Do Journo Watchers Ignore Environmental Beat?

By Keith Kloor | June 11, 2012 11:33 am

On twitter, British science journalist Martin Robbins recently said:

Mixing fact and opinion in journalism is inevitable. Anyone who thinks they write pure, unbiased fact is quite deluded.

This is true. Newspaper and (especially) magazine stories often have a specific angle or slant. So there is no such thing as pure objectivity. Journalists, like everyone else, have biases and preconceived notions that influence them.

To counter this, and to provide news and information as fairly and accurately as possible, reporters strive to adhere to certain principles. In 2010, Mediashift had a nice post that laid out ten themes encompassing the universal principles of journalism. Here are the first three:

  1. Public interest Example: “… to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time” (American Society of Newspaper Editors)
  2. Truth and accuracy Example: “[The journalist] strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (National Union of Journalists, UK)
  3. Verification Example: “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment… [The] discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment” (Principles of Journalism, from Project for Excellence in Journalism)

That third one is crucial.

In recent weeks, I’ve been asking rather pointedly why mainstream media stories on reports issued from environmental advocacy organizations often don’t make an effort to verify the findings in such reports. The stories tend to take the advocacy groups at their word, not bothering to scrutinize their claims.

The same one-sided treatment is also on display with respect to big environmental studies published in prestigious journals. For example, look at the wave of “tipping point” articles that followed last week’s publication of this study in Nature. A majority of them reported the study’s findings in a straightforward fashion, quoting only from the Nature authors and paper. None were very probing and only a few stories provided any expert opinion independent of the study. (One terrible example of tacked on false balance was in this piece from the SF Chronicle.)  A notable exception was Brandon Keim at Wired, whose story provided excellent contextual perspective and appropriate balance via a relevant expert.

Oddly, science journalists don’t seem to get all hot and bothered by substandard environmental reporting-unless it involves climate change, and that’s usually to point out instances of false balance that give undue credence to climate contrarians. But when it comes to reporting on medical/drug/behavioral research, there is no shortage of criticism. (I should say that Knight’s Science Journalism Tracker and CJR’s Observatory are two places that do critically examine environmental coverage.) I’ve noticed that the sci-journalism hive mind, as reflected on twitter and in the blogosphere, pay little attention to how environmental issues are reported on.

Why the blind spot when it comes to environmental journalism?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism
  • http://coturnix.org coturnix

    I have noticed that many people, when they hear the word “science” (or “science reporting”) automatically think of (bio)medical research. Almost equating the two until reminded that yes, there is also physics and astronomy and chemistry and ecology and geology and all that other neat stuff in science, in disciplines that have very different cultures compared to biomedical. And then there is the (elitist, IMHO) focus on Big Science coming out of Big Universities published in Big Journals, which also ignores all the cool stuff done at small (or state) institutions, by just as brilliant researchers who have freedom to pursue their curiosity outside of the dog-eat-dog world of Top Research Institutions, producing awesome stuff they don’t ever care to submit to GlamourMagz – and most of that goes unreported.

  • Barry Woods

    because environmental journalists are activists first – journalists second? and caught up in the environmental/green bubble? ie Guardian Eco I wonder what the non  guardian-eco journalists make of their own environmental reporters

  • Sashka

    I don’t see anything terrible or false in SF Chronicle article. But the Wired article is much better, I agree.

  • huxley

    Sashka: I guess KK was unhappy with the jarring “on the other hand” quotes from Lindzen at the end of the SF Chron piece.

    The article did nothing to prepare the reader for the sudden shift in emphasis. It seemed like the writer was going through the motions: “Oh, I have to stick in something from the other side, so as to appear balanced.”

  • huxley

    Thinking about the Chron article a bit more…<br><br>The overall effect is weird, even humorous:<br><br>”Newsflash: According to major scientists, the Earth is about to be tip over! MIT scientist scoffs that it is extremely unlikely. The End.”<br><br>This has got to be maddening to the orthodox who are always going on about “false balance.” Given that the San Francisco Chronicle is an extremely liberal paper, that couldn’t have been the intention.<br><br>Of course, most people who’ve read the Chron know that it is a joke.

