"PBS Ombudsman: NewsHour Climate Story ‘Stumbled Badly’, Use Of Non-Scientist Watts For Balance Was ‘Stunning’"
PBS viewers who understand climate science were understandably shocked by the PBS News Hour last week. Their climate segment (below) and online interview focusing on the long-debunked views of non-scientist Anthony Watts were widely criticized — see here and here.
The PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler has responded with a lengthy and thoughtful piece, “Climate Change Creates a Storm,” which opens:
It was not the PBS NewsHour’s finest 10 minutes. In my view, and that of hundreds, even thousands of others, the program stumbled badly. On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.
A segment on climate change last Monday evening produced a storm of protest from critics who felt the program mislead viewers — by a faulty application of journalistic balance — about the very real threat of global warming and man’s contribution to it, as well as a sprinkling of support from those who think that threat is overstated and that balance was just the right touch for the NewsHour.
Just below is a video link to the segment so those that did not see it, or wish to see it again, can form their own opinions.
This may be the longest ombudsman column I’ve ever posted because the subject generates about as much thunder and heat as one of those storms many have experienced lately that at least seem to make us think more about climate change. It also is one of those lose-lose subjects for an ombudsman in which whatever one writes is certain not to satisfy a lot of people.
The post notes the segment was widely criticized and it links to my piece, “False Balance Lives: In Worst Climate Story Of The Year, PBS Channels Fox News” and to an excellent commentary by Bud Ward at the Yale Forum.
Here is some of Getler’s specific criticism:
But the missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of NewsHour standards. I feel that way as well. And the main factor was the choice and appearance of Anthony Watts as someone interviewed on the broadcast, and also interviewed at much greater length by Michels on the NewsHour’s “Rundown” blog. My focus is only on the broadcast, which is what most people wrote and commented about to me.
Watts did not seem to get more time than some of the other major figures but he seemed to dominate the program. Watts is a broadcast meteorologist, entrepreneur and the founder of the “Watts Up With That?” blog that focuses on global warming. He is a leading skeptic, especially about the role of humans in the warming process, and his blog is billed as among the most popular and widely viewed on the subject.
Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.
What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide “balance.” I had never heard of Watts before this program and I’m sure most viewers don’t, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.
Precisely. Good climate science stories interview climate scientists.
I’m not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.
As it turned out, Michels, in his blog post on Monday, revealed that Watts had been recommended to him by The Heartland Institute, that he described as “a conservative, Chicago-based non-profit that is one of the leading groups that doubt that climate change — if it exists — is attributable to human activities.” The Heartland connection, which has included some funding, was not mentioned on the air.
Watts is articulate and confident and used his time well to make some strong assertions. A key one that he is associated with is his past efforts to show that climate warming data is inaccurate because weather stations where measurements are taken often soak up heat from their surroundings. Michels did not challenge that view, which has been disputed, and, in a highly unusual move, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent this statement to The NewsHour….
The whole piece is well worth reading and Getler deserves kudos for it.
Here is what Bud Ward concluded:
Bottom line on all this? No question that Michels clearly did not appear in the interview or on the broadcast to have “done due diligence” — that is, to have done his homework on climate science. No responsible science journalist could be pleased with his mishandling of those pieces or, for instance, with his sophomoric characterization of “believers.” He allowed the interviewee to opine not only on science but also on policy issues, without drawing any distinction and without adequately characterizing the nature of Watts’ scientific, let alone policy, credentials.
Sreenivasan’s weak-kneed defense of the whole episode came across as overly defensive, and it included mis-steps of its own that he later had to take back.
In the end, it may have been “NewsHour” … but it certainly was not its “finest hour.” One expects more from the program, and the abundant critical comments are a sure sign that it did not measure-up in this case….
The NewsHour’s journalistic shortcomings in this instance are far from the most serious committed in the name of broadcast journalism on climate science … they’re just the most surprising and, in some ways, the most disappointing.