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False Balance Lives At The New York Times

By Joe Romm on March 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm

"False Balance Lives At The New York Times"

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One of the country’s best climate reporters proves once again that false balance is alive and well at even the best papers.

The article in question is “Rising Sea Levels Seen as Threat to Coastal U.S.” by Justin Gillis. It’s on the new Climate Central report whose news release we reposted earlier today. As Gillis explains:

About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.

If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.

This isn’t terribly controversial among climatologists I talk to, though this report appears to be the first to add storm surges to warming-driven sea rise, spell out the danger in every U.S. coastal region and ”estimate the proportion of the national population at risk from the rising sea.”

Gillis quotes the author, of course:

“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”

But Strauss is the only scientist quoted in the article. To ‘balance’ Strauss, the Times quotes one of the top anti-scientist disinformers in the country, Myron Ebell, of the could-not-be-more debunked Competitive Enterprise Institute (see, for instance, “Santer, Jones, and Schneider respond to CEI’s phony attack on the temperature record“).

I’m assuming it’s the New York Times editors who are the ones who are still demanding this nonsensical balance — see Science Times stunner: “… a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity”).

Even so, that’s no excuse for this misleading paragraph:

The rise appears to have accelerated lately, to a rate of about a foot per century, and many scientists expect a further acceleration as the warming of the planet continues. One estimate that communities are starting to use for planning purposes suggests the ocean could rise a foot over the next 40 years, though that calculation is not universally accepted among climate scientists.

The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.

Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group, said that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”

First off, the way this is written, it suggests Ebell is one of “the handful of climate researchers,” which he most certainly is not. He’s just a spokesperson for anti-science disinformation promoted and partially funded by polluters.

Second, why does the New York Times have to publish a full paragraph of the erroneous and questionable beliefs of the tiny fraction of actual climate researchers who don’t accept the broad scientific understanding?

Third, again, why cite only one actual scientist and put him up against a non-scientist disinformer? When Gillis wrote about sea leavel rise in November 2010, he quoted a dozen actual climate and cryo-scientists with only John Christy for ‘balance.’ (see Coastal studies experts: “For coastal management purposes, a [sea level] rise of 7 feet (2 meters) should be utilized for planning major infrastructure”). At least that was closer to the right ratio.

For the record, the one-foot rise over the next 40 years is a projection from a major scientific study by five leading experts, including lead author Eric Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Lab (see “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050“).

Most of the leading experts on sea level rise who have published or spoken about this are now expecting one meter (39 inches) of SLR by 2100 or more if we keep listening to folks like Ebell and do nothing to reduce emissions. Indeed, as Gillis notes in his earlier piece, the two most widely used means of projecting future sea level rise, “yield approximately the same answer: that sea level could rise by 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet between now and 2100. A developing consensus among climate scientists holds that the best estimate is a little over three feet.”

Well, if seas are projected to rise 39 inches in the next 90 years (with much more upside risk than downside), it’s certainly not very controversial that they would rise around 12 inches in the next 40 years. So again, there’s no particular need to counterbalance any of these projections. Indeed, it would have made more sense to talk to an expert who thinks the projection is too low, because if we are headed for 6 1/2 feet by 2100, then one foot by 2050 could be on the low side:

Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”:  Freudenburg: “Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss ‘both sides’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.”

New York Times coverage of climate change has been improving, but they keep falling into the trap of false balance:

They would do well to adopt the NPR ethics handbook, which explicitly targets and rejects false balance

Note:  Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the top figure.

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27 Responses to False Balance Lives At The New York Times

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for the chart, Michael Tobis. Too bad you won’t see it in a newspaper or TV news broadcast.

    Gillis’ bone to Ebell is no slipup. This comes from Sulzberger, who long ago sold out the public service traditions of the Times, and doesn’t much care about truth, either (remember the panic over WMD?). If a whisteblower like Ellsberg showed up there, they would call the police. Revkin, Tierney, and Broder keep feeding the controversy, too, even more reliably than Gillis. It’s all about pleasing key advertisers like Exxon Mobil.

    The Times is beyond hope, and we desperately need a replacement in the form of a new daily online newspaper. We once dreamed that Huffpost would step up, but it has devolved into just another online gossip rag, especially the AOL version.

