Last week, Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum criticized the July/August issue of Columbia Journalism Review for what he perceived as an ironic contradiction between our editorial and a feature about the future of climate-change coverage.
Rosenbaum praised the editorial, “Dissent Deficit,” in which we argued that the media, rather than engaging “speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse,” have effectively ignored or marginalized dissent. Rosenbaum then accused us of betraying our own advice a few pages down the road in a long article by veteran science reporter Cristine Russell. According to his column:
[O]ur CJR author appears to believe that the green consensus, the anthropogenic theory of global warming, has some special need to be protected from doubters and dissenters, and that reporters who don’t do their job to insulate it are not being “helpful.” When faced with dissent from the sacrosanct green consensus, the author, as we’ll see, argues that the “helpful” reporter must always show the dissenters are wrong if they are to be given any attention at all.
That’s not what we were suggesting. In fact, the article doesn’t use the words ‘dissent,’ ‘protect,’ or ‘insulate’ at all. To be clear: Journalism should be founded on a sacrosanct respect for free speech, and it is unethical to dismiss dissenting information or opinion simply because it contradicts an existing idea or thesis. Rosenbaum’s insinuations about CJR’s position seem to result from his misunderstanding of what we mean by “helpful” reporting. Here’ s one of the passages in our article to which he refers:
The era of “equal time” for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television. Last year, a meteorologist at CBS’s Chicago station did a special report entitled “The Truth about Global Warming.” It featured local scientists discussing the hazards of global warming in one segment, well-known national skeptics in another, and ended with a cop-out: “What is the truth about global warming? It depends on who you talk to.” Not helpful, and not good reporting.
Our problem is with so-called “he-said, she-said” reporting, in which a journalist presents one voice saying, “Humans are warming the globe,” next to another saying, “No, they aren’t,” without any additional context. That is not journalistic “balance.” Real balance values honesty and accuracy. And honestly, journalists have a responsibility to report that the vast majority of the scientific community supports the most fundamental conclusion of climate science — that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the primary cause of global warming. This should be noted if the question at hand is as simple as that. Many well-trained scientists and science journalists agree that to do otherwise leads to “balance as bias.” There is nothing wrong with a reporter noting that are also many scientists who disagree with the majority, even on this fundamental point. It’s true. But the real question is, is it okay not to mention that minority?
Without having done an official count, it certainly seems that many reporters, at least at print/online publications if not in television, have grown more comfortable with omitting the mention of scientists who think humans are not responsible for global warming. One must realize, however, that climate-science stories have mostly moved beyond that basic question. Governments and industries around the world are operating under the assumption that, even allowing for uncertainty, we ought to at least take small steps to mitigate global warming by shifting to more energy-efficient lives and economies.
Thus, appropriately, many recent climate-related stories concern subjects like carbon capture and storage, battery technology, and cap-and-trade schemes. Where energy isn’t concerned, it’s the potential impacts of global warming that most people want to know about—what’s happening with hurricanes, ocean acidification, floods, droughts, health and species, polar ice and sea level rise? Where such questions are the focus of the new story, it’s absolutely reasonable for the reporter not to belabor the basic question about humans causing global warming.
None of this is to say that there is no room for skepticism about the soundness of various mitigation policies or technologies. Also, assuming greenhouse-gas emissions continue to climb as they have for the last hundred years, there is room for skepticism about how fast the world will warm, whether or not there will be cool periods in the process, and when, how, and where a given amount of warming will affect this planet. It’s a lot, right? Too much to address in every news article? Absolutely.