  • huxley

    Thinking about the Chron article a bit more…

    The overall effect is weird, even humorous:

    “Newsflash: According to major scientists, the Earth is about to be tip over! MIT scientist scoffs that it is extremely unlikely. The End.”

    This has got to be maddening to the orthodox who are always going on about “false balance.” Given that the San Francisco Chronicle is an extremely liberal paper, that couldn’t have been the intention.

    Of course, most people who’ve read the Chron know that it is a joke.

  • Keith Kloor

    Some thoughts about the SF article. I have nothing against Lindzen, personally, but why not go to an ecosystem scientist for outside perspective? I can guarantee the reporter knew what Lindzen was going to say even before he called him up.

  • Sashka

    No, the reporter just knew that Lindzen would be skeptical. What’s wrong with being skeptical?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    27 billion by end of century. Why are we supposed to take a paper seriously if it leads with that? If I were an editor I would have sent it to the astrology writer.

    The 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects, prepared by the Population Division at the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), shows that a small variation in fertility could lead to major long-term differences in the size of the global population.Based on the medium projection, the number of people in the world ““ currently close to 7 billion ““ should pass 8 billion in 2023, 9 billion by 2041 and then 10 billion at some point after 2081.But a small increase in fertility could mean a global population of as much as 15.8 billion by 2100, while a small decrease could result in an eventual overall decline in population to 6.2 billion by the end of the century.

  • Tom Scharf

    Think what would happen if an international group of respected physics scientists made a similar warning.  People would pay attention.
    Think what would happen if these physicists based their finding on weak science, there would be a revolt in the physics community.  The mainstream physicists would not allow the integrity of their science to be hijacked by activists.

    What is different here?

    Somewhere along the way environmentalism and integrity took separate paths.  Too many “end justifies the means” and “noble quest” dogmatists.       

    This type of doomy pronouncement from environmentalists barely rates as news anymore.  It is only fodder for the activists on both sides.  Strangely it is basically filler on a slow news day…run the latest doom and gloom from the environmental sector.

    Colbert coined the term “truthiness” as applied to political propaganda, and environmental science is putting out a lot of “truthiness” in science.  And the cumulative affect has taken its toll.

    An example of not even clearing up obvious contradictions are these two quotes across two days at the SF chron:

    – Ocean productivity is being diminished by vast “dead zones” where no fish swim, while 40 percent of Earth’s land mass that was once “biodiverse” now contains far fewer species of crop plants and domestic animals.

    The SF paper reported that a vast bloom was also discovered in the arctic:

    The thriving plankton bloom could eventually give rise to a vibrant fishery, providing a new food resource for humans, the scientists believe.

    They are effectively mindless reprinting NGO press releases.  This isn’t journalism.      

  • Tom Scharf

    @7 KK

    Not sure your meaning here, but are you saying that can’t the journalists search out and find someone respected by the environmental community to provide an alternate view to the near term “tipping points” meme.

    Clearly near term tipping points are not accepted by most climate scientists, and using Lindzen is just lazy journalism attempting to sell a meme that only a disgraced lunatic could possibly disagree with this line of thinking.

    There are very obvious and valid counterpoints to be explored by an enterprising journalist, which no attempt is made to do. I imagine most climate scientists would have “no comment” on this type of thing, career suicide and all.  Therein lies the problem…    

  • Mary

    So I know there’s churnalism for press release regurgitation. Is there a word for advocacy report regurgitation?

    It is horrible sometimes though, I see it a lot. Completely swallowed whole. And it has downstream consequences. Because people who want to prove the credibility of the report point to the news articles about it. So you have to battle 4 layers to try to get to the truth: commenter–> news piece–> report –>original source (if any, and that’s not a guarantee).

  • Mr. M

    I think a big reason news outlets don’t spend the resources on debunking or solidly critiquing bad NGO advocacy group reports is because hardly anyone takes them that seriously anyway. Why bother? I’m sure there are lots of news items about NGO reports on sites like Guardian Environment which don’t quote an outside source and give them an easy ride. But can you point to a recent case where a bad NGO report (and its lax media coverage) seemed to have a large effect on policy or wider public opinion? Or an environment for that matter?The findings of environmental papers are also often not definitive and give wide error-bars, meaning coverage of it often can’t easily be debunked as plain wrong, and can only be crticised on the basis that it focuses too much outlier possibilities (i.e. worst or best case scenarios).At the journalistic end, there aren’t the same conventional villains in most environemntal science stories as there are in a lot of stories about bad medical science (e.g. quack doctors giving vulnerable people false hope, taking their money and putting public health, and potentially YOUR health at risk) and climate science (e.g. oil funded think-tanks spreading misinformation), although they can occasionally get some party to fit the villainous mold (e.g. the GMO-concerned as anti-civilisational cavemen meme that many journalists, such as Robbins, have recently adopted).

