Is There a Slant to Climate Reporting?

By Keith Kloor | February 27, 2013 1:49 pm

Here’s a trick question: Is climate journalism slanted? Before you answer, let’s look at a series of tweets by atmospheric science researcher Ryan Maue, who clearly has an opinion on this. We’ll start with this one from today:

The story he’s referring to is mostly about the second major blizzard in two weeks to hammer parts of the Midwest. The piece is straightforward reporting on a nasty winter storm, until near the end, when the journalist weaves in a climate change angle. Maue views the insertion as “left wing weather.” His next tweet emphasizes this point:

This strikes me as a bit feverish, but hey, everybody is entitled to his own prism. At this point, I’ve read the AP story and actually, it does suffer from a bias. It’s just not a political one. I’m now starting to write a post in my head, when Maue takes it down a notch with his next tweet:

Bingo! Or almost bingo, because the reporter can’t speak with any old top-notch meteorology professor about “attribution” climate science, which is a relatively new subfield that is concerned with teasing out climate change signals (or not) from big storms or disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, Pakistan floods, a summer-like heatwave in April, back-to-back blizzards, etc.

As it happens, there are numerous highly credentialed climate scientists who can speak to climate trends, atmospheric models, and single weather events. But this AP story quotes Michael Mann, who is, if nothing else, ubiquitous. Mann, along with Kevin Trenberth, are the two most frequently quoted scientists in stories about severe weather and climate change. Is that because they are leftist, One World government pinkos? No, and I haven’t got a clue what their politics are. I also don’t care. And I’m sure every hard-working reporter on the climate beat could care less, either.

But I’m willing to bet that every reporter who writes about climate change in the context of a major drought, hurricane, heat wave, or blizzard pretty much knows what Mann and Trenberth are going to say ahead of time. And in fact, if you look at quotes from these two esteemed scientists that have appeared in stories the past few months, you’ll notice that much of what they say has a familiar ring to it.

So why do reporters turn to them again and again? Hint: It’s not about leftist weather.

Before I give my take, let me hear what you think, and I’ll come back later with an update.

UPDATE:  Many of the comments hit partly on why some reporters seem to rely on certain scientists. It truly is a combination of factors. Over time during a journalist’s career, he or she will amass a roster of experts/sources in a particular field. These are sources that will gain a track record for their ability to 1) respond in a timely manner–before a reporter’s deadline; and 2) speak concisely in clear language (no jargon!) that helps explain/sheds light/makes an important point.

So a scientist who is an articulate communicator and who promptly returns emails/phone calls will become a go-to person.

Bear in mind that reporters aren’t calling/emailing just one source. For that AP story discussed above, it is a good bet that a number of scientists were contacted and that some of them responded similarly. Maybe they all make the same point, but the scientist who says it in the most concise, reader-friendly manner is the one who makes it into the story.

Now, it’s true that some scientists gain a reputation for being colorful, outspoken and known for certain memes or theories that have become part of a larger narrative that takes hold in the media, such as “weather on steroids” and ” the “new normal” or whatever. If a scientist becomes closely associated with one of these memes/theories, he or she is going to be among the first contacted in a story that is exploring a potential climate change angle into a severe weather event. It would be nice if the same handful of scientists weren’t always quoted–this is a pet peeve of mine–but I understand all the factors in play (tight deadline, sound-bite quality, etc).

At some point, when scientists become fixtures (appearing regularly in stories) and they start mouthing predictable answers, I do think it behooves a reporter to expand the circle of quotable sources.

  • http://twitter.com/lucialiljegren lucia liljegren

    I’d guess they talk to Mann and Trenberth because
    a) They know either one the other or both will answer the phone.
    b) They know they’ll get a sexy quote.

    If they called other people those people might provide no quote or answer ‘we don’t really know’. Neither quote makes the story sexier and is likely to end up on the cutting room floor as it were.

    The people who say “we don’t really know” only get called if someone is doing a story reporting about scientists hyping.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      I think Lucia nailed it. But from the side of other scientists:

      a) there’s no reward/support/training for public outreach

      b) there can be significant backlash and harassment as a result (some from your colleagues, some from random readers)

      There’s just no upside to jumping into this.

