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Brulle: “The NY Times doesnt need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted…. Just look in the mirror.”

By Joe Romm  

"Brulle: “The NY Times doesnt need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted…. Just look in the mirror.”"

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The NYT‘s Elisabeth Rosenthal had another front-page “teach the controversy” piece yesterday, “Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons.”  That has apparently become a specialty of the one-time paper of record (see NYT faces credibility siege over unbalanced climate coverage and The NYT once again equates non-scientists “” Bastardi, Coleman, and Watts (!) “” with climate scientists).

I asked Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT itself quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” for his comments.  Here they are:

It is well known in both sociology and communications that public opinion is largely shaped by media coverage.  So the shift in public opinion about climate change is linked to the nature of mainstream media coverage of the so-called “climategate scandal.”

Several media researchers have documented the persistent bias in main stream media.

(See the links to the AAAS presentations of Max Boykoff and William Freudenberg).

Other links from FAIR;

Yet none of these independent analyses are noted in the article by Ms. Rosenthal.  Acknowledging the media’s role in facilitating the public relations aims of the climate denialists strikes too close to home for the NY Times to cover.  The aim of the climate denialists public relations campaign is to spread confusion and doubt about climate change.  They have been very successful, aided by, what Dr. Boykoff noted as the exaggeration of outliers and a false sense of balance:

“Such claims are amplified when traditional news media position noncredible contrarian sources against those with scientific data, in a failed effort to represent opposing sides.”

The article by Ms. Rosenthal ends with the observation that “The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides.”  Why is this the case?  Because the media has abdicated its duty to inform the public under a misguided notion of providing “balance” between science and nonsense.

The NY Times doesn’t need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted.  They can save the carbon emissions of the trip.  Just look in the mirror.

I would add that the British media is arguably now worse than the American media on this issue:

Rosenthal herself notes in the article:

In March, Simon L. Lewis, an expert on rain forests at the University of Leeds in Britain, filed a 30-page complaint with the nation’s Press Complaints Commission against The Times of London, accusing it of publishing “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” about climate change, his own research and remarks he had made to a reporter.

“I was most annoyed that there seemed to be a pattern of pushing the idea that there were a number of serious mistakes in the I.P.C.C. report, when most were fairly innocuous, or not mistakes at all,” said Dr. Lewis, referring to the report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On top of that, the “British winter was the coldest for 31 years.“  We have had enough warming now that people are surprised by coolish winters, so it’s no surprise that over a short period of time, it will impact public opinion, even when that winter isn’t actually close to record breaking.  Stanford communications expert Jon Krosnick notes that “One factor that can influence opinion is the perception of local changes in the weather” (see “One more reason that recent U.S. polling on global warming is down slightly“).

As long as the NYT diverts so much of its scarce front-page coverage on climate to articles like this one, the prospects remain poor that the public will become informed on the actual state of the science.

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30 Responses to Brulle: “The NY Times doesnt need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted…. Just look in the mirror.”

  1. PSU Grad says:

    You know, there’s a part of me that just wants to say *#@& ‘em. Back when it look like financial market indices and housing prices would grow to the sky, I was a voice of significant skepticism among our acquaintances. As a reward I was mocked and scorned for being a “gloom and doomer”. So my wife and I just saved money like crazy, paid off our house, and waited. Sure enough, the markets and house prices didn’t grow to the sky. And in some bizarre irony, some of our friends lost their jobs during the very downturn they mocked as “doom and gloom”.

    So here we are again. The writing is as plain as day, yet we see the same pattern. Unfortunately, I think all we can do is take care of our little corners of the world and prepare as best we can for what we know is inevitable. In a virtual repeat of my experience, my wife sent the NOAA chart showing each decade being warmer than the last to those in her department. She was politely told “thanks, but no thanks, we don’t really care”.

    Then again, perhaps I’m not imaginative enough to figure out how to make people care.

  2. mike roddy says:

    Very well said. The failure of the media is an extremely important issue, and it’s nice to see it finally laid out in this detail. This whole post should be widely distributed and kept as a reference. And thanks to Dr. Brulle, too, for the apt comment to the Times.