  • huxley

    27 billion by end of century. Why are we supposed to take a paper seriously if it leads with that?

    Tom Fuller @ 9: That jumped out at me too as similarly absurd.

    Yet it appears that the Chron writer is drawing from the Nature article, which is behind a hefty paywall.

    Is Nature really presenting a global population of 27 billion as a possible scenario?

  • Menth

    13″But can you point to a recent case where a bad NGO report (and its lax
    media coverage) seemed to have a large effect on policy or wider public
    opinion?”

    I don’t think it’s easy to trace a specific policy back to a specific NGO report, the effect is cumulative. NGO’s flood the media with their various reports which are more often than not merely uncritically presented as fact. This then contributes to the overall darkening of the public’s perception of the state of the environment. Politicians, eager to stake out a role in the care-taking of society, propose solutions (often symbolic and irrelevant)inline with their traditional ideological leanings.

    What I find interesting is that the media would understandably be skeptical of a report put out by an industry think tank but less inclined to scrutinize an ENGO’s. This is presumably due to the simplistic notion that only money can corrupt one’s objectivity.

  • huxley

    Tipping points arguments are wonderful: they don’t have to be proved, they can’t be disproved, and they work great for scaring people.Here’s one tipping point campaign that was a hot item four years ago:<blockquote><b>We have 100 months to save our climate. When the clock stops ticking, we could be beyond our climate’s tipping point, the point of no return.</b>http://onehundredmonths.org/</blockquote>It's got this ominous loud ticking clock sound with a digital readout. We’re down to 54 months before the clock runs out and we’ve done next to nothing to save our climate.It’s gonna be a nailbiter.

  • huxley

    Tipping points arguments are wonderful: they don’t have to be proved, they can’t be disproved, and they work great for scaring people.

    Here’s one tipping point campaign that was a hot item four years ago:

    We have 100 months to save our climate. When the clock stops ticking, we could be beyond our climate’s tipping point, the point of no return.

    http://onehundredmonths.org/

    It’s got this ominous loud ticking clock sound with a digital readout. We’re down to 54 months before the clock runs out and we’ve done next to nothing to save our climate.

    It’s gonna be a nailbiter.

  • huxley

    1. Public interest. Example: “”¦ to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time”

    This is the first universal principle of journalism, acording to Mediashift, which KK quotes. It sounds reasonable until one ponders the question of how this differs from shaping public opinion.

    The Nature article, which is the occasion of this blog post, did not publish its tipping point article because the authors finally completed their article and Nature had the space in the current issue to publish it.

    No, the Nature article was orchestrated to appear with the Rio+20 climate conference.

    Does this “inform the people and enable them to make judgments”?

    Or are all these articles just part of the ongoing media campaign in favor of the climate agenda?

  • kdk33

    This is the religion of environmentalists.  The religion of “climate science”.  The earth is fragile, unstable.  Humans are an unnatural blight.  Human influence is to be minimized else the delicate balance be disturbed.

    Other religious people argue the earth is robust and resilient.  Humans are not a blight and human influence is natral.  Human influence is a force that can be used for good or bad.  Our responsibility is not to minimize it, but to use it wisely.

    Neither are science.  The latter is honest.

  • Jeffn

    The good news about bias is that it’s ineffective. Even the soviets learned how to “read” their state newspapers. What was not published was very often more important than what was.
    People have very good bs detectors.
    The funny thing is that the activist scientists in the climate camp now blame the press for all the exaggerations. They claim the media made up the hurricane narrative, ignored the caveats about connecting weather to climate, invented the projections of imminent ice-free arctic days.
    Keith,do you think environmental reporters regurgitated the press releases on climate,or exaggerated the findings?

