Reuters’s global warming about-face

A survey shows the newswire ran 50 percent fewer stories on climate change after hiring a "skeptic"

Reuters has long been one of the most prolific producers of climate change journalism, leading The New York Times and the Guardian for most climate-centric articles in 2011. But a new assessment lends credence to recent claims that the newswire is pulling back its coverage after the addition of a global-warming skeptic to the company’s editorial management.

On Tuesday, Media Matters for America ran a search of Reuters archives and found that the newswire had reduced its coverage of climate change-related issues by almost 50 percent in 2012. The watchdog website searched Reuters archives for the terms “climate change” and “global warming” during a six-month period between October 2010 and April 2011, and a comparable six-month span in 2012.

The factchecking expedition was ignited by David Fogarty, a Singapore-based correspondent who covered climate change for Reuters until 2012. Last week, Fogarty took to The Baron, an independent blog run by former employees of Reuters, to describe what he identified as a change in editorial direction after the company hired Paul Ingrassia, a veteran business reporter brought on in 2011 to revamp the company’s news strategy. Fogarty met Ingrassia last year at a work function, where the then-deputy editor in chief (now managing editor) identified himself as a climate-change skeptic. “Not a rabid skeptic, just someone who wanted to see more evidence mankind was changing the global climate,” wrote Fogarty. Shortly thereafter, Fogarty wrote, it became difficult for him to get his reporting on the environment into print:

From very early in 2012, I was repeatedly told that climate and environment stories were no longer a top priority for Reuters and I was asked to look at other areas. Being stubborn, and passionate about my climate change beat, I largely ignored the directive.

By mid-October, I was informed that climate change just wasn’t a big story for the present, but that it would be if there was a significant shift in global policy, such as the US introducing an emissions cap-and-trade system.
Fogarty left Reuters in mid-December, two months after his climate beat was eliminated. Two other full-time environmental correspondents have been asked to shift their beat: Alister Doyle in Oslo and Deborah Zabarenko in Washington DC, Fogarty points out. (Based on Doyle’s author page, he still continues to write about the environment regularly.)

Media Matters timed its survey to compare the period before Ingrassia’s April 2011 hiring to the time after the start of his reign. Though there’s no way to directly attribute the changes to Ingrassia, the timeline checks out. (He did not return repeated calls for comment.) Media Matters found that Fogarty’s article count reflects an even stronger redirection than the wire service’s coverage as a whole:
In the six months before Ingrassia joined Reuters, Fogarty wrote 51 of 675 total articles on climate change (about 8 percent). During a comparable period under Ingrassia, Fogarty wrote only 10 articles on climate change (3 percent of 353 total stories).
It’s worth noting that most newsrooms around the country have reduced coverage of climate change-related issues since 2010. In 2011, Environment & Energy Publishing, which produces Greenwire, ClimateWire, and four other news services, estimated they reduced climate coverage by about 13 percent. According to an assessment published by The Daily Climate, The New York Times cut its global warming article count by 15 percent, and the Guardian slashed coverage by 21 percent that same year. (Reuters, too, dropped its climate coverage by 27 percent in 2011, before Ingrassia came aboard.)

But rumblings in the Reuters newsroom signal that the most recent dip in climate coverage is accompanied by a shift in editorial angle. I spoke on background to several journalists working at Reuters, who said that since Ingrassia was hired, they’ve felt pressure from management to add “balance” to climate change stories by including the views of global-warming skeptics. “I’m really glad someone outside the company is looking into this,” said one staffer who did not wish to be identified. “I think this is the most worrying thing any of us have seen here.”

In the last six months, Reuters has caught flack for a few pieces of climate-change journalism that critics say overreach or skew the science by inserting comments from climate-change skeptics. Earlier this month, the newswire covered a study out of the Potsdam Institute projecting the rate at which the sea level will rise with each degree of global temperature increase. Midway through the article the writer, Erik Kirschbaum, inserts a skeptical modifier:

Climate sceptics, however, say the evidence is unconvincing. Measurements of changing temperatures are unreliable, contradictory and unsupported by solid historic data, they say. They question the accuracy of computer climate forecasts and point to historic, cyclical changes in the world’s temperature as evidence that global temperature changes are natural. Others say the evidence shows temperatures have stopped rising and that the sun plays a bigger role than human activities.
He fails to mention, however, that these views are have little to no standing in scientific literature. (He also fails to quote sources or cite additional evidence, which is just poor journalism.) Kirschbaum declined to comment on the story.

Last April Reuters published “Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown,” an explainer on the gradual decrease of surface-temperature warming; a phenomenon, the piece implied, that was leading scientists to doubt global warming statistics.

“But warming is speeding up and scientists can explain it,” responded Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian. Surface temperature has continued to rise slowly because more of this heat is being captured in warming oceans, explained Nuccitelli, an enviornmental scientist who contributes regularly to the website Skeptical Science. Looking at the temperature of the earth as a whole, over a long period of time, global warming has actually accelerated:

“When people say ‘no warming in 15 years’, they’re cherry picking the timeframe to begin in an abnormally hot year. It’s like arguing that your car must have broken down because it hasn’t moved in the 15 seconds while you’ve been stopped at a red light.

Doyle, who authored the sea rise article, only sourced a single scientist for the piece, an ice specialist, quoted briefly at the end of the piece. But a week earlier, Doyle had published an article on ocean heat capture, the established explanation for slowed warming that he excluded in the later piece. Doyle declined to comment on either story.

A Reuters spokesperson wrote that the company has not changed their editorial stance, and offered the following statement:
“Reuters covers climate change closely both as a scientific and public-safety issue, as well as the impact of climate change on businesses, the economy and the markets. We have a dedicated staff, including a team of specialist reporters at Point Carbon and a columnist, who all generate significant coverage on the topic across our various platforms.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,