Hacked E-mails and “Journalistic Tribalism”

Climate coverage is imperfect, but is it ideologically biased?

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:

1) A comment by Phil Jones, the director of East Anglia’s Climate Reach Unit (whose decision to step down temporarily has drawn fairly wide coverage), that he had used a “trick” to hide a decline in temperatures. This has probably been the most cited and best-explained point of criticism in the media. Basically, in a reconstruction of twentieth-century temperatures Jones grafted instrumental temperature records onto proxy temperature records based on tree rings, because at a certain point in time, those records became unreliable. Why the later tree-ring data are faulty isn’t understood, but a key point here for journalists is that there are many other lines of evidence that support a rise in temperatures during the latter half of the twentieth century. [Update: Please see the comments section for a more thorough explanation of Jones’s “trick” and the data behind it.]

This “trick”—perhaps better described as a “solution”—was explained in the scientific literature at the time, and there seems to be nothing nefarious about it. Many reporters explained the story in more detail than I have here. Those that didn’t misled their readers. The New York Times’s John Tierney explained the “trick” well enough, but still argued that when the final temperature graph was presented, policymakers and journalists “wouldn’t have realized” how it had been constructed. That may have been the case, but hopefully it wasn’t. Few reporters if any seem to have covered the “trick” (or “divergence problem,” as it is known to scientists) at the time, but one can hardly have expected them to if they understood and accepted the scientists’ rationale. But Tierney is right—journalists should always learn exactly how such graphs were constructed before reporting.

2) A comment in which Kevin Trenberth, the head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, called scientists’ inability to account for a lack of recent warming as a “travesty.” This is perhaps the second most cited criticism in the science category, though it has not been as well or as consistently explained as the “trick.” Basically, Trenberth was expressing frustration with researchers’ poor ability (pdf) to track short-term natural variability within the climate system. As we explained in a recent column, natural variability (e.g., cool weather) drowns out the signal from human-caused climate change, which becomes clear on longer timescales. The fact that scientists don’t have a handle on the former doesn’t mean they don’t on the latter. Journalists haven’t done a great job explaining this in the wake of the hacked e-mails, but a few have done better in recent years while addressing ongoing claims that “global warming stopped in 1998.”

3) A comment by Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State’s Department of Meteorology, that “it would be nice to contain” the Medieval Warm Period in a millennial temperature reconstruction. George Will latched onto this on ABC News’s This Week, where he had the scientist saying it would be nice to “hide” the warm period (which some scientists think had higher temperatures than we are experiencing now, but without the presence of human-generated greenhouse gases). The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania was one of the very few outlets to ask the scientist who the made the comment what he meant. Mann said that the word “contain” reflected his desire to identify exactly when the warm period began, rather than to deny its existence. This seems to be a reasonable explanation, but it would be nice to see more reporters fleshing it out and seeking other input about the statement’s significance.

4) The log of Ian (Harry) Harris, a computer expert at East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, expressing frustrations with attempts to reconcile disparate climate data from around the globe. This one has come up only briefly in the mainstream press. NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt—who has been a key source for the media over the last two week and posted a couple methodical explanations such as this one at RealClimate.org—explained the log this way: “Anyone who has ever worked on constructing a database from dozens of individual, sometimes contradictory and inconsistently formatted datasets will share his evident frustration with how tedious that can be.” But it appears no reporter has yet contacted Harris himself.

There are perhaps half a dozen other science-related points of criticism in the e-mails, which have been discussed in blogs and in comments sections, but haven’t received much attention in the mainstream press; I haven’t had chance to look over them sufficiently to comment here. At this point, however, there doesn’t seem to be anything that undercuts the fundamental science indicating that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the globe.

At the very least, a number of people on both sides of the debate—from Judith Curry, who studies the relationship between climate and hurricanes at Georgia Tech, to Pat Michaels, who has often questioned the certainty of climate science—seem to agree that these e-mails don’t reveal any substantial problem with the science, but rather with some of the politics and procedures within a competitive field of research. Though the public deserves a full airing of all the issues raised by the e-mails, this seems to be the half of the equation that warrants more investigation on the part of journalists.

The Politics of Climate Science

In the politics category there have been three major points of contention covered in depth by major newspapers and Web sites:

1) Charges that University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has attempted to shield raw data from critics. The university has responded by saying that it is difficult to store that data over the course of decades, especially for older records, and that it is not allowed to release much of the raw data from meteorological agencies from around the world without their permission. The press has done a fair job explaining this, though it hasn’t been a major focus of the coverage. It is not a new problem, either, and the university seems to be taking adequate steps to improve transparency by recovering and releasing the raw data.

2) Discussion among a group of scientists about deleting e-mails and files in order to deny critics access through freedom of information laws. This has been a major point in the press coverage. There has been almost universal condemnation of the statements, although it isn’t clear that any e-mails or files were actually deleted. The mere suggestion is unethical, however, and the act, if carried out, could prove illegal. We should definitely hear more from the press on this point, but it is likely that reporters will have to wait for conclusions of pending investigations at East Anglia and Penn State, as well as a Congressional investigation in the U.S.

3) Charges that a group of scientists conspired to block the publication of dissenting research in peer-reviewed journals and boycott those journals that do publish dissenting research. In the e-mails, East Anglia’s Phil Jones suggests that the group “redefine what peer-review is” and speaks of a “troublesome editor” at the journal Climate Research. This has also been a major focus in the media, but the press has done an incomplete job of explaining or investigating it.