  3. I had the feeling as I was reading that article that the incapacity for irony that Rosenthal must have is staggering. Seriously, a story about how people are confused about climate change that fails to take any sort of opportunity to cover the *science* of, you know, climate change. “So there you go, people are confused about climate change and we refuse to ascribe greater credibility to the vast majority of scientists or a handful of outliers and wingnut bloggers.”

    Since when did dubious pundits and random people on the street become legitimate news sources?! And why was this lazy vanilla fluff of anecdotal ambivalence, of all the stories about climate change that have appeared in the paper, on the front page???

  4. FishEagle says:

    My impression is that the general public is not as skeptical about climate science as they are about the proposed political solutions to the dilemma. Frankly, I didn’t find the political solutions acceptable at all. It made me think, well in that case, let the world go to the dogs anyway. It doesn’t matter that we’re facing extinction.

  5. cervantes says:

    I too read that article and thought, “Here we go again.” What is very frustrating is that the NYT is completely uninterested in criticism of its own iconic self and in particular will never, ever print a letter criticizing its own reporting. The so-called Public Editor is nothing but a shield to absorb and deflect criticism. They just love themselves and they just know they are perfect and it’s almost impossible to break through the smug self-adoration.

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    What a deep lode of irony indeed. The concluding para: The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides. “I’m still concerned about climate change, but it’s become very confusing,” said Sandra Lawson, 32, as she ran errands near Hyde Park.

    “The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides.”

    No s__t, Sherlock. No damned wonder folks are confused. Indeed that’s just what the NY Times has done, largely left their readership struggling with little assistance or information to help them evaluate what’s useful and what isn’t. If Times editors can’t puzzle this out they’re quite beyond salvage.

  7. Michael Tucker says:

    Response to #3 above:

    I would say that story is on the front page because that is exactly the kind of climate change story that sells. The NYT is not interested in informing the public. They are only interested in selling papers. They are in such financial trouble that made-up stories about global warming, that grab the public interest, are what they want. The public is in a ‘doubt’ mood regarding global warming. Right now stories of how ‘science has got it wrong’ or the public is ‘not convinced’ or, even better, a conspiracy exits among scientists to ‘invent’ global warming are what people are looking for.

    If the NYT could get away with it now they would also have stories about space-alien invaders and Bigfoot. Eventually they will. Attempting to get informative science news from newspapers is a waste of time.

  8. homun says:

    PSU grad: I could see that the US economy was built on air in 1999 and in 2006 too. So the first time (being single) I just gave all my stock options to charity. And so they just took the hit instead of me – not the end of the world but not precisely resolving the problem either. And the second time, I invested heavily in non-US securities – oops.

    And now with Global Warming, what am I supposed to do, move to another planet?

    Sad to say, we have to care.

  9. BB says:

    You know…there are so many topics out there in which the correct side declares the incorrect side unfit to inhabit the sphere of ideas, lest what they say becomes equatable or gets traction on any particular forum.

    Talk radio, school classrooms, newspapers, wikipedia, etc.

    What we should do…is get a government council together, and on each of these topics, they should simply come to a conclusion for one side or the other as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and just ban the wrong side from being interviewed, or attempting to promote their ideas, unless maybe there’s a scrolling marquee under their talking head that said “is wrong…debunked…”

    That way we can guarantee that no one mistakes when ‘wrong’ things are being said by wrong people, and that right stays ‘right’ until those that are right freely determine otherwise.

  10. Wit's End says:

    Michael #7,

    I tend to think it’s a little more nefarious than simply wanting to sell stories that are popular with the public. If they really wanted to increase readership, the true facts about climate change on the front page would sell plenty of papers. But that would offend the owners and advertisers. Advertising is where the real money comes from in publications like magazines and newspapers. That’s why, if you stop subscribing to a print publication, they’ll keep sending you copies for ages, along with begging you to resubscribe – because they want to report to their advertisers how many copies they mail out. That’s what the rates are based on.

    Doug #6, I consider myself a relative neophyte to the topic of climate change. It wasn’t until just about two years ago I really started paying attention and going out of my way to read more about it than was being reported. I very soon gave up on the NYT, which had been my Bible for 30 years for everything from cooking to literature. Once I realized how paltry their coverage is – especially in relation to just how serious the problem is – I got so completely disgusted that they relegated the entire topic to the ghetto of dot earth that I have ceased reading the entire paper altogether, even online.

    It was a painful process of withdrawal from a favorite ritual, for quite a while. But I get better information from foreign press, HuffPo, and a multitude of well-written, well-researched blogs. Anything that is of value in the NYT – Bob Herbert’s last oped, for instance – gets instantly linked to elsewhere anyway.

    I might add that all of the above pretty much goes for NPR, with this exception, an interview with James Hansen, with whom I was newly impressed. He’s an excellent spokesperson, because he delivers the full import of how dire the predictions are without sounding the least bit “alarmist.”
    http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2010/05/20/dr-james-hansen-on-the-storms-of-my-grandchildren/

    And I am thankful everyday for Climate Progress.

  11. trekhaus says:

    The NYT is dying, it has been for years. What does it matter if they are not doing their job- you can’t just give the masses what they need, you have to give them what they want.

    Another big problem is the internet- I was 16 years old when I published a paper on quantum string theory on wiki. It was only taken down last year. The amount of information available to the general public is staggering. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would suggest censoring the internet so why bash a business that is only trying to stay afloat. If the NYT has a legitimate ‘responsibility’ to inform then bring a suit, otherwise don’t buy their ink- not many people do.

  12. mike roddy says:

    Michael Tucker, #7, you’re right, but it’s not only newspapers. TV stations are mostly owned by major far right corporations and individuals. They’ll throw a bone to global warming once in a while, but it’s on their back burner, as is getting off fossil fuels.

    Jefferson and many others said that without a free press, democracy can’t function. Our press is free only if you have a billion dollars to buy a media company, and hope you’re not drowned out by Viacom, GE, and Newscorp.

  13. paulm says:

    I actually think people are at the stage where they cant see a way out of this mess and are just reverting and rejecting the facts because of this.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    Michael Tucker: Bingo. This is why I’ve been saying for so long that many traditional media outlets have willingly taken on the role of arms merchant: They don’t care which side is right or which one wins, just that the fighting goes on as vigorously and as long as possible. Many media companies are facing horrific economic circumstances right now, so they’re willing to sell arms (and their souls) in order to prop up another year or quarter.

    We can all speculate on how they rationalize this behavior — they’re letting all sides have their say, and they know that they’re not really changing anything, because if the situation gets really bad politicians and voters will do the right thing, anyway. The problem, of course, is that all the lags in the system, from mass awareness of what we’re doing to the planet and therefore to ourselves to taking action on the needed scale to that action having the desired effect, mean that any delay carries with it an almost incalculable cost.

    We always talk about negative externalities and how right now in the US carbon emissions are “free”, so they’re not taken into account when people and organizations make economic decisions, even though they effectively have a high price. I’m beginning to think that the short-term enhancements to the revenue streams of these media companies engaging in arms merchant behavior could be the most expensive thing we’ve “bought” in human history…

  15. Pierre says:

    Adding to comment #7 and #10 – Particular evidence could include the frequent placement of Exxon advertisements over the past year on the front page and Op-Ed pages in the NYT. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to posit that corporate sponsorship just might be influencing NYT editors’ decision-making.

  16. Peter Mizla says:

    If corporate sponsor money is influencing the NYT- then any journalistic integrity they have is near ZERO.

    Of course in the near future when flood waters are lapping at the Times doorstep- it all will be ‘academic’. Right?

  17. Doug Bostrom says:

    Wit’s End says: May 26, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I went through a similar somewhat painful separation from the Washington Post after I found myself halfway through reading a completely absurd opinion piece by Sarah Palin. I suddenly realized I was wasting my time or rather had been lured slowly into being encouraged to waste it, not deriving any benefit whatsoever from editorial value-add in terms of editors helping to steer me to reasonably reliable information. Until that moment WaPo was a daily stop for me, I’ve been on their site perhaps a half-dozen times since then.

    But the WaPo matter was a specific sort of failure, a broken editorial process. More generally the costs of production for print (if we’re prepared to accept something mass produced that we can read as “print”) have fallen so drastically that specialist sites now can help us waste less time ferreting out genuinely useful information on topics we’re interested in. Yet that leaves unaddressed the fixed and largely immutable cost of -gathering- information as opposed to replicating it. Talking Points Memo is perhaps a good example of how a business may organically be built around a specialist topic, exploiting newly cheaper production means and at the same time doing original reporting, ending up with a superior product.