  • Cees de Valk

    How do you know it is not?
    I would not phrase it like Ryan did, but it seems not unlikely that those reporters support Mann’s “cause”. They probably don’t see themselves as leftists, just trying to do what they see as right, trying to convince the public of what they see as the truth. Lucia’s explanation sounds plausible too, but it would imply a more cynical attitude of the reporters, being prepared to do anything to make a story bigger than it really is.

  • Tom Scharf

    You could quote what either of these guys say without ever calling them. They have very well known and publicized *** opinions *** on this subject and are the mostly likely to exaggerate the findings in their quotes.

    They are also experts in implying something (weather = climate), but phrasing it in a way that does not get them in trouble with their scientific peers. You get a lot of obfuscated indirect answers on this subject.

    Why would Mann be called about snow storms, isn’t he an expert in tree rings? A bit strange.

  • carolannie

    Having the same two scientists repeatedly quoted is merely laziness on the part of reporters. If all the scientists that they contact say the same thing, then why not use the ones who say it best?

  • KingOchaos

    Its nothing more, than what they say is “interesting”… reporting is about selling a story, the more sensational, severe the story/message, the more people take note. Its nothing more than sexing up the story as much as possible. The quote from the dude who says, we dont know enough for attribution, is boring.

  • Nullius in Verba

    I would hazard a guess that it’s the other way round. Trenberth and Mann issue press releases, copy journalists in on their conversations (if they’re “as predictable as we’d like”), feed them information and ideas, or build up relationships with journalists as sources on climate matters generally. There are a number of such conversations caught in ClimateGate. There’s no obvious reason why Mann would be consulted as an expert on weather-is-climate attribution, and Trenberth is a bit of an outlier in the community. The odds of everyone asking them as often as they do are remote.

    It’s journalistic laziness. Why go hunting for stories when you can develop ‘contacts’ who will provide them to you on a plate? Press officers and PR agencies (like Fenton Communications, who operate the RealClimate website) are able to get good coverage for their employers by serving up favourable stories pre-written in press releases, which the journalists can paraphrase and push out with no effort – what they call “churnalism”. A lot of stories are written by agency writers (such as AP) and then sold to dozens of other news organisations, so often the same story will appear in half a dozen venues simultaneously with little change. There’s a well-known phenomenon in war zones that are difficult or dangerous to access – the media organisations hire local people as “stringers” to provide stories, information, and photos, which certain factions in the conflict use to ensure their side gets told. Several journalists and news agencies have been caught out when their sources proved even less ethical than they were; photoshopped photos and so on.

    The 24-hour news cycle has created a hunger for news that sometimes people are less careful than they should be fulfilling. It’s incredibly difficult coming up with novel and interesting material week after week. It’s ever so tempting to accept the offers of ‘assistance’.

    Of course, if you do come to rely on such symbiotic relationships, you have to take care to keep them sweet. They’re not making the journalist’s jobs easier for nothing.

  • windy2

    Mann and Trenberth are lightning rods for controversy and that makes a boring article on weather sexier.

  • Nullius in Verba

    There’s no particular reason to think a quote from another scientist would be ‘boring’. It’s true that they’re unlikely to support the weather-is-climate angle, but they could instead give info on they physics involved (have you ever thought about the forces involved in lifting millions of tons of ice high into the air and then dropping it?) or the history (with tales of past snowfall records) or snow in other parts of the world (Arctic and Antarctic weather are always dramatic) or the people (who first figured snow out? How do they collect the data? Who are the volunteer data collectors?). There are hundreds of angles. Why does it have to be climate change?

    Or if you simply wanted ‘controversy’, then you could ask a climate sceptic!

    Or you could talk to emergency rescue workers, or the logistics and infrastructure people keeping shops supplied, or the people who grit the roads. What are the economic costs? How about popular culture, or history, or art, or sport? It’s not just a science question!

    No, if someone is talking about weather-is-climate-change nowadays, after it’s been done to death a million times already, it’s because someone is pushing a cause. That doesn’t in itself tell us whether it’s the journalists or the scientists doing so, but given that we’ve already identified a couple of common factors in most of these stories….