    It’s time for a new national online newspaper of record. Executive editors should be Romm, Roberts, Kunstler, and Taibbi (who must be sick of working for a magazine that puts bands like Aerosmith and Madonna on the cover). They should hire Krugman and Rich while they’re at it, too. Then, the American people would have a chance to learn the truth.

    There’s money available for a startup here. Some of our wealthy people are also smart, and aware of the challenges we face. Most Americans are currently blocked from seeing the true dangers that figure to hit with full force after it’s too late. Are you listening, Nathan, Sergei, or George?

    • EDpeak says:

      “Executive editors should”

      I have a lot of respect for Romm and others, but unless the economic model broadly, or at the very least the business model changes, it would be corrupted or at least, at the very least, corroded even if Nader, Chomsky, Naomi Klein, etc, or angels from heaven themselves were at the helm. If your funds comes from readers, versus from big-pocket advertisers, that affects what you can do, and even if you think you have nerves of steel and would ignore the advertisers, and still pubish that story, then you still lose a ton of money from that advertiser leaving.

      We need not merely one but a whole array of media that are not for profit, not at the mercy of money from Congress, not listener “supported” but community-OWNED by grassroots coalitions, confederating up to national and global, from smaller local/regional.

      Media is Information

      Information is Power

      Power to the People.

      • Tom King says:

        2.) Boycott those who advertise on compromised media. (EG – Fox, Heartland, WSJ, and perhaps most of the others.)

    • Tom King says:

      1.) Boycott the mainsteam media. A network of blogs is now sufficient to provide people’s information needs.

      • Pete Dunkelberg says:

        Unfortunately a network of blogs is also sufficient to give people their daily disinformation fix.

        • Tom King says:

          Which is no worse than our current situation. Sometimes you just have to put your faith in Darwin.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    The Times doesn’t have a monopoly on this sort of idiocy. Just minutes ago NBC ran a report on this same paper, and their go-to skeptic was (wait for it…) Pat Michaels who said that land is sinking faster than the seas are rising.

    Excuse me, as I suddenly have an uncontrollable urge to go outside and scream until I lose my voice.

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    “Reporters need to learn that, if they wish to discuss ‘both sides’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate “other side” is that, if anything, global climate disruption is likely to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.”

    As Lou suggests it’s very hard to stay calm in the face of the statistical mess Joe highlights. Once we’ve come back indoors from howling into the void, remember to keep repeating Freudenberg’s remarks, preferably in letters to editors. That’s the practical takeaway payload of this piece.

    Thanks Joe!

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “but they keep falling into the trap of false balance”

    The NYT is not “falling into a trap”. Like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and most of the corporate media, the NYT is deliberately and knowingly misinforming its readers on behalf of the fossil fuel corporations (who are the owners of the CEI).

    As for NPR, I look forward to them actually implementing their new “ethics handbook”. As it is, NPR engages in false equivalence every bit as egregious as that of the NYT, and/or simply refuses to mention climate change in their stories about extreme weather, catastrophic drought in Mexico, etc.

    • Sasparilla says:

      Could not take resist taking a swing at ol NPR, even though they had nothing to do with this article, eh SecularAnimist?

      This is the 2nd time in memory that you’ve sarcastically attacked NPR in the comments since they publicly released their new direction to drop fake equivalence in their news broadcasts – something this site has been clamoring to get for I don’t know how long…

      I, for one, welcome NPR’s goal of eliminating false balance in their reporting – it gives us a legitimate tool to publicly bang on them on the head when they fall down on climate change – that is a big change and a good thing – and it’ll probably take some banging on them (which Joe and the rest of us will have to do) before they get it right.

      Nobody else, besides NPR, is doing this (or even thinking of it). Who else in the mainstream media space is going to give us this chance, this tool, in the next decade? Nobody.

      NPR’s public “ethics handbook” is actually a step forward (and a tool for us to use), not something to be tossed into the dumpster of repeated sarcasm before we even get to put it to the test.

