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.
Under the Dot Earth post about Rosenbaum, one of the regular commenters on Revkin’s blog asked why journalists have such a tough time explaining climate in a way the public “gets” and why CJR has often applauded the Times’ efforts nonetheless. He wants the press to go after ExxonMobil and other nefarious entities and expose how they have manufactured dissent about global warming—then, maybe, all will become clear. While it’s true that such artifice has been a serious problem (Revkin did most of the original digging into the White House’s role, one reason we have held him in esteem), there is plenty of legitimate scientific dissent that journalists must also contend with before the public will “get” climate.
A comprehensive picture depends upon answers to a lot of different questions. Journalists, contrary to the old maxim, must start focusing on the trees if people are to understand the forest.
N.B. There are two other accusations by Rosenbaum that I simply couldn’t let go of. First, he accuses CJR of “misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works,” because Russell’s feature reminds journalists that scientific consensus develops incrementally. To support his argument he reiterates Thomas Kuhn’s tired, old argument that science suddenly moves forward in great leaps when “paradigm shifts” overturn the prevailing conventional wisdom. Well, that can happen, but it’s rare. Technology may often improve dramatically overnight, but physical and life-sciences research is a miserably slow process. Second, Rosenbaum repeatedly accuses CJR of blindly defending “green” journalists and the new, “green religion” of environmentalism. He might note that the only time Russell used the word “green” outside of “greenhouse gas” in her piece was negatively, as in “greenwashing” and “green fatigue.” Go figure.