  • jh

    I think it’s about two things: the tribe of leftists and the belief in leftist weather they all share. Do Catholics turn to Muslims for interpretations of the New Testament? No. They turn to other Catholics.

  • Joshua

    I’d guess they talk to Mann and Trenberth because
    a) They know either one the other or both will answer the phone.
    b) They know they’ll get a sexy quote.

    Hmmm. So science journalists are as a rule lazy and don’t care far more about sensationalism than about good, solid reporting.

    I don’t doubt that either is true to some extent, but to offer them as the most operative (in fact, the only two) reasons sounds a bit conspiratorial to me.

    My guess is that it is because they are, for whatever reason, high profile. The names are more familiar to readers and they are considered to be top experts in their fields.

    It will be interesting to read Keith’s answer. My guess is that he would most likely have more evidence for interpreting the action of his posse.

  • http://profiles.google.com/davidskurnick1 David Skurnick

    Well, I’d call it a bias in favor of warmists. However, belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is pretty much a left-wing position today, so it’s not wrong to call it left-wing partisanship.

    I’ve read a lot of climate science and even done some climate models in my work. I can say with fair confidence that one single event tells us nothing. Nor does a hot spell in a particular region. Yet, reporters often report each of these as related to climate change or proving climate change. OTOH they never report a regional cold spell or heavy snow as casting doubt on their climate change theory.

  • alqpr

    Partly laziness on the part of the reporter (they know where to find them and have a good chance of getting a quote injust one call). But also partly because of expected laziness on the part of the reader. Using an unknown name gives the reader work to do to figure out who it is, using a known name may actually make them more likely to read the story even if they don’t “like” the source.

  • Tom C

    Keith -
    You have no idea what Mann’s politics are? You can’t be serious. Every other word out of the guy’s mouth is a leftist talking point.

    • Hominid

      This essay is just another example of lib-leftist obfuscation in an attempt to convince us they aren’t blatant liars.

  • Keith Kloor

    Lots of good comments that touch on the reasons why some scientists are often quoted. I have given my thoughts on this in an update in the post.

  • kdk33

    The underlying issue is this: This ain’t science no more, it’s a belief
    system. We now have a “scientific” theory that says: CO2 will move
    weather away from the median. Wow.

    You don’t have to think too hard about this stuff, but If you have a left wing agenda, you prefer not to.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rjvg50 Kirk Holden

    With Dr. Muller’s recent conversion from skeptic to mainstream science supporter, where would a competent, non-Koch funded, non-tin-foil hat wearing ‘right wing’ climate scientist be found? I cannot wait for the comments so I can hear about climate scientists who graduated at the bottom of their class.

    • Mallet Head

      The same place as a non-Soros funded, non-ideology/left-wing religionists, climate ‘scientist’ is found. You know one who hasn’t been caught several times falsifying data and frabicating hockey sticks.

    • jh

      Dr. Muller isn’t a climate scientist. Before his land surface temps showed agreement with NASA’s data, RealClimate told us over and over again that we shouldn’t listen to him.

      “non-tin-foil hat wearing ‘right wing’ climate scientist be found?”

      There are plenty that disagree with the Mann/Trenberth/Hansen/RealClimate end-of-the-world scenario.

      Judith Curry
      Roger Pielke Sr
      Roy Spencer
      Richard Muller

      Yep, that’s right, even Muller doesn’t accept the MTHRC end-of-the-world scenario. And many others are recognizing that sensitivity is turning out to be lower than predicted by the MTHRC crowd.

      Your comment is characteristic of the all-or-nothing position of climate activists and it’s why they’ve accomplished nothing.

  • harrywr2

    Almost all journalism is slanted, expecially from the major agency’s.

    I.E. CNN International is slanted differently then CNN USA.

    The same article appearing the the Washington Post and Charlotte Observer will be edited differently in order to avoid offending ‘local’ sensibilities.

