Uneager, perhaps, to provoke the type of criticism that followed the dreadful coverage the “Climategate,” journalists have treated the emergence of a new cache of e-mails (apparently collected at the same time as the first) with a skepticism they failed to exhibit two years ago. While the reporting has been better this time around, however, it’s hard to say that it’s been a lot better.
On November 22, an anonymous group calling itself “FOIA” added a file containing more than 5,000 e-mails taken from England’s University of East Anglia to a Russian server, and then posted a link to the file on a variety websites popular with climate skeptics. With the start of a new international meeting about climate change in Durban, South Africa, this week, many reporters, including The Guardian’s Leo Hickman, quickly observed that the leak was “an apparent attempt to repeat the impact of a similar release of emails on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit in late 2009.”
Cherry-picked quotes from the first dump, whipped into pseudo-scandal by media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, led to accusations of fraud within the climate science community. A series of nine investigations in the Unites States and United Kingdom cleared the scientists involved of any wrongdoing, but reprimanded them for being less than forthcoming with some data. The new batch of e-mails seems to be more of the same: quotes that seem damning out of context, but merely reflect the usual pokes, prods, and disagreements that take place among scientists.
Regardless of their content, ignoring the release was clearly not an option. As Mother Jones’s Kate Sheppard explained:
I’d hesitate to call attention to a bunch of stolen, out-of-context emails at all, except for the fact that part of the reason that Climategate 1.0 was blown so far out of proportion is that most people ignored it for so long and let the denial crowd frame the conversation. By the time reasonable people caught up, it was already out of control. Journalists basically ran with the skeptic’s talking points, and despite numerous investigations and exonerations, the incident remained a stalking horse for the global warming denial crowd.
That’s the right outlook, but only a day later Sheppard was expressing understandable disappointment with the media’s performance. Liberal watchdogs such as Media Matters and ThinkProgress were likewise dismayed. Reporters didn’t fall as deeply into the trap as they did in 2009, but they didn’t avoid it entirely.
It’s unsurprising, of course, that the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal would publish the balderdash of James Delingpole, a laughable British columnist and climate skeptic, or that Fox News would call the e-mails “eye opening” without doing an ounce of reporting. The coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, meanwhile, was more of a mixed bag.
Both papers produced lacking, late-in-the-game articles about the 2009 e-mails, and both performed better last week, running stories on pages 8 and 2, respectively (the incident clearly does not merit front-page treatment). They basically dismissed the significance of the e-mails, but engaged in a bit of “he-said, she-said” reporting, respectively letting Myron Ebell and Marc Morano, two of the most delirious climate skeptics around, make sweeping assertions that the e-mails are strong evidence of a scientific conspiracy to mislead the public. Beyond that, the Times, whose article was 300 words shorter than the Post’s, did the better job.
Reporters Justin Gillis and Leslie Kauffman won points for doing a little legwork and contextualizing one of the more provocative quotes from the latest e-mails, in which Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said that a seminal 2003 paper reconstructing past temperatures “was truly pathetic and should never have been published.” In an interview with the Times, Bradley confirmed the e-mail was his and stood by his criticism, “but said his comment had no bearing on whether global warming was really happening.”
Post reporter Juliet Eilperin went with a quote from Peter Thorne, a scientist now at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. He charged that an early draft of a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report wasn’t being transparent and honest with regard to uncertainties about temperature rise in the lower atmosphere, and that science was “being manipulated to put a political spin on it.” But Eilperin failed to add context.