  • TanGeng

    I’ve come to be extremely skeptical of all scientific publications to the point that I’d ignore their results until I get a chance to carefully scan through their methodology. There is just too much BS out there under the veneer of science. In certain areas of scholarship, it is doubly so with politically charged environmental at the top (both ways), psychology a close second, and medical following behind. Even physics publications have to be taken with a bit of patience to see if the conclusions wash out, with the CERN/OPERA neutrinos as one example of over-hyped results.On top of that, all of sociology and economics is garbage because I don’t think their discipline lends itself to the type of statistical analysis or the claims of scientific method. I guess that makes me anti-science?Anyhow, Journals are either activists themselves, think the doom and gloom articles sell, or they are too obtuse to be able to follow the topic.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    TanGeng, the miserable state of current scientific output is neither new nor unusual. 90% of everything is crap and that includes academic publications. It has always been that way. The vastly increased number of journals and publications just means there’s that much more crap. But the other 10% keeps remaking the world…

  • huxley

    Tom Fuller @ 22: I’m sure that Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”) applies across the board, though I suspect that number can vary a few percent up or down depending.

    However, I am more interested how typical Climategate might be. I am an engineer, not a scientist, so I don’t have the background to assess it.

    I was mightily suprised that top climate scientists would withhold data, withhold data requested under FOI requests, threaten to destroy data, possibly destroy data, conspire behind the scenes to block opposing viewpoints in publications and to rig peer review.

    Perhaps I am overly idealistic. Maybe this is standard dogfighting in academic and scientific circles these days. Maybe it has always been the case.

    Do you have any insights?

  • Anteros

    I recommend people read this article from the BBC today bearing in mind the point 3 above about verification.

    BBC News – Resource depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe? 

    There is something odd going on. It’s as if anything that has the potential for anxiety or worry or guilt or panic… is immune from the need for balance or objectivity.

    There is a second point which is that ‘Greenness’ has crept into the public consciousness as a virtue in a way that ‘profit-making’ (in most of the world) has not. People are suspicious of those trying to make money. Not so much of those who are bleating that they ‘care’ about something.

    So the BBC article doesn’t see the need for a balancing view because it is speaking from the position of an alleged shared moral perspective. To balance the article you would have to voice a fundamental challenge to the worldview that ‘things are getting worse’.

    Having said that, it’s just what the article needs. Child mortality has halved in the last 40 years. Instead of population ‘exploding’, the rate of population growth has been falling for 50 years. Food and energy are 10 times cheaper than they were 4 generations ago.

    The article closes with these words – “Drastic change is needed”. A healthy antidote to this garbage would be simply to say “Bollocks – the conditions of life on earth will continue to improve if human beings continue to exhibit their disposition to innovate and adapt”

    Which of course they will.

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com Bart Verheggen

    Relevant to the journalist’s code of conduct is the NPR ethics handbook:Rather than balancing person A and person B
    “Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or
    to produce stories that create the appearance of
    balance, but to seek the truth.”
    Balancing the evidence
    “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy
    weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our
    reports.”

  • MarkB

    It’s different when my side does it.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Hi Huxley at 23, I don’t think Climategate is at all common, although I think the prevalence of that type of behaviour seems to be growing.

    The first reason I don’t think it’s common is that similar hijinx have not been uncovered years after their commission. Usually the truth comes out after the principals are protected by death.

    Secondly, these guys were so bad at it that there doesn’t seem to be a manual, or a list of best practices at bad practice or even a Tips and Tricks section on sciency websites.Thirdly, there’s always one or two journalists that are as sick of hagiographic genuflection to the scientific consensus as you or I, and they would have nosed around.

    There are instances of scientists covering up their own catastrophic mistakes and being discovered, sometimes decades later. But stuff like Climategate? I think rare. And it’s important that we keep holding their feet to the fire about it. To keep it rare.

  • harrywr2

    #23

    I was mightily suprised that top climate scientists would withhold data,
    withhold data requested under FOI requests, threaten to destroy data,
    possibly destroy data, conspire behind the scenes to block opposing
    viewpoints in publications and to rig peer review.

    List of top US Research Universities. In 2008 John Hopkins(#1 in federal research dollars) recieved $1.4 billion in Federal Research Grants

    http://mup.asu.edu/research2010.pdf

    The amount of money available to Universities to do research is enormous and can make or break their financial viability. Research Universities are no different then any other business that has to compete for money. Obviously, if the quality of someones product is called into question then that may negatively impact their future earnings.

