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.
Another reason that Rosenbaum may have misunderstood the meaning of CJR’s article, is that he still writes about “climate science” as being monolithic rather than an incredibly multi-faceted subject (a double shame, because our piece was precisely about the issue’s polymorphic transformation). No one news item can settle “the debate” on climate change, as if such a singular thing even existed. Rosenbaum wants “equal time” for “different arguments” about climate change, but the amount of attention that should be given this or that argument really depends on the story’s subject matter.
For example: Reporters covering hurricanes’ relationship to warming should note that their intensities could either increase because of higher sea-surface temperatures or decrease because of greater tropospheric windshear. Another example: There is no doubt that the seas will rise and polar ice will melt if warming continues. Reporters must note, however, the disagreement about how quickly the world will warm and how sea-rise and ice-melt proceed, even given certain temperature patterns.
Rosenbaum, quoting the dean of Columbia’s Journalism School, which publishes CJR, advises journalists to “find the arguments.” He is quite right—they should. But his advice is dangerously incomplete. In a blog post that was also critical of the way Rosenbaum cited his work, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin added that science journals “find the agreements.” Put the two together and you have the bottom line. Climate journalists have to accurately describe the most significant scientific arguments and agreements involved in various aspects of global warming. But, again, it all comes down to what the article is about. Not every fact of climate science can or ought to be mentioned in every article. When judging the media’s (or a single outlet’s) treatment of dissent, critics must differentiate between individual stories and the entirety of its coverage.
That said, from time to time, publications have a responsibility to revisit the fundamental question of the anthropogenic basis for global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is ever more certain that humans are culpable, but there is enough dissenting science out there to warrant investigations of warming’s relationship to the sun, the Earth’s orbital patterns, and other alternative hypotheses. But until something changes, journalists must still note, in any such piece, that the majority of scientists dismiss these explanations in favor of human industry.
Journalism is not about quashing dissent, but nor is it about providing “equal time” to every Tom, Dick, and Contrary Theory simply because they exist. Journalistic “balance” is not physical balance, with two equal masses on each side of a fulcrum.
The problem is not that press quashes dissent (the public knows that there are skeptical climate scientists out there—roughly half, if not more, of the public is itself skeptical) or even that, as environmentalists argue, it gives dissent too much attention. The problem is that the press has done a poor job, over all, of delineating the various questions that pertain to climate science and of accurately characterizing the weight of the agreements and arguments that pertain to each.