ABC’s veteran journalist Bill Blakemore offers his explanation for this dismaying trend in an excellent Nature’s Edge Notebook column, “The Elephant We’re All Inside: Junk Journalism on Climate, or Too Big to Cover”:
A number of the world’s professional climate scientists are perplexed by — and in some cases furious with — American news directors.
“Malpractice!” is typical of the charges this reporter has heard highly respected climate experts level — privately, off the record — at my professional colleagues over the past few years.
Complaints include what seems to the scientists a willful omission of overwhelming evidence the new droughts and floods are worsened by man made global warming, and unquestioning repetition, gullible at best, of transparent anti-science propaganda credibly reported to be funded by fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation allies.
As scientific reports about the speedy advance and devastating impacts of man made global warming have grown steadily more alarming, surveys have shown most mainstream American news organizations covering it less and less over the past two years.
Even during this hot summer, when inescapable bad news about the warming climate from around the United States and the world has forced its way into main stream media coverage, it has usually been reported only in a reactive and literal event-coverage sort of way.
There’s been little of the persistent probing analysis and regular coverage scientists say is urgently needed for a grave planet-wide crisis — reporting of the kind surveys show there was much more of in mainstream coverage up until two years ago.
Why this decline in persistent coverage?
I have discussed why social scientists believe this is happening (here). I’ve posted an explanation from a top foreign journalist (see Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage: For 2011, BBC has “explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say’ ”). And I’ve offered my own explanation (see “What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?”).
Blakemore offers two basic explanations — “a cynical disinformation and intimidation campaign” and “unprecedented scale and complexity of the crisis of manmade global warming.” Let’s start with the first:
Elements that have stalled American coverage appear to include a cynical disinformation and intimidation campaign — as reported in detail by a handful of professional journalists and academics including Steve Coll, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, and Ross Gelbspan (as we’ve reported before on Nature’s Edge) paid for, so the reporting says, by multinational fossil fuel companies, often based in the United States, that are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent inevitable regulation on carbon emissions as long as possible.
A number of climate scientists have told this reporter they agree with those, including NASA scientist James Hansen, who charge fossil fuel CEOs are thus guilty of a “crime against humanity,” given the calamity that unregulated greenhouse emissions are quickly bringing on.
… it is not our job as professional journalists to let the parties in a story determine how we frame it.Our job includes making sure that they don’t.
And when we perceive that parties in a story are trying to fool us into accepting their definition of terms and their framing of the argument, it is also our job to report on those efforts to control the debate, if those efforts seem somehow newsworthy.
Award-winning journalist Eric Pooley made a similar point in 2009 Harvard study on how the press bungles its coverage of climate economics: “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”
Blakemore focuses more of his piece on his second explanation:
But there’s another aspect of the global warming story that is challenging and upsetting everyone — fossil fuel CEOs, environmental activists, presidents, high school teachers, their students, bus drivers, economists, cartoonists, chefs, Kansas wheat farmers and Chinese rice farmers, MIT philosophers, amateur chess players… and political strategists in every party.
That aspect is its scale.
At this point in reporting this story, this reporter feels it may be helpful to simply stop for a moment and focus briefly on this one, most obvious and unprecedented aspect of this story.
It may be psychologically helpful simply to name it — to recognize the full size and complexity of this problem.
One reason — though not an excuse — for journalistic hesitation on this story may well have been that, in its unprecedented immensity, it is simply so psychologically daunting.
This reporter would respectfully suggest that any reporter who hasn’t felt this hasn’t been paying attention.
And there is still hardly a day, after eight years covering it, that I don’t find myself being pulled once again back out of natural, even healthy, denial about it.
Psychologists Charles B. Strozier and Robert J. Lifton report finding what they call a sort of pragmatic “professional numbing” in several professions that deal with traumatic or frightening events or information.
The subject is undeniably daunting. And wanting to avoid thinking about it is a perfectly understandable response. It would just have the same outcome as if a 2-pack-a-day smoker diagnosed with early-stage emphysema dealt with the problem by ignoring it.
How does Blakemore suggest the media respond?
And how do professional journalists deal with something so big — once we see the size?
Simple. By doing what we’ve been doing.
We just keep at it, and start to figure it out.
We keep coming back again and again, until we get it right, or at least better.
The very word “Journalism” implies that’s what we do:
Jour is the French word for day… implying daily — or some form of regularly repeated service such as a regular deadline reliably met.
We try to get a fix on whatever new psychological barriers the latest story has presented to us and to our news directors, much less to our readers and viewers.
An excellent college professor (Tom T. Tashiro) told this future reporter and his classmates that “All genuine learning is frightening. It’s new, and therefore unknown, at first, and we’re naturally frightened of the unknown.”
It’s much the same with a truly new story — what we mean by real “news.”
Any big new story worth its salt always has new psychological barriers, by definition.
Manmade global warming appears, so far, to have the biggest of all.