  • huxley

    I don’t think Climategate is at all common, although I think the prevalence of that type of behaviour seems to be growing.

    Tom Fuller @ 27: Thanks. I’m glad to hear it.

    That’s my impression from the outside. Most of the academic and scientific abuses I know of are by occasional individuals, not by groups and certainly not by a cabal of prominent scientists.

    Climategate was positively Nixonian. The sad difference is that the Team was and still is mostly supported by other climate scientists, and the Team was whitewashed by the tame one-sided Muir Russell Review.

  • kdk33

    Research Universities are no different then any other business that has to compete for money.

    Indeed.  And when one considers the money to be had through barious croney schemes, it is easy to see how the “science” gets skewed.

    It isn’t a grand conspiracy, just ordinary people acting under the influence of perverse incentives

    Throw in that what should normally be a scientific free-for-all is subject to top down control – the IPCC who can now dish out prestige and power.

    …the results are perfectly predictable.

    Government funded science concludes:  we need  more government to fund more science.  Who knew?

  • huxley

    Relevant to the journalist’s code of conduct is the NPR ethics handbook:

    Rather than balancing person A and person B

    “Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.”

    Balancing the evidence

    “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.”

    – Bart Verheggen @ 25

    Well… Conservatives consider NPR an example of liberal bias par excellence. Most of NPR’s programming reinforces the liberal mindset and agenda.

    One can reliably expect that the stories NPR chooses and the way NPR covers them will favor Democrats over Republicans, Obama over Bush or Romney, climate orthodoxy over skepticism, Arabs over Israel, etc.

    I do not doubt that NPR’s directors believe they are seeking the truth, but aren’t we all?

    What makes NPR’s truthseeking more special than, say, National Review’s? Who decides where lies “the balance of evidence in a matter of constroversy”? Where does an unquestionably partisan show like “Democracy Now” fit with this truthseeking?

    The problem with NPR, as with the rest of the mainstream media, is their pretense to objectivity. Plus, of course, NPR’s unique position as a beneficiary of our tax dollars, whether conservatives like it or not — which they do not.

  • Tom Scharf

    NPR may be left leaning, but it pales in comparison to the likes of the IPCC with respect to corruption by agenda.  Anything the UN controls makes me cringe.

    Interestingly the UN used to be a respected organization.  The sci-fi from the 50′s to the 70′s commonly envisioned the UN in charge of some form of planetary government, and it was a GOOD thing in most cases (fiction of course).

    I doubt many current sci-fi novels are written with this vision anymore.  The current UN seems be most similar to the old Soviet model of governing.  It even includes their own state controlled media, which invariably is trusted by no-one.     

  • BBD

    A sweep of just the last few comments produced this:

    “cabal of prominent scientists… positively Nixonian… whitewashed… the “science” gets skewed… the influence of perverse incentives… IPCC who can now dish out prestige and power… NPR may be left leaning, but it pales in comparison to the likes of the IPCC with respect to corruption by agenda…”

    The chorus of paranoid nonsense is growing loud again. Do you not realise how bonkers you sound, all muttering away like this? Perhaps someone should throw a bucket of cold water over you all. Or ask for some solid evidence, which seems to have the same silencing effect.

  • huxley

    BBD: Rest assured you sound peculiar to me — and to others judging by their responses to you.

    If you’ve got arguments to make, make them. Otherwise, I’m not biting.

  • huxley

    Tom Scharf @ 32: Boy, I remember those days when the UN was the light in the war-torn darkness leading us all to a better world.

    Someday I believe we will find our way to a world government. But that day is far off and for now the UN leads backward.

    Lately I’ve been reviewing American culture of the early-to-mid sixties. That was a golden age — not perfect by any means, but the confidence we had then in ourselves and the bright future towards which we were headed was remarkable.

    Over the weekend I read Isaac Asimov’s predictions in 1964 for the world in 2014 of underground cities, luxurious resorts under the sea, delicious food made from algae and yeast, robots, and computerized everything. The chief problems humanity will face in 2014 will be leisure and boredom!

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/23/lifetimes/asi-v-fair.html

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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