In a column for USA Today on Tuesday, Jonah Goldberg argued that the mainstream press hasn’t given enough attention to thousands of e-mails hacked from a British climate research center two weeks ago and published on the Internet.
The e-mails, hacked from servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit by an unknown perpetrator, were authored by a group of prominent American and British climate scientists. They contain discussions about how and when to present and release climate data and how to combat climate skeptics, among other matters. Critics say they demonstrate leading climatologists’ willingness to manipulate and suppress data and dissenting research about the nature and causes of global climate change.
The wide spectrum of commentary has ranged from assertions that the e-mails completely disprove the theory of human-caused global warming to claims that they are much ado about nothing. Neither of these extreme positions is true, of course, but there has been more nuanced coverage and commentary as well. Most of it, good and bad, has taken place online.
Goldberg argued that the lack of mainstream media attention (he acknowledged a robust online debate) to the affair is just as much “a scandal” as the e-mails themselves. The reason, he says, is “journalistic tribalism” and “ideological bias” that have led reporters to uncritically accept the proclamations of scientists. While Goldberg is overreaching slightly, his point has merit and deserves exploration.
Ranked in descending order of articles published, “ClimateGate,” as it’s been dubbed, was covered in the news and opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal,The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. The Journal alone pumped out well over a dozen articles (including a humor column) in print and online, most of them pushing the argument that the e-mails signify major flaws (both scientific and political) in climate science.
Regional papers, all but stripped of their science reporters over the last few years, have obviously had trouble keeping up, and they haven’t received much help from fairly superficial Associated Press and Reuters articles. Internet searches found only three regional papers – the Kansas City Star, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Orange County Register - that have weighed in with editorials (the first two defending the integrity of the science, the latter questioning it). According to the Business & Media Institute, the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs have yet to cover the story. From the little I’ve managed to catch elsewhere, TV news has been unsurprisingly shallow—this type of story just doesn’t lend itself to two-minute explanations. Bud Ward, at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, was right to advise early on that journalists should not jump to conclusions.
There are a couple of logistical reasons that may help explain why the mainstream press has not exactly risen to the occasion. The first problem for reporters was the sheer size of the cache—I doubt that many journalists had time to comb through all of the e-mails (most of which, it seems, are quite mundane) before being asked to write about the most controversial lines being picked out by critics and climate-change skeptics. I certainly haven’t. The second major problem is that there are quite a few controversial lines. Figuring out and explaining each and every one of them in a single article is damn near impossible.
However, that is exactly what’s called for—over the course of the coverage, at least—and the press still hasn’t lived up to its responsibilities. With national and international policy on the line, this story deserves more and better coverage. To assess what it has done well and poorly so far, it’s useful to group criticism of the e-mails into two categories: what they say about the science of climate science, and what they say about the politics of climate science.
As Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, wrote Wednesday for The Wall Street Journal—in one of the most sage assessments of the situation yet published—the inability to “disentangle” climate science and climate politics is imperiling both.
The Science of Climate Science
In the science category, there have been four major points of contention covered by major newspapers and Web sites: