On the Side of Facts

Illustration by Sonia Pulido

One day in 1990, a friend of mine asked if I would have lunch with Al Gore, who was then the junior senator from Tennessee. Gore was writing his first book, Earth in the Balance, which, when it was published, in 1992, would warn of an impending crisis of global warming. (The term “climate change” was less commonly used in newspapers in those days.) Gore had told my friend that he wanted to talk about the gravity of the subject and make a pitch for more coverage.

At the time, I was a science reporter at the Washington Post. Global warming was only vaguely on my radar. My main responsibility was to focus on the aids epidemic—a distressing, full-time job—but I also wrote more generally about medicine and, occasionally, about the environment. The movement to address climate change was building, having begun in earnest just two years prior, around the time that James Hansen, a nasa climate scientist, delivered congressional testimony saying that global warming was caused by human activity and that it posed significant risks to our planet.

There were many doubters—somehow there still are—but it was already clear to anyone who cared to look that something untoward was underway. “The decade of the 1980’s was the hottest since climate experts began keeping records a century ago,” I had written in a story published in the Post on January 13, 1990. “And it included six of the 10 hottest years on record.” In the three decades since I and others covered that news, the planetary weather vane has only moved in one direction. 

Gore had read my story in the Post, and when we met for lunch, in Washington, he told me that he had been annoyed by various caveats I had included. It is hard to imagine that he would remember that lunch, let alone his problems with the piece, but I have never forgotten. (“Many climate scientists have predicted that the earth will get warmer as carbon dioxide and other heat-​
trapping gases increase in the atmosphere,” I had written. “But there has been sharp disagreement about how great that warming will be or when it will be first detected.”) Gore argued that there was already plenty of evidence to suggest that we needed to curb our industrial and personal excesses. He considered reporters who gave equal coverage to realists and denialists to be deeply misguided. Gore wanted more passionate climate storytelling. 

I’m not sure I had a reporting philosophy thirty years ago, but I did not come from a world of conviction or advocacy. I was taught to talk to people, present the facts, and file on time. In the piece Gore read I had done all that, I insisted. No matter how ominous one hot decade might seem, I told him, climate data from ten years of human history was simply not sufficient for scientists to draw meaningful conclusions about anything. (Believe it or not, in those days the magnitude of the disaster, while predictable, was not nearly as obvious.)

Gore was dismayed at what he thought was a general journalistic indifference to climate trends and what they implied about the future. I was not indifferent, I said; nor did I suspect that most of my colleagues were. But we didn’t work for him or for Greenpeace or any other pressure group. Activists had one job, I felt, and journalists had another. It remained, I was certain, a world where facts would prevail. And my job was to lay them out for the reader.

In the end, my meeting with Gore was inconclusive. I respected his commitment, but he did not persuade me to approach my job in a new way. 

I don’t think we ought to discard the values of journalism and join an activist movement.

 

It took another conversation, not long afterward, to force me to recalibrate my conception of fairness and truth. One day, as I was on the verge of missing my deadline on a particularly explosive piece of aids policy news, I looked up to see my editor standing menacingly by my desk. “Where is your copy?” he asked. I told him I couldn’t file until I got a comment from a well-known California representative who regularly denounced homosexuality and considered aids a plague visited upon sinners. My editor was astonished: Are you joking? “There are not two sides to every story,” he said. “We pay you to exercise some judgment, not to type. File right now!”

I did as I was told, feeling uneasy about it. The next day, though, when I looked at the story in print, I saw that my editor was right. What on earth did I think readers would gain from being exposed to comments uttered by a notorious homophobe? My approach to my job began to shift, slowly at first, but more dramatically as I moved from the Post to the New York Times, where impartial detachment was the official goal, and then to The New Yorker, where I had more space and more of a responsibility to construct an argument in my pieces. As a reader of news, I became increasingly attuned to false equivalences in stories. They’re detestable, I realized, and they’re ubiquitous. You can always find a true believer to tell you, based on nothing, that vaccines will kill your children, that GMOs will give you cancer, that climate change is a hoax. 

But preposterous statements should not share equal space with facts. Choosing what to leave out of a piece is just as important as deciding what to include.

The central question for our profession has never really been about whether we should remain objective—reporting can never be wholly neutral. Instead, it is about whether our reporting is fair and thorough. I am not an advocacy journalist; there are people who will dismiss anything I write if they think that I am taking a stand. But when I tell a story, my point of view is often easy to discern. I see no benefit to running down the middle of every aisle. It’s dishonest. 

 

The subject of the climate is complex. Changes are slow and often hard to recognize. Many readers don’t see the disaster looming, or they don’t think it matters. Yet the greenhouse effect has already had a profound impact in many countries, including the United States. Try growing wheat in America’s breadbasket, Kansas, where the weather is already too hot and unreliable to plant the way farmers did in the past. Or getting a house insured in many of our coastal communities. Or buying raspberries at a grocery store while unpredictable crop seasons disrupt the supply chain.

For years, many excellent writers have covered the subject exhaustively, fairly, and with insight. But there has been little significant progress. To stave off the worst effects of climate change, we have to cut carbon emissions sharply, yet in the past three years the world has released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than at any time in human history. It is hard to ignore the fact, as the Global Carbon Project has demonstrated, that carbon dioxide emissions rose by an estimated 1.6 percent in 2017 and 2.7 percent in 2018.

A few years ago, toward the end of his editorship of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger tackled the question of how to persuade readers to care about climate change, writing that “journalism has so far failed to animate the public to exert sufficient pressure on politics through reporting and analysis.” One could argue that fairness and accuracy have never been enough to get the job done. Which raises a question: Since we are plunging rapidly toward the abyss, is activism, rather than journalism, the way to make the strongest case?

Maybe, but journalists should do their job and focus on helping the public see and understand the world in front of them. This may seem like a bleak time to occupy the high ground of dispassionate reporting, but I don’t think we ought to discard the values of journalism and join an activist movement. After all, journalism that is honest and thoughtful and unafraid is a movement. It poses questions that challenge traditional ways of thinking, it surfaces information that has been hidden by powerful interests, and it draws attention to people and problems that are otherwise ignored.

To tell the whole story of climate change, we need to deploy our best reporting to make the terrifying conclusions obvious. When we write about the consequences of policy inaction, we should do so with human beings at the center. We need to illustrate the stakes for people who are economically displaced or flooded out of their homes. Theoretical tragedy doesn’t make an impression. Lay out the facts and use your judgment to build a story that makes your point. Take a stand, sure, but do so in a measured and direct way, so that your reporting speaks for itself—loudly and clearly, but not in the tone of an angry commentator. That is the only way journalism will continue to matter.

How bad will things get before we take action, as a society, to mitigate climate change? It will get worse—perhaps much worse. One day, though, I believe, the public will value facts again. So let’s not abandon our principles at this dreadful, crucial moment. Gore, for his part, never told me to do that. His argument, which he made clear in the wholly fact-based 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was that the truth would eventually help rescue the world.

I have no choice but to agree. And as journalists, if we don’t believe that, I’m not sure what we can believe.

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Michael Specter has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1998, focusing on science and public health. He is an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.