In its June issue, Wired dedicated its cover story to the “inconvenient truths about global warming,” taking conventionally unconventional looks at ten strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The feature aimed to turn tenets of modern environmentalism on their heads by declaring that “A/C is OK; organics are not the answer; and carbon trading doesn’t work.” It also urged readers to “accept genetic engineering; buy used cars, not hybrids; and embrace nuclear power.”
Whether or not Wired’s analysis is correct, it goes to show that reporting on climate-related issues is constantly frustrated by inconsistencies such as emissions balance sheets. What is green one day is gross the next, corn ethanol being the perfect example. So as much as The Observatory loathes the abuse of this phrase, we had to ask ourselves this: What are the “inconvenient truths” about environmental journalism? We came up with a five-point list, then fact checked it with Tim Wheeler, the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Here’s what we compiled.
1) It Ain’t Sports Writing: A reporter covering, say, baseball doesn’t have to define a home run in every article, but a reporter covering climate almost always has to remind readers what greenhouse gases are. That chews up space—especially in traditional print publications where physical restrictions can chop a nuanced, thirty-six-inch piece into an oversimplified, ten-inch disservice to readers. In fact, Wired’s decision to break up its cover story into 200-word blurbs is an example of such foreshortening, and all the more perplexing for being voluntary. One of the scientists at RealClimate.org pilloried the “witless” approach, calling the work a series of “Incongruent Truths.”
Wheeler adds: “I’d add to the ‘simplistic’ category: the never-ending search by some editors (and reporters) for “bad guys” or villains to explain environmental problems.”
2) Deadlines Lead to Dead Ends: Sensationalism hits the echo chamber long before nuance does. Deadline pressure can lead editors to push through a story with a sexy hook like the imminent danger of chemicals in the water supply, without discussion of how little we know about environmental chemical exposure. Generally, reporters find such hooks in the latest batch of peer-reviewed journal articles, some of which are much less important than toxins in drinking water. America’s rash of python stories (“New Threat to Our Way of Life”) and run-of-the-mill earthquake scares (“Huge state quake predicted in next 30 years”) both qualify.
Wheeler adds: “[#1 and #2 are] some of the biggest chronic struggles environmental journalists have, at least those of us in traditional media.”
3) One Paper Does Not Consensus Make: Scientific papers are journalistic catnip, especially when they appear to contradict dogma. Consequently, we’ve seen the advent of what New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin calls “whiplash journalism,” with the mass media oscillating from one optimistic report to the next dire one in a “new hope” or “no hope” story paradigm. The back-and-forth over anthropogenic climate change and its relation to hurricane frequency and intensity is a good example. Model-based predictions of “more hurricanes” and “fewer hurricanes” appear in the press every year—compare recent scientific declarations like “New MIT study validates hurricane prediction - Provides confirmation that climate change intensifies storms” with headlines that appeared a year ago, such as, “Study: Global warming may diminish Atlantic hurricane activity.”
Wheeler adds: “Another bugaboo is a lack of a sense of history—an increasing problem as the institutional memory of journalism fades with the winnowing out of older reporters and editors. Also, too often we feel pressure to put a new face on an old problem, to act like we’ve just discovered it. That helps sell it to jaded editors, but it does our readers and the public a disservice.”
4) Sources Are People Too: Beware the tyranny of the great quote. Be aware that some scientists will never talk about policy, while other scientists won’t stop talking about it. For example, after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report last year, NOAA scientist Susan Solomon unequivocally rejected policy prescriptions. NASA’s Jim Hansen, on the other hand, has long advocated a moratorium on coal-fired power plants that don’t sequester carbon, and he has found his way back into the news recently with calls for a “cap and dividend” emissions reduction scheme. Beyond policy, some silver-tongued scientists are always good for a headline; take James Lovelock, who recently told Britain’s The Guardian, “Enjoy life while you can.”
Wheeler adds: “It’s hard to resist ‘money quotes,’ since they help get your story on page one. But responsible journalism means going beyond the snappy, extreme position to quote the most credible one, or at least concluding the story with it.