Letting the Reader See Your Editorial Judgments Might Enhance Them

October 15, 2009



Environmental reporters should spend more time covering issues they just don't cover.

I know what you're thinking ... then, they'd be covering it.

Not exactly. Hear me out.

The public at large hasn't the faintest idea how much material comes across the desk, over the transom, whatever, of the most sentient environmental journalists.

Not the faintest.

They have no notion of concepts such as a limited news hole, competition for finite air time and column inches from other legitimate news items (and, increasingly, even from the most transparently illegitimate but "entertaining"). Nor, in many cases, do they have much notion of even their own limitations or appetite for serious environmental news.

Those are all items properly in the portfolio of serious environmental journalists and of their presumably equally serious editors.

So enter the notion of covering issues you don't, or just can't, cover.

The thought arose recently as the result of an inquiry to the Web site I edit, Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. A seemingly earnest reader asked why the site continues to represent the existence of some kind of scientific accord, "consensus," on the notions of observed atmospheric warming and of a significant human influence on that warming.

Simple, I directly responded, though politely and respectfully. I'll quote here just what I replied:

"We are guided in our understanding of climate change science by the foremost scientific bodies in the world — the National Academy of Sciences, IPCC, the American Geophysical Union, the American Assn for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Society of London, and the Physics Society. Each of these organizations reports an overwhelming agreement among relevant sciences on proven observations of warming and on a significant, not exclusive, human role in that warming. Each indicates that neither the quality nor the quantity of dissenting views on those issues detracts from the overwhelming consensus on the strength of the scientific evidence. Until some of those organizations find scientific evidence to the contrary, we must be guided by their expertise."

Those points were nonstarters, it turns out. The rebuttal came in the form of a snarky reference to the widely dismissed "Oregon Petition" and the purported 31,000-plus scientists' signatures. It's a straw horse veteran climate journalists know not to take seriously.

As for the organizations supporting the IPCC science? The reader's take: "The stuffy old organizations you mentioned in your first e-mail are totally out of touch with recent developments. How many in those organizations are actually climatologists, meteorologists, paleontologists, or geologists?? Not many?? Didn't think so."

So we'll continue, so long as the reputable scientific community does, to represent broad scientific agreement on those two points, and to not "balance" with those few maintaining otherwise. Another example, again one well known to journalists tilling these fertile fields:

An Environmental Protection Agency career civil servant, an economist, recently penned a tome on climate science, as seen from his perspective as an intelligent, but nonscientist, perspective. No problem there, but EPA civil servants and political appointees above him in effect have been accused of covering up the 90-plus-page report in their political and policy zeal to issue their carbon dioxide "endangerment" decision opening the way for regulation.

Cover it, or not? Had the economist written knowledgeably on a field in which he has proven expertise — let's say, for instance, economics, cost/benefits, that sort of thing — and argued knowledgeably about the agency's direction — and had that report then been suppressed — it for sure would have been news.

Despite some advocates' subsequent efforts to make hay of the report, was this really such news as to command space in your limited news budget? The "science" as presented was, after all, dated, meticulously cherry-picked, and readily refutable by authoritative sources. Any claim of academic excellence or scientific seriousness just didn't hold up. Why go to the bother of suppressing something so easily dismissed simply by reference to authoritative science?

And while not handled as well as it might have been (particularly given long-standing objections that the predecessor Bush administration had suppressed climate science findings), even the cover-up charge appeared shaky ... and the document was freely available to anyone wanting it.

Cover or not cover? What if, as it might, it becomes a stumbling point — a rallying cry — for those using it to try to forestall legislation? Won't we wish then that we had addressed it earlier? Yes, perhaps. But can't we still do so at that point? Yes, certainly.

The specialized inside-the-Beltway newsletters were all over it, of course. As perhaps they should be. So too the bloggers, surely those partisan for or against climate legislation. No surprise there.

Many mainstream news organizations, however (yours included?) in effect decided not to cover — an entirely responsible and understandable editorial judgment.

So why cover something you decide, for purely journalistic reasons, not to cover in the first place? The answer lies in that term, "purely journalistic reasons."

It's one of the beauties of the Web, of the Internet, of blogs. Reporters can periodically — let's say, monthly — write briefly about those things they decided not to cover that month: Their rationale and providing links, even, for those wanting to know more. They can thereby open the doors to their own internal news decision-making, let the public see in, all in the interest of their better understanding the news-making process.

Among SEJ members, there are and have been rich dialogues on issues just like these — whether or not to cover the aged and largely rejected views of climate science "contrarians"; whether doing so, even if dismissing their arguments, grants them an unwarranted standing in the public's minds.

Bunk? Or de-bunk, that is the question.

In the end, the answer may be both. And it may be neither. But by reporting on the whys and wherefores of not covering certain issues, environmental reporters may just be giving more credence to the seriousness of the issues they docover out-the-chute.

That, in the end, might best serve not only the best interest of serious environmental journalism, but also of the American public and of an informed citizenry. They do, after all, go hand in hand. And they are, in the end, why so many of us got into this crazy business in the first place.

Try it. You may like it. And your audience may, too.

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and founder/ former editor of Environment Writer. He now is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.