It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Story About the News

I don't think it is a good idea to stop repeating that there is only one climategate story of any significance, and it is the story of how the press were manipulated to take a middle of the road position. Paulina Essunger, in a comment at Yulsman's, said much of what needs to be said to get the conversation started.

As we have come to expect from the people interested in covering us, there was a virtual shrug and a turn away. Nobody in the press is willing to say that this is a journalism story above all. So it's left to us to keep saying it.

I had a wonderful IM chat with Paulina today and I convinced her to let me rerun her comment as a guest posting. So Paulina to the press, take it away:

The “story about the news”?

Sounds great. Here’s some more background.

““The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed,” Tierney wrote, “but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”” (Clark Hoyt)

No, it did not illustrate that.

The IPCC AR4 states that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The story behind the graph has no bearing on this claim.

In fact, Tierney’s sentence is simply false and grossly misleading.

This is just one example of how the New York Times has helped manufacture the impression that these emails should damage the public’s trust in climate science and climate scientists.

Who’s going to cover *this* story about the news?

The NYT immediately ran a front page article that claimed–based on pure fantasy–that the hacked material could “erode the overall argument,” the overall anthropogenic global warming argument. The article made this claim implicitly, by making the understatement of the year: the article said the material was “unlikely to erode the overall argument.” By writing “unlikely,” the NYT implied it was possible. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yet no evidence for the possibility that a bunch of emails could do this was offered at all.

Or consider the epitome of false balance, put forward by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media, of all things:

“Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose.”

Once again we have the suggestion that the materials possibly could undermine the overall argument.

You do not have to be a climate scientist to see that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to suppose that the hacked material possibly could have the power to erode the overall argument.

Instead of recognizing and honoring this burden of proof, the media ignored it and manufactured the possibility.

Ironically, to their relative credit, less serious media and hate media at least acknowledge that endowing the materials with such fantastic powers is premised on a conspiracy fantasy.

The media engaged in wishful rather than critical thinking and engaged in a sensationalistic approach. This is no one’s fault but their own. This massive media FAIL is what most desperately needs to be examined in order for there to be any lessons learned from the very unseemly business of reading other people’s mail.

Mainstream science and environmental journalists got “the story” massively wrong.


Perhaps Andy Revkin has part of the answer. In an essay on science writing he points out that, by the “metric of the media,” it’s the “reporter’s job” to be “irresponsible.” “Finding the one element that’s new and implies malfeasance [even if the "find" or "implication" proves mistaken] is the key to getting on the front page.”

I think this irresponsibility, this carelessness–a smashing up of things and creatures–warrants a lot more “story about the news” coverage.

You seem very interested in Dr. Curry. Why?

Curry, of course, has made very strong claims, in the NYT and elsewhere, regarding the effect of the stolen CRU materials on “public trust.” But Dr. Curry had no data (and possibly no argument–I’ve tried over the course of the day to work out, with her, what her argument was, with no success, so far) to back up this assertion and neither did the NYT. Further, there’s been very little exploration of what the concept even means (for instance, Curry’s essay on the topic blurs normative and descriptive concepts, thereby leaving the issue *less* clear). And little distinction between potential damage done by the materials themselves, as a kind of proxy for the scientists, and potential damage done by misleading media coverage.

I look forward to blow-by-blow coverage of media missteps from Nov 20 to the present.

I also look forward to constructive, clear, focused exchanges on what lessons journalists need to learn from this and how the media can avoid making the same mistakes again. This is the time for some serious media introspection.


Horatio Algeranon said...

Journalists are a little like psychics:

When they get it right (which even happens occasionally by pure chance), they shout it out to the Heavens (or at least to Oprah)

When they get it wrong, nary a peep leaves their lips (certainly not voluntarily)

And when their errors are so blatantly obvious that they can not simply ignore them without looking like complete fools, they fall back on the tried and true

"Don't blame me. Blame the fellow I was channeling" (...that guy, what's his name, Curve Ball)

manuel "moe" g said...

Thanks for posting this! Great stuff.

Steve Bloom said...

A man had bitten a dog, or at least things could be presented that way. The centrist statements were simply the tool for holding the man and dog equal so that the story would appear credible.

gravityloss said...

Very very interesting that some things are finally happening!

Maybe Michael Tobis can get a contact with Revkin and there can at least be an exposition of the problems of media, by the media themselves! That would raise my appreciation hugely!

Also, I note that dr Tobis is referenced multiple times as a known voice.

Also, Keith Kloor seems to still not understand the whole false balance fallacy. The "two murders" explanation was nice, as were numerous others in the thread. He probably needs to have someone he can trust explain it to him. At the moment he just throws everyone angry in the "his opinion is against me" bin.

Also his retreat into the "but it doesn't matter what we say" is almost pattern like. Maybe there is more to it there then that WE should understand. That the media gives a spectrum of voices and it is the responsibility of the listener to decide. That's his "I'm just a messenger" meme as well.
I think this needs to be tackled in depth.
The most basic assumption countering that line of thinking of course is that a layman audience can not really judge between a wide and diverse rainbow-like spectrum of voices and it is the job of the journalist to demand or dig up some evidence and prescreen some claims or at least present them in the correct light. Say, AIDS or conspiracy theories. There is a conspiracy theory probably about everything that's happening - the mayor opening a new day care center.

Though, nowadays, everything tends to be about claims and actual reality is secondary. Advertising is more important than actual quality. So it is only following the world's general trends. And we are participating it - someone did something, someone said something about it, someone said something about what someone said, and etc. Meta.
This meta level is needed but not of course sufficient.

paulina said...

Today, over in the right margin of your blog under "mt's shared items," there's a link to a Maibach et al. study (early release Sep 3, 2010).

The study used "a web-based survey of TV meteorologists nationwide to assess the impact of “Climategate” – the unauthorized release of, and news stories about, emails between climate scientists in the US and UK – on their beliefs about climate change."

From a Story-about-the-News perspective, it is refreshing that the definiens is a *conjunction*:

"the unauthorized release of, AND news stories about, emails between climate scientists"

As per the above post, early on, claims were instead made in "news stories" about the effect of "the emails" (themselves) on "public trust."

I'll leave it at that.