The e-mails date back to an episode in 2003 in which a controversial paper arguing the twentieth century wasn’t the warmest in the last thousand years was published in the journal Climate Research. Five editors—including editor-in-chief Hans von Storch—resigned soon thereafter, citing a breakdown in the review process that failed to catch severe methodological flaws in the paper and inadequate steps to address those flaws after publication. The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin was one of only a few reporters to cover the resignations at the time. RealClimate.org and others have offered the story as evidence that the scientists in the e-mails were talking about restoring the integrity of the peer-review process rather than undermining it. Few articles have explained this side of the story, and fewer still have reported it further.

Only The Wall Street Journal seems to have interviewed von Storch, who told its reporters that while peer-review had indeed broken down in 2003, the “gatekeeping” discussed in the e-mails “violated a fundamental principle of science.” Journalists must be careful, however. The Journal article quoting von Storch reported that the e-mails showed the authors “sought” to block the publications of dissenting research. The past tense of that verb, which a few other outlets have employed, implies that they actually tried to carry out the plan. If that is the case, more detail is needed, but at this point, it seems they merely discussed it. Again, it is the job of journalists to find out and report exactly what did, and did not, happen.

There are probably other allegedly damning e-mails in the politics category, but I haven’t had enough time to thoroughly search them or other online conversations. Certainly, though, this is an area that the press should be fleshing out more aggressively.

Tribalism and Ideological Bias

What to make of all this? Again, there are many unanswered questions about these e-mails, and journalists could be doing more to answer them. But when it comes to tribalism, there are many in the press—from George Monbiot at the Guardian to Clive Crook at Atlantic.com—who quickly demanded formal investigations. And they got their wish. With White House science advisors being “grilled” over the issue, according to the Associated Press, this story is not going away.

When Goldberg wrote about “journalistic tribalism” for USA Today, however, he seemed to be discussing climate coverage writ large. So, are journalists guilty of ideological bias? Well, let’s start with veteran New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin, since Goldberg singled him out for squelching information by declining to publish the hacked e-mails. (This is a weak line of argument for a number of reasons: the size of the cache of e-mails makes publishing them in a coherent fashion difficult; Revkin provided clear links to places where they could be found; and he quoted most of the relevant—i.e., controversial—sections.)

Among the hacked e-mails was one from Michael Mann advising Phil Jones to “be a bit careful about what information you send to Andy and what emails you copy him in on. He’s not as predictable as we’d like.” That statement seems to offer strong evidence against ideological bias, as does the fact that Revkin has published many articles warning journalists against “yelling fire on a hot planet” and succumbing to the tyranny of the “front-page thought.” Nonetheless, in an interview on Wednesday, Revkin conceded that it is sometimes difficult to avoid bad habits. “It takes discipline to sustain the efforts that are necessary to avoid missteps,” he said.

As with business and political reporting, there is a tendency for science journalists to become too reliant on and close to a limited number of sources, which can lead to ideological bias in terms of accepting the sources’ statements uncritically. But there are other factors to consider. Journalists often fall into the role of “stenographer,” as Revkin put it, not because they are biased, but rather because they don’t have the training, time, or resources to conduct thorough investigations. In addition, the mainstream media tends to abhor complicated stories on areas of scientific uncertainty about the causes and consequences of climate change. This tendency is not exclusive to science reporting—most editors tend to prefer distilled and simple “news bites.”

The consequences, as Mike Hulme put it in his excellent essay for The Wall Street Journal, are false narratives: “Either the evidence for man-made climate change is all fake, or else we are so sure we know how the planet works that we can claim to have just five or whatever years to save it.” These polarizing storylines contribute to the politicization of science and foster the “circle the wagons” approach that many saw in the hacked e-mails.

One of the biggest mistakes reporters have made in the coverage of “Climategate” is to assume that the questionable actions of a few climate scientists are common practice within the scientific community. Nonetheless, this is a good opportunity for reporters to ask tough questions and provide needed explanations. Take, for example, Rajendra Pachauri. The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quickly assured the media that integrity of his organization’s peer-review process and conclusions were intact and could not be hijacked by a small group of scientists (stressing, again, that there was no evidence such an attempt was made). But the articles that quoted Pachauri didn’t go into much detail on the IPCC process.

Among the most interesting pieces of reporting over the last two weeks was a series of interviews by The Washington Post’s Andrew Freedman at the Capital Weather Gang blog. He was one of the few reporters to seek out more commentary and post at length on the research assessment processes at IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences, which has also vouched for the evidence of anthropogenic warming. Climatologist Thomas Crowley, who served as a chapter reviewer for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, detailed the arduous review process for Freedman. “There is no need to do anything different by the scientists – they are doing their part with incredible conscientiousness and thoroughness,” he argued. “The only problem is that the press has not reported on this methodology.”

Crowley is right, but it’s not just the methodology that needs more attention. The press should, in fact, be asking if there is something that scientists could be doing differently, primarily in terms of depoliticizing the research process.

The editorial board of the journal Nature, which has worked with some of the scientists involved in the e-mails, has argued that accusations of either scientific or procedural misconduct are irresponsible because they could delay legislative action on climate change. Perhaps. But there is more to be gained here by fleshing out the details of this controversy than by simply accepting that all is well.

Now is a good time for journalists to reassess their coverage of climate change, weed out any bias from their reporting strategies, do what they can to disentangle politics from science, and be more aggressive about covering what many scientists, business figures, policymakers, and activists think is the most important climate story of this still-new millennium. If the science stands up to the test, it will emerge even stronger than before.

[Clarification: A sentence that stated it “would clearly be illegal” if climate scientists had deleted e-mails to avoid freedom of information laws, but few things are certain in such matter, so the sentence was changed to read that act “could prove illegal.” The story was also changed to reflect that “files” as well as e-mails were suggested for deletion.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.