I didn’t get into journalism to be a media watchdog, but it’s become one facet of my career since I started this blog in 2009. Curtis Brainard, the science editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, has taken note of my GMO-related posts and articles and written a nice appraisal. Here’s an excerpt: Read More
I used to think, as I wrote in Slate last year, that nothing rivaled the amount of misinformation that has so badly muddied climate science:
Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they’ve been and who has helped them pull it off.
I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.
British newspaper journalism is an odd creature. The Daily Mail, as I discussed here, is a freakish beast that continues to willfully (how else to explain it?) mangle climate science and misrepresent climate scientists. Myles Allen is the latest victim of David Rose’s crazy-ass reporting on climate change. And yet what to make of Allen’s rationale for Rose’s latest hatchet job:
I am perfectly prepared to believe David sent in an accurate article that was then hacked to pieces in the newsroom.
I would like to know if Allen wrote that with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, or whether he’s just deluding himself? For by now any scientist who talks to David Rose surely knows that what Rose puts in his stories bear little resemblance to what x or y climate scientist said to him over a pint of beer or over the phone. That’s the one fact you can bank on in any David Rose story on climate change.
One of the staples of immersion journalism are gimmicky stunts that lead Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z and follow every single rule in the bible for one year. The genre has its classics, such as George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere and Newjack, and one of my favorites, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In the food arena, Michael Pollan has famously followed his cow and Morgan Spurlock once ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. In recent years, environmental themes have also been painstakingly explored by No Impact Man and the Guardian’s Leo Hickman.
There is no shortage of cool and dumb ideas that I’m almost ashamed I haven’t yet cashed in on this shopworn formula. Read More
That’s not really a fair question, because they’re both vital. But if I was the administrator at a university and a foundation offered me funding to establish a program curriculum for one or the other–which would result in a mandatory class for all in-coming freshmen–I would choose news literacy. I’ll explain why in a minute.
First, let me say outright that I am a champion of science education. I want my two sons to not only be scientifically literate, I want them to enjoy science. They are now in kindergarten and third grade, respectively, but since their pre-school days, both of them have taken after-school science classes and have attended science camp during the summers. The person who runs the after-school classes and summer camp is an elementary school science teacher in my neighborhood. His name is Carmelo Piazza. He is a rock star. I know what a formative influence he is from my own experience as a parent of two children who have been learning science from him for several years.
I also know that Piazza has a lasting influence on students. Some months ago, I was in my local Starbucks, working on an article. Two college students were sitting next to me. Piazza walked in and one of them recognized him. She jumped up with a big smile and introduced herself (“Do you remember me, I was in your science class…”). Piazza said he did, they chitchatted, then he got his coffee and left. After Piazza walked out the door, his old student turned to her friend and said, “Best science teacher ever.”
So I get how important science is and how important it is to have really good science teachers. Some of our biggest public debates involve science (such as climate change and genetic engineering). An informed citizenry can only help raise the level of public understanding on these subjects. That said, we are coming to learn that our knowledge of some politically charged issues (like climate change and genetic engineering) is filtered through our worldviews and predispositions. This complicates the discourse and makes facts less relevant that we would like. Read More
As Slate noted last year, the UK’s Daily Mail is “the world’s most popular online newspaper.” It’s not exactly a news you can use publication. Imagine if you crossed the New York Post (and its worst tendencies) with the National Enquirer and maybe throw in a splash of Weekly World News. That’s the Daily Mail.
So the headlines on any given day highlight the most heinous, bizarre, and ass-clownish aspects of humanity. Imagine a newspaper that covered the world as if it was one big freak show. That’s the Daily Mail.
Then there is its pseudo-serious side, where typists write stories about serious subjects, like climate change. It so happens that one of Britain’s most famous tabloid typists, James Delingpole, has a byline in the Daily Mail today, in which he pronounces:
Without fanfare — apparently in the desperate hope no one would notice — it [the UK's Met Office] has finally conceded what other scientists have known for ages: there is no evidence that ‘global warming’ is happening.
Whew. I’m so glad that’s finally resolved! I was really starting to think that scientists might actually be on to something. [For a reality-based version on what this is all about, see Andrew Revkin's post at Dot Earth.] I especially appreciated the independent, non-biased sources in Delingpole’s measured, non-hyperbolic article. And no cherry-picking of stats, either! Brilliantly done.
