Given that there has been no serious dispute about the reality of anthropogenic climate change for at least 15 years how are we to understand the ongoing media presentation of climate science as uncertain? Granted it has toned down from even a year ago, but it still goes on; why?
I suggest at least three reasons: lack of resources, naivete and intent.
Lets start with conceding that in too many cases it is simply that understaffed and overworked newsrooms toss whatever they can into the blank space or dead air. Uninformed and overwhelmed they see a wire story on climate change that seems topical and controversial, so in it goes without much thought and certainly no fact checking.
The same understaffing often means that too few journalists cover too many “beats”. As a consequence they rarely know enough about the topic to assess whether the story is approximately accurate or flagrant nonsense.
Fine, so much for the understandable, if not entirely excusable reasons. So far I have referred to journalists who just pick up a story and run it more or less as is. The fact remains that in many cases they do substantial rewriting to create a story that bears little resemblance to the truth.
Our first hurdle is the myth of objectivity. We are told that it is the journalist’s obligation to present both sides of the story. Ahh, of course. So that is why whenever there is a story on racism or domestic violence they interview advocates of these practices as well. Crime stories are invariably fair and balanced with a presentation of the reasons there should be crime, or at least a particular type of crime, and so on.
In other words the decision that there even are two legitimate sides to a story is a subjective one. Now of course many issues do have many facets to them and where there is reasonable doubt those various perspectives should be explored fully (like that ever happens). But as Oreskes demonstrated there is no reasonable doubt about climate change, so why?
Let’s look back at the Lord Nelson Captain Cook story I discussed in my last blog. Wheeler notes that the original story was approximately accurate, but that many media outlets rewrote the story and “worse was the brazen way they distorted our work.” He goes on to say “Not a single one of the journalists from any other newspaper contacted us to see if their take on the story was correct.”
Of course they didn’t. He would have just told them they were wrong, and that is not what they wanted to hear. The original story was accurate so they already knew their distortion was a distortion. We are not talking about error here, it is deliberate fabrication.
Of course we must not forget that the bottom line with media is sales, not truth (or accuracy). Stories of scientific certainty are only interesting once, controversy is eternally newsworthy. In that spirit we get the occasional sensationalism about climate change as well, like the overblown story this past year on the disappearing Arctic Cap.
Controversy may be newsworthy, but so is impending disaster. There is more than enough that is sensationalism to the actual facts of climate change to excite anyone. As Australia’s agriculture minister Tony Burke said of their latest climate scenarios “these high-level projections read more like a disaster novel.” So no, it is not newsworthiness that is the basis of the decision to perpetuate the climate controversy.
Let’s look at the way the media covered the Monckton / APS story. For those who do not know it; the American Physical Union is the second largest and one of the most respected scientific associations in the world. In July one of it’s associate newsletters, through an unfortunate series of screw ups, published a paper by the notorious Denier Christopher Monckton. This was put out to the media as I) peer reviewed science (it wasn’t, the thing is a pathetic collection of errors and nonsense) and ii) published because the APS had reversed it stance on climate change.
That would be a HUGE story. One of the largest and most respected scientific organizations on the planet reverses it stance on climate change? Big! Yet we are asked to believe that a story as big as this would not have warranted a call to the APS to get an interview or a quote? Or at least to check the APS website? Apparently (for example) The Washington Times has no long distance plan or high speed connection? Bullshit! One can only conclude that they chose not to check because they knew that the story was false.
Or how about all of the interviews with professional Deniers like Tim Ball. Ball frequently identifies himself as having been with the Dept of Climatology, University of Winnipeg, with a degree in Climatology and having been Canada’s first climatologist
He was a geographer, the University of Winnipeg never had a Dept of Climatology, St Mary’s College University of London never offered PhD degrees in Climatology, and apparently he also used to identify himself as Emeritus until the University of Winnipeg threatened to sue him if he did not stop.
We get the same with people like Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels, David Evans, etc ad nauseum, who in most cases are employed by industry funded “think tanks” (see also sidebar “The “Skeptics”: Who Are They?”.
Are we told these trivial little details? No, the Denier is presented as a credible and legitimate scientist. Did the journalist not know? How could they not? It’s all over the internet. OK, in some cases it may just be shoddy journalism, but in other cases it is not; it is a deliberate choice to present an obvious fraud as if he were a credible source.
Or the Paul Johnson piece in Forbes. You need know nothing of climate science to see it is nonsense. The errors in logic alone should have had any editor (assuming a rational adult) throwing up her hands in horror. Yet it was published.
And finally there are the journalist Deniers. People like Christopher Brooker with The Daily Telegraph, Lawrence Solomon at The National Post and Financial Post, and Andrew Bolt at The Australian and The Herald Sun. If you read their work it is the same Denier nonsense you find at Newsbusters or Junkscience, all of it repeatedly debunked (see the links in the sidebar “Debunking Denier Nonsense”).
How does this go on? One could see one or two stories like this coming out of a publication or network, but surely pretty soon the senior editors are made aware that it’s all crap, yet it goes on. Sure they masquerade as opinion pieces like this one by Brooker flogging the pathetic “Climate Cooling” story, but why publslish such opinions at all? Why climate denial?
It goes on because they want it to. They rewrite the stories and distort the facts with reasonable consistency to undermine climate science, Denier paranoia about main stream media notwithstanding.
Actually I agree with the Deniers on this one, there should be a lot more reporting about the skeptics. The media should report truthfully and accurately who they are, who funds them, describe their utter lack of evidence or facts, and so on. You know, real journalism. Yet again, we rarely see these stories, why not?
Conscious or not, whether by perversity or practice, the popular media operates more as a source of Denierism than accurate reporting of the facts … and has been doing so for over 15 years. Now I would love to see a serious piece of investigative journalism about that story!
UPDATE: Fools seldom differ? This today from Monbiot The Patron Saint of Charlatans: How does Christopher Booker get away with it?
“So what can you say about a man who makes the same mistake 38 times? Who, when confronted by a mountain of evidence demonstrating that his informant is a charlatan convicted under the Trade Descriptions Act, continues to repeat his claims? Who elevates the untested claims of bloggers above peer-reviewed papers? Who sticks to his path through a blizzard of facts? What should we deduce about the Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Christopher Booker?” Read the rest