      JMHO regarding NPR’s ethics handbook and new direction…

      • SecularAnimist says:

        Sasparilla wrote: “Could not take resist taking a swing at ol NPR, even though they had nothing to do with this article …”

        I mentioned NPR and NPR’s ethics handbook because Joe mentioned them in the final sentence of his article, saying that the NYT would “do well” to adopt the newly released NPR ethics code that “rejects false balance”.

        I am just saying that NPR would “do well” to follow that guideline too. Because based on what I hear on Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day, NPR is still engaging in both “false balance” and in consistently refusing to mention any connection to global warming in their news reports on extreme weather events.

        Is the New York Times better, or worse, than NPR? I don’t really know. But as far as I can tell, neither one of them is doing a remotely adequate or accurate job of informing their audience about the reality of global warming, climate change, and extreme weather events.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Great analysis Joe, I saw this today and was thinking they might get through with a good article till the false balance came, ugh.

    Delivered with just enough confusion to make people think this isn’t settled or may not be happening…

    Just as a point of reference the New York Times gave false balance to the Cigarette Companies way back when (who were obviously big advertisers at the time) regarding stories on lung cancer.

    Standard Operating Procedure for their authors and the paper…

    So frustrating considering what’s at stake…

  6. Lore says:

    NBC Nightly News seems to have the same problem. They did a piece tonight on the high temperatures for this time of year and connecting it to climate change, but they had to throw in Pat Michaels for the last several seconds to give the skeptics point of view. Thank god because it was really worrying me. Another happy ending. Good to know we can still carry on with business as usual.

    http://video.msnbc.msn.com/nightly-news/46739991/

  7. One interesting thing about the issue of sea level rise is that a lot of the uncertainty relates to emissions projections. As soon as you start looking at the path we seem to be on (represented by the MIT scenarios from 2009, for example, with 5 C degrees warming by 2100 and 6 degrees in equilibrium) and combine that with what we know about ice melting rates, you come out with about 1.4 m sea level rise by 2100 (that’s 4.6 feet). Many of the lowball estimates are using scenarios with much lower emissions pathways. For details on the relationship between sea level rise and temperatures see Vermeer, Martin, and Stefan Rahmstorf. 2009. “Global sea level linked to global temperature.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. December 7, 2009. [http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/12/04/0907765106.abstract]. Here’s the MIT study, which Joe has blogged about many times before (there are multiple reports, but here’s a key one to get the big story): Sokolov, A.P., P.H. Stone, C.E. Forest, R. Prinn, M.C. Sarofim, M. Webster, S. Paltsev, C.A. Schlosser, D. Kicklighter, S. Dutkiewicz, J. Reilly, C. Wang, B. Felzer, J. Melillo, and H.D. Jacoby. 2009. Probabilistic Forecast for 21st Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (without Policy) and Climate Parameters. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change. 169. January. [http://globalchange.mit.edu/files/document/MITJPSPGC_Rpt169.pdf]

  8. Well, Ray Suarez at PBS Newshour was a bit better, though he still quoted Ebel. Most of the segment was conversation with Strauss and the close was to give Strauss the opportunity to rebut Ebel.

    Watch it here: http://tinyurl.com/74sdd89

  9. Sarsaparilla says:

    Joe, I forgot to say that graphic is awesome (& sad) – practically screaming for a t-shirt.

    • A.J. says:

      Not a bad chart, but it’d be interesting to see how it evolves as the years pass with little action. Clearly this is an evolving situation in every way but global-scale decarbonization.

  10. caerbannog says:

    OT but worth spreading around.

    It turns out that the “most helpful” 1-star (negative) review of Michael Mann’s new book at Amazon was written by a “9/11-truther” — linky here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2Z9NJVEA0L1D1/ref=cm_cd_pg_oldest?ie=UTF8&cdForum=FxULZQNJUEUJD9&cdPage=1&asin=B0072N4U6S&store=digital-text&cdSort=newest&cdThread=Tx31HE8JDCITSF3#wasThisHelpful

  11. Bill Reiswig says:

    I don’t post here frequently, but I read this blog on a weekly basis, and that graphic I gotta say…. Is awesome. A perfect summary of the media’s framing of the problems we face when they bother to frame them at all. And this is the NYTimes mind you… which is supposed to get the story right.