    My sense is that with the end of the capitalization required to construct enormous physical printing plants the dominance of monolithic newspapers such as the NY Times is essentially over. Sort of bittersweet, really; I’m fond of old steamships but of course they’re not very useful anymore, really. Just as with steamships a few examples will probably survive, living on specifically because they’re anachronisms we enjoy keeping.

  18. SecularAnimist says:

    If you watch, listen to, or read the corporate media, you will get corporate propaganda.

    To expect anything else is foolish.

  19. Tim L. says:

    BB (comment *9) – As Joe has well reported here, the National Academy of Sciences has already done just what you suggest a “government council” should do. The NYT has no more credibility than BP. But at least BP doesn’t likely buy their own b.s. or make any pretenses about what they are.

  20. A new global public opinion polls show WORLD public concern has increased (albeit v modestly) since 2007. As reported by Germany’s NPR: http://www.dw-gmf.de/start/5106.php

    My personal take based on extensive travel as an enviro jurno is that folks in Asia, Africa and South America who are experiencing some impacts already are making the link.

  21. FishEagle says:

    I get a sense of Schadenfreude from reading this post, and its comments. In the mainstream media, for years, liberals effectively shut up the conservatives about issues that related to over population/immigration. Suddenly I find the shoe is on the other foot.

    People need time to process bad news, whether it’s about climate change or human development. It has nothing to do with the messenger bringing the bad news, or whether they are left or right.

    We are going to be stuck with the biased reporting about climate change for quite some time to come, judging from the slow progress made regarding human development issues.

  22. christopher yaun says:

    The EAARTH MATTERS

    This NYTimes thing? I suspect we humans are duplicitous (always of two minds).

    No one wants to talk about global warming because it is so damn big and no one has a clue what to do about it. So we pretend it’s not important and we allow ourselves to believe that we are not at fault and the press(and their corporate owners) bury the truth and print the wrong the story.

    But deep down, in our core, in our heart, in our soul we know something is wrong, we know that 90 degree days in May is scary as hell, dead zones in the GOM are wrong, millions of fellow animals are dying in the oil in the GOM, dozens bird species are going extinct, …..

    And I wonder if the NYT were to speak the truth, put it on the front page above the fold, make a bold play, give a big voice to the thousands of scientist that have studied the rapid deterioration of our environment…..

    I wonder if readers would flock to the NYTimes for the truth?

  23. dhogaza says:

    FishEagle says …

    “In the mainstream media, for years, liberals effectively shut up the conservatives about issues that related to over population/immigration.”

    Um, where did you get the idea that ZPG was or is a *conservative* movement, or that liberals haven’t been talking about over population as being a problem? I guess I must’ve been mistaken when I thought I heard conservatives proclaiming that population growth isn’t a problem because free market agriculture will supply infinite quantities of cheap food, etc etc.

  24. John Hollenberg says:

    Re: #4

    > My impression is that the general public is not as skeptical about climate science as they are about the proposed political solutions to the dilemma. Frankly, I didn’t find the political solutions acceptable at all.

    What solution would you find acceptable?

  25. Leif says:

    Christopher Yaun, # 21: I took the liberty of passing your post to Cliff Hoyt, Public Editor at the NY Times.
    It is too good to languish here on CP.

    “I wonder if readers would flock to the NY Times for the truth?”

    Perhaps even re-establish their past relevance and the relevance of journalism in general. Making not only themselves financially whole but helping to save humanity and earth’s life support systems as well.

  26. Wit's End says:

    FishEagle, since when is overpopulation conflated with immigration? Overpopulation is related to education of youth, affordable birth control and access to abortions – last I heard, most conservatives oppose all of those, especially any government funding. I am so confused!

  27. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo and Well Said

    It is amazing to me how often, and deeply (it seems), The New York Times seems to wonder out loud about the public’s understanding or misunderstanding of climate change, and of the seriousness of the matter, without taking a long hard glimpse in the mirror. Amazing.

