A Look at Award Winners and the Media's Vetting of Candidates on Climate Change

October 15, 2011

The Beat

By BILL DAWSON

A lot has been written and said — some of it here at The Beat — about how non-profit journalistic outlets are striving to fill some of the coverage gaps created by the decimation of reporting staffs at many commercial news outlets in recent years.

The results of SEJ’s 2010-2011 Awards for Reporting on the Environment offer further testimony to the increasingly important role that non-profit news outlets — both newer ventures and long-established journalistic organizations — now play in keeping the public informed about environmental issues.

The most recent list of SEJ Awards winners is a shorter and more streamlined version of previous years' rosters. SEJ modified the categories “to reflect changes in the way reporting is done” and eliminate “the separation of media, since journalists often report using various media.”

Not counting the three honorees in the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award category, there were 15 awards — first-, second- and third-place winners in four categories plus first- and second-place winners and an honorable mention in a fifth category.

The winning entries for 12 of those 15 awards were non-profit reporting organizations (including public broadcasting entities), or partnership teams of such entrants and commercial news outlets.

All told, 13 of the 21 news organizations or outlets that were honored by the 15 awards — nearly two-thirds— were non-profit or public broadcasting entities.

The New York-based investigative newsroom ProPublica, for instance, was a first-place winner in both the large- and small-market categories of the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-Depth Reporting.

The organization’s large-market award was for reporting on last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil leak, in conjunction with co-winner PBS Frontline. ProPublica’s small-market award was for reporting on defective drywall, in partnership with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida.

The first-place prizes in two of the other award categories went to a non-profit and a public broadcasting program.

The non-profit magazine Mother Jones was the top honoree in the category for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for its coverage of BP’s Gulf spill. Other non-profit magazines honored with awards were National Geographic, the second-place winner in the large-market in-depth category for reporting on environmental problems in Madagascar, and High Country News, the third-place winner in the small-market in-depth category for what the judges called “an elegy to nature’s endless resourcefulness.”

The second public broadcasting program receiving a top award was PBS Newshour, which was the first-place winner for Outstanding Single Story with a piece on water issues in the Middle East.

Another honoree in the public broadcasting field was PRI’s The World, partnering with the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Environmental Reporting Fellowships. The team won the third-place award in the Large-Market Beat category for stories on a variety of subjects. Another public broadcasting winner was Maine Public Broadcasting, winning the third-place Small-Market Beat prize for an entry entitled “Science Skeptics, Corporate Lobbyists and the Assault on Maine’s Environment.”

Rounding out the list of non-profit organizations receiving honors was the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity with recognition in two categories for its investigative project reporting on safety issues at oil refineries.The Center project, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ABC News as partners, was the third-place winner in the [Carmody] large-market in-depth category.

The Center and the Atlanta paper also received an honorable mention for Outstanding Single Story.

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In honoring the Maine Public Broadcasting entry in the latest SEJ Awards, the judges observed:

“Politicians often fudge and prevaricate, and it is the journalist’s obligation to determine the difference between truth, ‘truthiness,’ and downright lies. In a series of reports, [MPB deputy news director] Susan P. Sharon took the governor’s own words and followed them where they led: as often as not, to misinformation, disinformation, and falsehood.”

Your Beat columnist agrees that work such as Sharon’s is “the journalist’s obligation,” but that doesn’t mean it’s an obligation that every journalist meets, every time he or she writes or broadcasts a story.

A frequent charge against the news media over the years has been that, rather than meeting their truth-verifying (and falsehood-identifying) obligation, many journalists, in the service of “balance,” too often created a “false equivalence” in reports on climate change — counterposing the conclusions of the great majority of scientists and the criticisms of that consensus by a much smaller group of “skeptic” scientists.

Time will tell, of course, but conclusion-drawing inquiries into the accuracy of two prominent politicians’ climate assertions by a pair of journalistic fact-checking services in August, plus other related reporting at the same time, may signal a greater interest among journalists in avoiding the “false equivalence” charges.

First, the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact (winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2009) gave a “false” rating to former GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty’s claim that there is “scientific dispute” about climate change and that “the weight of evidence is that most of it, maybe all of it, is because of natural causes ...”

