It’s not that Romm’s criticisms are always off the mark (as I’ll discuss in a moment). But the tenor of his posts and the conversations he inspires frequently verge of the same kind of fantastical accusations that the “other side” made famous. Take Romm’s colleague at the Center for American Progress, Brad Johnson, who left the following comment below the Citizen Kane Award post:
The interesting question, of course, is to understand *why* the journalism is so bad. For the explicit propaganda organs (FoxNews, Watts) it’s easy to understand — they have a partisan, pro-pollution agenda. But NYT and BBC don’t. They demonstrate the influence of the less visible efforts of the propaganda campaign against climate science — particularly the influence of economists, for whom global warming doesn’t exist, or even for ones like Stern and Krugman, the damages are entirely manageable even under catastrophic scenarios.
There’s also the enviro-journalist cabal that have complicated reasons for muddying the science, that reflect decades of being manipulated by propagandists.
Like Romm, Johnson does dish out constructive media criticism from time to time, but the business about a “cabal” is just nonsense. Moreover, the arguments from Revkin and Yulsman, who started covering climate change at the same publication in the early 1980s, are by no means exculpations of journalism’s foibles and flaws.
“It might be tempting to conclude that since we’re catching hell from both sides, on balance we’re probably getting it about right,” Yulsman wrote. “But I think the topic is too overwhelmingly complex, and there are too many people covering the issue in myriad ways (daily reporters, magazine writers, bloggers, documentarians, even formerly ink-stained-wretch academics like me), to make such a sweeping generalization.”
Indeed it is, which is why it’s been nice to see a few recent studies taking a closer look at climate coverage in order to determine exactly what is and isn’t a problem.
The most recent is a paper in Environmental Research Letters by researchers at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, including Boykoff. The team looked at how projections of rising sea levels—in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Assessment Reports and a sample of the scientific literature—were represented in 214 articles published in seven prominent United States and United Kingdom newspapers between 1989 and 2009. The answer: “with few exceptions accurately.”
The value of such studies, which focus on a specific dimension of climate coverage, is that they get past the meaningless, broad-brush criticism permeating the blogosphere and help to identify where the problems truly lie. Last May, for instance, a paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change by William Freudenburg—a professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who passed away in December—charged that despite evidence to the contrary:
The U.S. mass media, reflecting in part the insistent arguments from a committed set of conservative think tanks, have tended for many years to report that “real” problems of global climate disruption might be less significant than indicated by consensus assessments such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But where in the mass media was this sanguine coverage coming from? Not from the stories about new scientific findings, the analysis found. Those stories tend to be treated as matters of pure science, quoting only scientists, and written by well-trained science journalists. By a margin of more than twenty-to-one, the 137 articles about new findings indicated the observed effects and implications of climate change were worse than was thought, rather than better. That fits with other recent analyses of the scientific literature, such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2009 Climate Change Compendium, which found that new research tended to show climate disruption was, or would be, more severe than expected in previous scientific consensus statements.