  • BBD

    That would be Ryan Maue, described by Rush Limbaugh as ‘a good guy’ who works with Joe D’Aleo and Joe Bastardi… ?

    FFS Keith.

    ;-)

    • BBD

      Eh – just realised you linked to the WB team page. So yes, RM is a tad partisan himself. Your point is what – that MM and Trenberth are commies? I’m at a loss to see what you are driving at here KK.

      • Keith Kloor

        I’m at a loss that you are at a loss. How could you possibly infer that I’m suggesting that MM and Trenberth are commies? How do you get that? I’d like to see the mental logic involved in that interpretation.

      • Marlowe Johnson

        i’m with Keith on this one BBD. his post is more about how the day-to-day habits and constraints of journalism can be annoying. an explanation isn’t always a justification eh?

        But Keith I do wonder if a post like this offers an opportunity for you to consider the wisdom of your own reliance on the Breakthrough Tribe ;)

        • Keith Kloor

          Marlowe,

          In what way do you see that “reliance”? At least a couple times a year they publish reports or articles in their journal that get wide play in the media, because they challenge conventional wisdom. I write about those times the say that we see other journalists cover it–as newsworthy events.

          In fact, I see Ted and Michael have a new article up that is starting to make the rounds:

          http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/michael-shellenberger-and-ted-nordhaus/gas-crushes-coal/

          I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but when I do, I bet it’s something I might blog on. Does that mean I’m reliant on them.

          The animus that folks like you have towards TBI puzzles the hell out of me. But then again, I noticed that the deep greens over at Grist and the resident curmudgeon at Climate Progress can’t stand them, either. That tells more about them, then it does about TBI.

          My overall attitude about TBI is that they play a valuable role in environmental debates–even if you don’t agree with them on some or all the issues. Dismissing them out of hand or denigrating them the way some do, or snarling at those who dare to write about their work is petty and childish.

          • Marlowe Johnson

            Keith I’m more Levi than Romm. while i think that their polemic ‘death of environmentalism’ (channelingn Dowie’s Losing Ground) had merit, it is nonetheless dated. from my POV they’ve become knee-jerk contrarians to the ‘conventional wisdom’. judging by the depth of their arguments, i’d suggest that they’ve run out of insightful ideas but have nonetheless remembered one of the lessons of their earlier success — a surefire way to stay in the spotlight is to challenge the conventional wisdom. trouble is, sometimes the conventional wisdom is…wise…

            when is the last time you delved into the arguments of robert stavins or Marty Weitzmann or Frank Ackerman — or to quote another BTI fellow, Ulrich Beck? many of these other people have very interesting things to say on the climate change issue fwiw….

          • Keith Kloor

            I’m pretty sure I have discussed Weitzmann’s work during the early years of the blog, but I’ll have to check. Some of the others, like Stavins, have made a big mark on climate policy, so in actuality, it’s the critical analysis of his work that interests me more. But to your point, happy to give a fresh look at the bunch you name.

          • jh

            The discussion between you two is interesting. My perspective on climate is lukewarm. Keith is well to the left of me, and I think that shows in some of his posts, but I’m also occasionally guilty of over-interpreting Keith’s criticisms as being “against” my POV (just as BBD has done above).

            But overall I like Keith’s constant search for new intellectual angles, be they for or against my POV, and for the intellectual backflips that many pundits do to justify what are otherwise opposing positions (eg., accepting the science on GMO vs accepting the science on climate).

            At least Keith is awake and thinking. At least he’s questioning what’s going on – on both sides of the line. That’s more than I can say for most pundits.

          • Marlowe Johnson

            Keith my point is that your guilty of the very same habits of journalists who operate under much tighter time constraints than you do. as a freelance journalist I would hope that you — and Revkin — would spend more time cultivating and culling your rolodex…

          • Keith Kloor

            Marlowe,

            Can you explain how exactly I am guilty of this? Because every so often I write about a TBI report or reference them in an post or article?

            Your point seems to be that you don’t like when I do that. But how is that evidence of me quoting the same sources all the time? Please be more specific.

    • Keith Kloor

      Do you see anything in my post that endorses or approves of what Maue says in his tweets?