PolitiFact came down hard:

“Based on our research, there is very little dispute in the scientific community, especially among climate specialists, on whether climate change is primarily caused by natural or man-made forces. The overwhelming majority of scientists polled feel that human activity is the primary driver of climate change. Also, based on scientific studies by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and others, global warming over the past 50 years has been primarily driven by human activity.

“Based upon the preponderance of evidence we conclude that [former Minnesota Gov.] Tim Pawlenty’s claims are both incorrect and misleading to the public, who may not be familiar with the science behind climate change. It is not ‘fair to say the science is in dispute,’ as if there are good arguments on both sides. Rather, there is significant scientific consensus that human beings are contributing to global warming.”

Shortly after another governor — Texan Rick Perry — jumped into the race for the Republican nomination, he made some remarks on climate change that drew a flurry of media attention.

Perry had long been an often-joking “skeptic” about climate science, progressing in his 2010 book Fed Up! to the harder-edged charge that the science behind the idea of manmade global warming is “one contrived phony mess” based on “doctored data.”

Soon after announcing his presidential candidacy, he added the new (for him) allegation of motive — scientists manipulated data so they could have “dollars rolling into their projects.” At the same time, he claimed that “almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

Among many other news reports — some of which focused largely on the years-old fact that Perry publicly dissents from mainstream climate science — was an inquiry into the accuracy of his campaign-trail assertions by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker columnist Glenn Kessler.

Like PolitiFact with Pawlenty, Kessler pulled no punches in an Aug. 18 column, awarding Perry “Four Pinocchios” — Fact Checker’s rating for politician statements with the highest level of untruth (which it calls “whoppers”).

Kessler found that neither the data manipulation charge nor the claim that increasing numbers of scientists question man-made warming was true. His overall conclusion:

“Perry’s statement suggests that, on the climate change issue, the governor is willfully ignoring the facts and making false accusations based on little evidence. He has every right to be a skeptic — all scientific theories should be carefully scrutinized — but that does not give him carte blanche to simply make things up.”

Hey, it’s about time for some truth-telling, wrote RL Miller in Grist, the environmentalist web magazine, regarding the PolitiFact and Fact Checker reports:

“At long last, mainstream media begins to pay attention to the flat denial of basic climate science being pushed by right-wing Republican presidential candidates.

“Last year, my work on Climate Zombies — climate-denying candidates running for Congress — earned me a snippet on a New York Times blog, but most mainstream media ran stories presenting climate science as an issue with two sides.

“Things have been changing as the media realize that people who deny climate science also deny other scientific realities.”

Miller concluded by asking:

“Will the rest of the mainstream media now call out [U.S. Rep. Michele] Bachmann and Perry for repeating obvious falsities? Or will their statements be presented as one legitimate side of a two-sided debate?”

A subsequent article on Poynter Institute’s website weighed such questions and found that reporting on politicians’ climate claims may increasingly be highlighting the occasions when they depart from the consensus scientific view.

Adam Hochberg, writing in the Aug. 23 piece about Perry’s climate comments (and his skeptical remarks later about evolution), examined “the challenge journalists face when science intermingles with politics.”

“Many of the media accounts” of Perry’s climate remarks “attempted to reflect the scientific context,” Hochberg concluded. One example he cited:

“The Fort Worth Star-Telegram told readers in Perry’s homestate, ‘While most climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that fossil fuel combustion is helping warm the Earth, a core group of dissenters, coupled with some conservative groups and activists, has challenged that view.’

“I worked on that sentence for about 10 minutes,” Star-Telegram political reporter Aman Batheja told me in a phone interview. “That was an important part of the story, that Perry was saying something that’s different from what most experts in the field feel.”

However, Hochberg wrote, “a handful of media organizations chose to report Perry's comments without any scientific context.” One example he provided was Agence France-Presse:

The AFP story “included some interesting information, including polls showing a good deal of doubt among the public about evolution and man’s effect on the climate,” he observed.

Hochberg added: “But AFP correspondent Mira Oberman said in a phone interview … that she regrets omitting the scientific perspective from her story about the Texas governor’s remarks.

“I should have thrown a line in there saying this runs contrary to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of scientists,” said Oberman, who writes mainly for an overseas audience.

“What’s problematic for some journalists is they get caught up in the idea that you have to be balanced and you can’t take a partisan position,” Oberman said. “Once a politician turns a fact-based issue into something that’s partisan, they feel handcuffed.”

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.


From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2011 issue.