The Biz: The Great Challenge: Getting the Climate Change Story Right

May 1, 2009


Saving daily newspapers is all the buzz. The latest thing.

So too, of course, is saving the climate. From climate change, that is. At least it was until the global economy went critical. Now it's fallen somewhat. To, let's say, something-bazillion. At least that's how some commentators and would-be policy geeks see things.

But not the Obama administration. It still seems bent — and from the standpoint of those who see climate change as linked indelibly to global economic security this is commendable — on doing something meaningful about the issue.

Add to the Executive Branch's fervor to move forward talk from House and Senate leaders, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), for instance, says he is determined to bring major climate change legislation to a floor vote by the end of this summer. Californians Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, and Henry Waxman, Energy and Commerce Committee Chair, seem no less committed to action than they were before the Dow-dive.

So in the wake of newly declared bankruptcy declarations in Minneapolis and Philadelphia…and shut-downs of print editions in Seattle and Denver — we have a challenge — the nation's media must do a responsible job in covering the coming climate change debates in Washington.

Adding to this challenge is that many D.C. news bureaus, with fewer than half the states now having at least one newspaper with a Washington bureau, toil with fewer reporters and editors. Another complicating factor: some newspapers are increasingly balking at what they see as burdensome pricing for wire service coverage, a manifestation of the hyper-localization trends sweeping news rooms.

In this context, there comes Shorenstein Center Kalb Fellow Eric Pooley with a reminder that climate change offers "the great political test, and the great story, of our time. But news organizations have not been treating it that way."

In a January paper ( for Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Pooley, a contributor to Time and the former Fortune managing editor, writes that "a vigorous press ought to be central to both climate policy and climate politics." But, he understates, "this is not a time of media vigor" because of a "secular revenue decline that is driving huge reductions in newspaper staff and making disciplined climate coverage less likely just as it becomes most critical."

Repeat: "Just as it becomes most critical."

What makes it critical, mind you, is not simply the advent of a new administration seemingly determined to take the issue seriously, and act on it, but also the approaching year-end international negotiations in Copenhagen, which are virtually certain to take place in the context of a continuing global economic crisis. Oh yes, and there's the underlying science too.

Emboldened somewhat by the continued bellicosity, if not veracity, of their loudest and most sustained contrarians and "skepticians," the flailing beat of climate science contrarians is morphing to climate policy and climate economics contrarians, missing not a beat in the transition from science to policy.

So will the media, newly compliant in their financial doldrums, repeat their past and bestow an ill-fitted journalistic "balance" to policy differences crying out for fair, impartial, and detached analyses?

As the climate change beat steadily morphs from the disappearing daily newspaper sections and pages once committed to science and business, can the general assignment writers in tomorrow's shrinking newsrooms muster the knowledge to tell chaff from wheat and place accuracy and fairness above quantitative balance.

Will their editors, those, of course, who are left, buy it? In his useful and thoughtful analysis, Pooley provides examples raising some concerns. He finds mistaken instances, in the media's coverage of last fall's Senate climate bill debates, of doomsday economic forecasts being treated as straight news, without sufficient journalistic vetting. And he puts forward some measures for evaluating the coming news coverage:

• Will the reporter as stenographer merely record "the give and take of the debate without commentary, at most favoring one side through the selection and presentation of facts but shying away from firm conclusions?";

• Will the reporter come off rather as a "referee" — "keeping both sides honest by calling fouls and failures to play by the rules?";

• Or will the reporter "appoint himself judge and jury, passing sentence on who is right and wrong?"

Pooley allows that each journalistic approach may be appropriate in certain cases. "But in this ferocious public policy debate, in my view, the most valuable journalistic role is that of referee." The reporter-as-stenographer mode, he says, doesn't add much of value and amounts to a shirking of journalistic responsibilities. Those passing themselves off in their news columns as judges, advocates, "or peddlers of opinion" should give up their reporting posts for a "column or blog," he writes.

Reporters covering climate — whether it's THE story of the century or just THE environment story of the year — owe it to themselves to step back from the daily rush of their jobs and think hard about how best to handle the journalistic challenges that await them. Eric Pooley's report – "How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics of Climate Change" – offers an effective way for them to prime their pumps. And ultimately to refine their coverage for their audiences.


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

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter, SEJournal Spring, 2009 issue.

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