      • BBD

        You don’t make it obvious where RM is coming from; context is missing. You imply that reporting might be enhanced by a broader spread of scientific sources than MM and KT, but then, it is, isn’t it? This is perilously close to a strawman.

        Taken together, IMO what you say in the main post is itself skewed, or at the very least, open to misinterpretation.

        • Keith Kloor

          I find that those who have such strong feelings on climate change (on both ends of the spectrum) tend to misinterpret or read into what I write.

          If it can be helped, I’d prefer not to spoon feed people. Every writer knows that readers bring their own biases and predispositions to a piece. Occupational hazard. I accept that, even if I can’t make you see it.

          • MIchael Larkin

            Every reader knows that writers bring their own biases and predispositions to a piece. One accepts that no one is free from bias. One can only hope that now and then, despite bias on both sides, some truth is discerned: and that may turn out to be something neither had expected.

  • harkin

    Any “scientist” who deleted data from 1940 on as a means to “hide the decline” would not be one I would be using for factual backup. Oh yeah, he also had to retract claims he won a Nobel Prize. Clown science maybe but not very reliable.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/11/30/hide-the-decline-worse-than-we-thought/

  • siempre44

    I used to buy Discover but I seldom bother even to read free articles as the magazine has developed into a Left-wing biased propaganda site. The inclusion of non-sequitor political talking points is exactly the point of the tweets the article references. That is the hallmark of bias- throw in your belief as an aside until people start to just accept the belief as fact. Propaganda 101.

  • Common_Sense_Post

    I have been quoted a lot in publications regarding my expertise (which is not AGW). Basically, the reporter wants me to write the story for them in a series of quotes that can be strung together to make the topic. They do not (within reason) care what the result is as long as it is a reasonable sounding story. Also, those that know me know what the story likely will be. They do not call others. After they have talked with me their story is done. It is complete. They can knock off for the day well within deadline.

    When reporters want their canned AGW story linked to the storm du jour, just call these guys and they will write it for them. Easy as saying “reporter is the only job I could get out of college with my liberal arts degree and only modest embrace of ambition!”

  • David Young

    There is an element of leftist sentiment in this, Keithe, that I’m surprised you missed. Journalists are overwhelmingly Democrat and vote that way. Numerous surveys show this. In the last generation, one becomes a journalist because one wants to improve the world and that means a search for a worthy cause. And of course conducting a witch hunt for those causing the problems is also often necessary to get the masses whipped up. Thus, coming climate catastrophe is the perfect issue for their attention. They naturally turn to those who will give them a clear (although biased) message that we are in deep trouble.

    It calls into question your credentials Keithe that you don’t realize that Mann is leftist. In his book, a great deal of ink is spent indicting big oil and spinning conspiracy theories that they are behind climate skepticism. It’s really pretty pathetic stuff. Mann provides a perfect message, we are all going to die and the evil BIG OIL is behind it. Perfect, a cause that will save mankind and a devil who can be blamed.

  • jh

    “2) speak concisely in clear language (no jargon!) that helps explain/sheds light/makes an important point.”

    That’s kind of an interesting one. Many reporters including our host report on the same themes frequently. I’d think they’d know some of the jargon and, at least for the more experienced and/or regular science reporters, actually be reading some of the papers.

    And wouldn’t this be interesting: what if the reporter actually asked each of h/her sources a question directly challenging that source’s position? That’s what you see in politics. Do reporters assume that scientists always provide fundamental truth?

  • kenroyall

    Writers on climate don’t care about politics? Hmm. Why is that every damn weather event is being attributed to “Climate Change” then? It certainly can’t be empirically proven that a random snowstorm wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t emitting carbon. There have been storms since the beginning of time, long before man even existed. The media and has bought into the alarmist narrative completely, anyone who doesn’t see that is insane.

  • chadke

    Main stream media is always slanted towards alarm. “Esteemed” scientists/activists Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth are known promoters of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change even though the empirical data to support the hypothesis does not exist at this time. Journalists such as The NY Times Andy Revkin were very willing to publish their unsupported claims as the climategate emails showed.

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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, and an 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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