    The media influence — to a very great degree — what the public knows and thinks. Period. Here, I’m not suggesting a conspiracy or that the media themselves have much of any idea of what they are doing. They apparently don’t have any idea of what they are doing, unfortunately. But, any half-way intelligent person in the media must surely realize (I hope) that the media have a huge influence on public understanding, paradigms, attitudes, and so forth. To wonder about public confusion, apathy, or idleness, or frustration, without considering the media’s own important role in causing all that, is a form of “denialism” that is, in important ways, worse than the other forms of denialism that are blocking clear thinking and progress.

    And of course, it’s not only the “false and misinformed balance” that we all know and love, or rather hate. It’s also many other things … placement, frequency, the quality of titles, and etc. etc. etc. Many of the serious matters aren’t covered at all, and others are covered briefly on Page 18. The front page is only used infrequently. And, as noted, when the front page is used, it’s often used for the very articles that convey the “controversy” and false balance that cause and enable the problems.

    It’s a mess.

    It has gone on for too long, and so many people have written about it, including me, and I’ve called The Times, and I’ve written repeatedly to Andy Revkin, and to Curtis Brainard, and so forth, that the problem can no longer be considered one of “accident” or “oops” or “we didn’t know”. It’s a systemic problem of damaging and incorrect paradigms, and/or of deep negligence, and/or of ethics, and most likely of all three of these. I hope the media can hear: Damaging and incorrect paradigms, deep negligence, and ethical problems. Those are not things to be proud of, or to defend and to perpetuate.

    Anyhow, great post Bob, and I hope that more and more people point out these problems, more and more, until the media change — or until we change the media.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  28. This now standard critique of typical media approach to the climate crisis–that is, subjecting it to opposing statements without factual/scientific analysis–seems fair, though insufficient. It’s a charge made in the run up to the Iraq invasion as well, for instance. This post gives it some powerful support.

    On the New York Times specifically, there seems to be some overreaching, especially in the comments. My impression is that the Times editorials support climate science, aggressive attempts to limit heat-trapping gases, congressional attention to these issues, clean energy, etc. So I don’t think it is some corporate conspiracy.

    My experience writing for the Times occasionally as a freelancer in the distant and recent past is not much help in assessing this, except that they were a lot more worried about expenses recently. What I do reference is the Judith Miller tenure during Iraq, when she was channeling the Bush White House. She has reemerged on Fox News, I understand. What does this suggest? That depending on the power structure in the editorial department, particular reporters can finesse their biases into what seems like journalism.

    I don’t really know the answer to why, except that I don’t have the impression that climate crisis denial is NY Times policy. It isn’t Fox News. But as to the effect, that’s deeply unfortunate, as this post asserts.

  29. Roger says:

    All great points, and you know what IMHO is a really huge shame?

    We make all these comments, month after month, and not enough happens because the main stream electorate is locked in climate confusion.

    Now we’ve got the Gulf gusher, and it is the PERFECT time for an abrupt about face–if only the mislead electorate knew what is at stake. This should be president Obama’s fossil fuel Pearl Harbor.

    Obama could clear up all of the fossil fuel company-generated confusion in less than one damn hour in a really well-written, frank, “State of the Climate” address on national, primetime TV!

    Join with others in asking Obama to educate and lead on climate here: http://www.change.org/global_warming_education_network/petitions/view/obama_please_educate_and_lead_on_climate_change.

    What we NEED is for Obama to LEAD. NOW!

    C’mon, Obama, lead the nation,
    give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    Warm regards,
    Roger

  30. FishEagle says:

    @ BB #9. It’s called dictatorship.

    @hogaza. #22. I didn’t get that idea. Liberals and conservatives have been approaching the same problem and liberals have been trying to resolve population control problems.

    @John Hollenberg #23. Drop the reparations to developing countries. It only serves to boost population numbers in those countries. We have run out of time for improving standards of living in developing countries with aid, reparations, etc. High living standards are associated with low birth rates, which are desirable. But given the deadline we’re given by climate change, it’s unattainable.

    @ Wits End. #25. You sound confused. Conservatives are against big government. And they are certainly not against education of the youth or affordable birth control. Personally, I’m in favor of abortions.