Oh wait a second. The Met Office has responded at its blog:
This article contains a series of factual inaccuracies about the Met Office and its science…
The post goes on to rebut all the unsubstantiated statements in Delingpole’s piece. I bet he and the Daily Mail editors who approved the story are snickering over their hijinks. They have to know that what they put out is horseshit wrapped in fishwrap. But hey, it’s lowbrow science entertainment for the masses!
Let’s hope the people are in on the joke.
Had interesting conversations with a couple of enviro jouros today. Both agreed that media refusal to report “reasonable middle” is problem.
This prompted UK climate scientist Richard Betts to respond:
It is increasingly annoying that some media cover climate as a debate between NGOs and sceptics, with no actual scientists.
Plenty of stories in media with just one scientist, and no counter view at all.
He linked to a recent post of his that pointed out a spate of such stories.
All three observations are, to varying degrees, legitimate. Of course, there’s this grumble at the other end of the grievance spectrum: Not enough sirens and flashing lights.
Meanwhile, another take that addresses the dysfunctional climate discourse (and its resulting polarization) is advanced by Yale’s Dan Kahan, who argues that our “reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment.” He writes:
People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked with accessible, consequential facts. As a result, groups with different values routinely converge on the best evidence for, say, the value of adding fluoride to water, or the harmlessness of mobile-phone radiation. The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings “” ones that effectively announce that “˜if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’.
This tribal dynamic pretty much characterizes the state of our climate debate today. Any efforts to cleanse the “polluted science-communication environment” that Kahan refers to will necessarily require the media (across the spectrum) to curb its too often simplistic and sensationalistic coverage of climate change. Is that possible?
In a 2006 NYT op-ed, environment writer Gregg Easterbrook pronounced:
based on the data I’m now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.
In 2011, in an essay titled, “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert,” conservative blogger D. R. Tucker said:
I was defeated by facts.
While others have made similar conversions over the last decade, nobody’s has been as closely scrutinized and widely discussed (in the media and blogosphere) as that of Berkley physicist Richard Muller. But the circumstances and hoopla surrounding his “conversion” has puzzled many in the climate science community, including NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt:
As most readers are probably aware, there was an op-ed in the Saturday New York Times from Richard Muller announcing the Berkeley Earth team’s latest results. It was odd enough that a scientific paper was announced via an op-ed, rather than a press release, odder still that the paper was only being submitted and had not actually been accepted, and most odd of all was the framing ““ a “˜converted skeptic’ being convinced by his studies that the planet has indeed warmed and that human activity is the cause ““ which as Mike and Ken Caldiera pointed out has been known for almost 2 decades.
Gavin also correctly noted that “the “˜converted skeptic’/prodigal scientist meme is a very powerful framing for the media.” This has been borne out by the lavish coverage Muller received everywhere from NPR and Rachel Maddow to the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.
When it comes to climate change, the conversion meme–especially when it’s deftly exploited by someone with a flair for self-publicity–is like catnip for the media.
The Guardian (which I pointed to as one of those publications that didn’t scrutinize the report) covers the UCS screwup:
The Union of Concerned Scientists has revised a report accusing major US companies of distorting the public conversation about climate change, saying it made a mistake counting donations from General Electric to thinktanks.
When the original report was released, numerous journalists and bloggers gobbled it up uncritically. I suspect that is because it neatly accorded with a meme that even Chris Mooney now admits is outdated:
Despite my praise for [Michael] Mann and his book””and I even gave it a cover blurb””I do have some differences with him. For instance, I think that here and in his public comments, Mann tends to focus too heavily on the idea that resistance to climate science, and his research, is corporate driven. Or as he puts it in the book: “well organized, well-funded, and orchestrated.” In contrast, I have increasingly come to think it is primarily ideological””driven by libertarian individualism, and those who embrace this view and its associated emotions””and the corporate connection is secondary (though often real). I thus think that focusing on it too much misleads us as to the nature of the opposition, which has grown so ideological at this point””and so driven by gut emotion””that it does the traditionally pragmatic business community no favors. If anything, it is out of synch with its own presumptive allies.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, along with others who are still eager to cast big corporations as public enemy number one, might want to ask themselves if their own ideological obsessions have them chasing after shadows.
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:
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?