You’ve got readers who are, of course, members of the Tea Party, or who believe climate change isn’t real. But we also just ran a story about scientists who are getting tons of funding to prove climate change isn’t real.”
According to Boykoff, a number of factors contribute to the difference. Firewalls between opinion and news are more impenetrable in U.S. newsrooms. State-owned media such as the BBC in the U.K., and similar broadcasters in other European countries, have agenda-setting clout that American media lack. Most major U.S. media outlets are corporate owned, leading to a different newsroom culture.
Many American papers are owned by national chains, such as Gannett, the New York Times Company, and the Chicago-based Tribune Company. Few do their own climate reporting, relying instead on syndicated content.
“We use wire service coverage, we don’t have anybody covering climate change”, said Jenny Green, managing editor at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which has a daily circulation of 180,000 and a newsroom staff of almost 90.
By comparison, the Belgian paper De Morgen, with its newsroom staff of 50 and circulation of 52,000, does employ a full-time climate writer.
“I feel like a lot of North American journalists that I’ve talked to over the years feel constrained by some of these things”, said Boykoff. “These are smart folks that oftentimes are swimming upstream against the current. The journalists themselves are just as savvy as the ones over in Europe, but the way that they can do their reporting over there is different.”
Polarized and paralyzed
While in Europe the media consensus about climate change coincides with political plans to reshape climate and energy policy dramatically, coverage in the U.S. reflects a much more polarized – and paralyzed – political landscape.
The EU plans to reduce its carbon emissions, lower its energy consumption and raise its renewable energy production all by 20 per cent by 2020. Britain recently launched a massive push to insulate private homes and businesses, and Germany has decided to double its renewable energy generating capacity by 2022.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., climate policy remains mired in partisan squabbles. A federal cap-and-trade plan is a non-starter in ideologically polarized Washington D.C., where any meaningful action on the issue during President Obama’s first term in office seems unlikely.
To what extent are these policy differences a consequence of media coverage?
“The media play a part in shaping public perception, and policy-maker perception and actions on climate change”, said Boykoff. “It’s not insignificant, but to really understand how significant it is – it’s difficult. It hasn’t been done yet.”
“As a consequence of the way papers in Western Europe assess that climate change is real, the public debate in Europe, in my opinion, goes more in the right direction”, said Vandermeersch, who also pointed out that ideologically slanted newsrooms in his part of the world are increasingly a thing of the past. “I think we have a better educated public in Europe than in the U.S., where fake arguments are still on the table, because of that kind of journalism.”
But things are changing stateside, said Neuzil. “The journalists that I know in the mainstream media have more actively reflected the scientific consensus in recent years. They’re not as worried about finding a denier quote every time they do a story.”
The tipping point came in 2005, said Boykoff, with hurricane Katrina, and the release of former Vice-President Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
“There were a number of important events around that time that changed the landscape for that kind of reporting. But meanwhile in television news, it continued. That could be partly just because television news isn’t able to go into the specifics and the contours of complex issues like print journalism can. It became less about U.S. anomalies versus the rest of the world and more about what medium we’re talking about.”
The same is true of the Chicago Tribune, said Kempf. “When people say they are disbelievers of climate change, you have to point out that most of this has been debunked. I would say most of our stories – 75 percent – are overwhelmingly showing that climate change exists. Ice is melting, animals are dying – that kind of thing. And then every once in a while, you get something else.”
Tom Vandyck is an international freelance writer based in St. Paul. In addition to being syndicated by the International Features Agency in Amsterdam, his work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor.
Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:
Good piece, and Vandermeersch nails it. The problem is, incompetent journalism is only partially to blame. There is pervasive pressure on reporters and editors to give a nod to the deniers, and not because of false balance. Even early on, they didn’t do that in the tobacco/cancer discussion.
What we have here is craven prostitution by the American media, and they should be ashamed of themselves. And, speaking of Columbia School of Journalism, why are they not taking on this disgrace? Joe does a great job, but the profession badly needs to be cleaned up from within, or their reputations will soon be destroyed forever.
If the “pressure is on reporters to give a nod to deniers” (which I doubt) it is simply because the skeptics in the US now far outnumber the warmists. An example is the “Green Blog” section of the online Boston Globe. The poor woman who writes it hardly ever posts stories on CAGW anymore because she gets laughed out of town in the comments section every time. The people of Boston have spoken, they just don’t care anymore in a world where they’re aren’t enough jobs and houses are being foreclosed on by the thousands everyday. In other words they have far more pressing issues.
July 10 at 11:00pm
It would be interesting to know how (or if) science journalism students are taught to identify a fact apart from an opinion. That seems central to getting past the wimpy “he said, she said” format.
July 10 at 11:00pm
A few days ago, I learned from an SEO instructor that by tracking user ‘clicks’ on links produced by Google searches, Google customizes future search results according to user tastes. In other words, once Google gets a handle on what a user wants to read concerning keyword topics, it responds to similar searches with information and points of view that ‘enhance the user’s Internet experience’ by reinforcing what they want to believe…much like the ‘objectivity’ of the U.S. Press.
I think thats the bottom line. In its purest form scinece and logic cannot be subverted successfully by subjective analysis. Indeed in most cases they are synonymous with objectivity. The problem is, in the public area we never see that form of argument. ( http://diseaseclimate.blogspot.com/2011/07/on-why-science-is-received-perceived.html ).