    The only problem with the graphic is that it treats the height of the denialist camp on the same axis as that of the scientific community, when in fact we’re comparing apples and oranges when you compare their projections. One is formed as propoganda or ideology, and the other is (for the most part) based on observation and tested models.

  12. Andy says:

    A sea level rise story I hear little about is how our National Wildlife Refuge system is incredibly vulnerable to even slight (one foot) rises in sea level. Over a million acres (I haven’t figured the exact amount and it maybe millions of acres dependent upon some of the Alaska refuges I’m unfamiliar with) of our national wildlife refuge land is composed of coastal marshes that are less than one meter above sea level. These are lands built from sediment accumulation during the last 6,000 years of relatively stable sea levels. They don’t just move inland with the rising seas. They are already suffering under 1′ of rise. Additional coastal lands are within the National Park system including many barrier islands which are extremely sensitive to sea level rise.

    A meter of sea level rise will erase much if not most of these conservation and recreation lands.

  13. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    False balance between incredibly conservative science and utter bull.

    The science is conservative because:

    Gamma; The proportion of emitted greenhouse gases taken up by the natural system will change and eventually the natural systems will become a net source. However as we do not know when and by how much, we assume no change.

    The permafrost is melting and will release CO2 and CH4. Because we do not know how much will be methane we assume none, where we take it into account at all.

    When we stop polluting the skies will clear and after about six months we will get the full force of the CO2 we have added already. None of the models appear to show a jump before levelling off.

    There is a divergence between when PIOMAS says the summer sea ice will be gone and where extent trends say the ice will be gone. Unless PIOMAS is way out, there would appear no way for the Arctic not to have an ice free period after decades end. True extent is more accurately measured than volume, but we do know the ice is thinning.

    There are so many unknowns about how ice sheets disintegrate.

    Climate models have been tested against changes in the past. But climate sensitivity appears to be much greater on a temperature upswing. Also consider how very gentle the Milankovitch cycles must be yet that is enough to swing us in and out of ice ages.

    Finally, we have changed the forcing well over an order of magnitude faster than anything in the paleo record and yet we expect changes to be slower.

    Science will in time fill in the blanks put numbers to what I cannot refine those numbers and come up with new answers. Do not expect the news to be good.

    Forget an Eemian type climate, we will blow through that like a whistle stop.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Good post, Rabid. Write an article about it sometime with links, so we can use it as a reference.

  14. Don says:

    Effective journalism should pursue credible information. It should rely on authorities in a given field. Trying to “force” balance where it actually doesn’t exist among authorities in a field due to a general consensus on certain issues by seeking comments from outsiders who have little or nothing to do with the field only sacrifices credibility. The CEI policy analyst should not have been quoted on a matter of science. CEI is a policy institute with a mission that does not concern science. Its mission seeks to advance “the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.” That’s a political and economic framework. It is not a scientific one. Mr. Ebell lacks the education and background to comment with any kind of credibility on the climate models.

  15. Chris Winter says:

    To the best of my recollection, this is what Michaels said at the end of the video: “The sea level rise from oceans warming is less than the sea level rise from land sinking, and we can’t stop it.”

    First, there’s the element of positioning. Michaels spoke last, giving just one simple sentence that’s likely to stick in the mind. I remember my high-school English teacher pointing out how clever Shakespeare was in having Mark Anthony speak after Brutus at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar. Mark Anthony’s words were what the crowd remembered. Thus the plot was impelled forward.

    Second, there’s the meaning of the words themselves. It’s classic misdirection: “Look, the land is sinking! No reason to worry about sea level rising due to global warming therefore.”

    Let me say this about that.

    A. No specifics on this land sinking are provided. Where is it sinking? By how much? As far as I know, aside from Venice and New Orleans, there’s not a whole lot of sinkin’ goin’ on.

    B. The referent of Michaels’ statement, “and we can’t stop it” is vague. Is he talking about land sinking or seas rising?

    C. If the land is sinking while the sea is rising, the fact that we can’t stop one cause of flooding doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother about the other.

  16. Mark says:

    where can I buy the Tshirt with this graphic?