We operate on a popularized idea of truth; a commercial press and social media reinforce that fallacy. Truth is whatever is the most popular opinion is at that time and is usually supported by presenting a quantity of quasi and partial arguments and overwhelmingly, conspiracy based rationale. Whoever disagrees is obliterated in a ad hominem blitzkrieg. (itself a fallacy in most cases but as objectivity is not specifically defined accepted as legitimate) Thats the predominant format of argument on the left, right and whatever now. And why we continuously make and pay for bad decisions.
I always come back to this quote, one of my favorite:
¨Argument is meant to reveal the truth, not to create it.¨ – Edward De Bono
July 10 at 3:51pm
A friend who also had spinal cord injury once emailed me a photo with no text on the day he committed suicide after discovering a stem cell researcher’s subjective truths turned out to be objective lies. The photo was of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
As America rolls onward in climate change denial–secure in the delusion that objective reality is a matter of opinion–I fear our present and future generations will feel the despair Munch captures so well: http://bit.ly/jvzk93
July 10 at 5:29pm
With all respect, that sounds more like conspiracy theory to me than anything else. Allowing for the fact that Google would be aiming to maximise advertising revenue at every turn though, well, you just can’t discount that possibility out-of-hand. But… it’s a testable hypothesis. I got the wife a Macbook for Xmas, and she never uses it to surf the web, only to access e-mail. So I’m gonna do the following:
1. I will clear the browser cache and cookies on my desktop at work, and will search for the term ‘moon landing hoax’ (a term that I can guarantee you I’ve never searched for before) over the next two weeks, once every day or two, and follow one of the top links presented by Google, each time a different one. If I tried to do it 10 times in a row, for instance, on the same day… the conspiracy theory says that Google might know I was ‘testing’ them ;-)
I’ll save off the first 3 pages of search results on every attempt.
2. Then, I will try an inaugural search for the same term on the Macbook, at home instead of work (just in case Google are tracking the IP address :-), and save off the results. Allowing for changes in PageRank of the sites concerned, over the two week time span, I’m going to bet there are no substantive changes in the results from the 10th search on my browser at work (Safari for Windows), and the wife’s Macbook.
Does that sound like a fair test of the SEO drone’s hypothesis?
July 10 at 7:32pm
No, it’s true. The combination of location, possibly previous search history, and filtering choices mean different people can get different hits on the same search. I don’t know that it would impact whether one sees more denier stuff though. It does impact my searches as I move from reference desk, to office machine, to mobile though.
July 10 at 9:19pm
Its strange with all the times me, you and all of us feel so lonely, among other things that someone would choose to end their life for any physical reason knowing how important just having their consciousness around is, and what it could mean and do for others.
July 11 at 1:56am
To do my friend justice, he didn’t kill himself over his disability, at least not wholly or directly. He had given $350,000 to two doctors he trusted–one highly paced at NIH and the other a nationally recognized embryonic stem cell research for spinal cord injury–under the enticement he would be a prime candidate for a clinical trial they would conduct in Pakistan. When he tried to recoup his money after the trials never took place, no lawyers would take the case. I believe he killed himself because he felt betrayed, powerless, and had lost all hope in science or human nature.
July 11 at 3:13am
ETA: obviously, I have to follow links that take a consistent point of view to see if Google ‘remembers’, so I will go for ones that debunk the ‘moon hoaxers’.
July 11 at 4:06am
Meanwhile in the real world –
The sea ice chart –
I don’t know how many times these “journalists” have to be beaten over the head before they get it. It doesn’t matter how many congressmen (say) that climate change isn’t happening or that it isn’t anthropogenic – or how many of them think evolution didn’t happen – or that homeopathy is something other than a fraud – or that vaccines cause autism… These are people who spent several weeks incessantly reporting on Harold Camping’s rapture ravings; how much hope is there for them?
(sarc) The same is true of the Chicago Tribune, said Kempf. “When people say they are disbelievers of a round earth, you have to point out that most of the flat earth claims have been debunked. I would say most of our stories, 75 %, are overwhelmingly showing that the earth is round. And then every once in a while, you get a flat earth piece.”.
No defense of the Tribune here, but my impression is that some of the U.K. newspapers (notably the Daily Mail and Telegraph) also have very biased reporting. Certainly that is the case on wind energy.–Regards, Tom Gray, Wind Energy Communications Consultant.
Here, e.g., is a story about the Daily Mail’s coverage: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/16/daily-mail-climate-change
July 10 at 2:45pm
I agree that some of the UK tabloids have been dreadful. I think most of the Continent is better.
July 10 at 3:03pm
A Hollywood director explained earlier this year that TV would be highly reluctant to air pro-green programs whose content could offend major advertisers like Big Oil, Detroit, Nuclear Energy and Coal. If this is true of TV, it must be also true of mainstream magazines and papers.
A former Director of Peer Review for the NIH Institute of Child Welfare and Human Development once told me the concept of ‘objective’ science was an oxymoron due to human nature and the corrupting influence of money. In my opinion, the handling of climate change and energy issues by American news outlets reveals reporters, editors, and publishers are no less willing to mislead the public to promote personal or industry agendas than the research industries so many entrust with their medical fate.
July 10 at 4:24pm
yes and a success to the chicago climate exchange!
importante e necessária análise, parabéns
important and necessary analysis, congratulations