"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the "climate beat" for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader's position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:
As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”
Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:
In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”
which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I'm always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren't juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:
“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”
Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:
Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.
Dykstra's advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It's certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn't mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:
  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?
It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn't feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More "not taking sides" like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:
he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:
The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported ... but that is simply not the case ... in April, 2009.
Where's Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?
Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from livius.org is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis "Two-Face", but, well, ewww.


Anonymous said...

I suggest you not waste time on Pielke Jr, Kloor or Yulsman. The reasons should be obvious. They are not striving for the truth and actially seem to avoid it at all costs.

Anna Haynes said...

Allow me to (mostly) quote.

> It doesn't feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled.

Agreed. "A newspaper's main product is not news or information, but influence"
...on its readers. And a newspaper's customers are its advertisers. What this will produce is a no-brainer.

> Conventional reporting and outreach have proven insufficient to give the public a fair impression of the science behind the world's daunting problems... What should well-informed people actually do about this gap?

"It's not enough to pull drowning victims out of the river; we need to walk back upstream and find out who's throwing them in."

jg said...

Popular media is tasked with satisfying the intellectual thirst of Joe Sixpack. With this comes some basic rules like "never use the technical voculary necessary to explain climatology."
A few years ago a local paper's columnist derided global warming as junk science, hot air, and being contradicted by the recent cool summer. I wrote what I thought was an excellent overview of the scope of the science and
managed to do so within the paper's 550 word limit. The editor encouraged me in my effort but said what I wrote was too technical for their audience. So, you can say "hot air" and "junk science" --terms needed by the contrarian/denialist position, but I can't say "chemical isotopes in plankton."

I get all my daily climate news (e.g., who's printing the latest ill-informed propaganda piece) from the climate blogger network that you're a part of. I tried to hunt down another writer from my local paper who understood the science and the propoganda and reported on both. I wanted to invite him to comment here. Alas, he doesn't appear to be with this paper anymore.

Tom Yulsman said...


I'm sorry you found my post "vapid" and "confusing," and that you could not discern a "compelling position." I thought I was very clear that as the climate story shifts from a focus on SCIENCE, where there is considerable consensus on the big AGW question, to a focus on POLICY, where there is no consensus on what we should do about the problem, journalists have to be careful to present multiple points of view. Our job is to give citizens the information they need to make up their own minds. You can disagree with that, but it is a fundamental journalistic role.

I thought I was also quite clear in conveying Steve Schneider's advice, which you excerpt here. If you can tell me how I could have been clearer about that, I would appreciate it.

Lastly, you wonder what Schneider said that I did not include in my story. It looks like you didn't see the "Open Notebook Project," which includes extensive posts on each of the interviews I did. So if you want to see the material that didn't make it into the final story, please go here: http://www.cejournal.net/?p=592

The Open Notebook Project was an experiment in journalistic transparency. So you might want to check it out.

Tom Yulsman said...

Gravity Loss:

I have worked for more than 30 years as a science writer. My first story on climate change was published in 1983, and I have written extensively on the subject every since. I edited a magazine called Earth magazine for four years, and we covered the issue proudly and boldly when few others would touch it. My whole journalistic career has been dedicated to striving for the truth. I can't say that I always succeed. But I try as hard as I can.

It's a shame that you are so blinded by your own ideology and misplaced anger that the only thing you can think to do is demonize other people.

Tom Yulsman said...


It is most certainly true that science is covered abysmally on cable and broadcast news. Now that CNN has canned its science/environment/technology unit, there is not a single full-time reporter or producer in all of cable and broadcast news dedicated to covering these subjects. It is unquestionably a travesty. Such is the state of our culture.

But you write about "popular media" as if it is a uniform, monolithic entity. In reality, there are more journalistic options for readers and viewers than ever before. You blame some monolithic media entity for the poor quality of science journalism. But the crap that is peddled on places like Fox News is there because there are millions of people who want to consume it. I think media corporations and our popular culture share equal blame.

But again, if you want credible, in-depth, sophisticated coverage of climate change and other complex issues, it is available. More than ever.

Tom Yulsman said...

One quick follow up: When you click on my name, it takes you to a blog that is now defunct. In case you are interested, my current blog is http://www.cejournal.net.

Tom Yulsman said...


It is really not cool at all to steal a quote from one of my stories and put it at the top of your own blog. (I'm speaking about the James White quote.) You call me "vapid" and "confused" and then steal my work.

And you sanctimoniously question the ethics of others. What gall.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Yulsman's main message throughout his 5 replies seems to be just 'I'm honest, I'm great, and all of you are just closed-minded.'

"As journalists, it’s our responsibility to cover the full spectrum of political views, not just the ones we think are in tune with the scientific evidence, because decision-makers will be taking into account other factors, such as economic consequences related to decisions about climate change policies."

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Why in the blazes does Yulsman think it's his "responsibility" to cover "political views" which are not "in tune with the scientific evidence"?

Do these journalists have any mental concepts of 'logic' and 'evidence'?

-- bi

Anonymous said...

Tom Yulsman, you may have a million credentials, but what I have seen you say has been the standard horrible journalistic approach to truth: "It's in the middle".

Which is completely wrong. I've explained the multiple reasons for it many times.

You blame me of ideology, when I'm just for arguing for truth and honesty.

Anonymous said...

The article isn't that bad completely, it has plenty of good things too, but there are some fundamental problems with it - treating science as just an opinion, on the same level with politics.

Science comes first, after that comes politics.

Michael Tobis said...

The quote always linked to your article, but I am looking for a replacement now.

I guess another example of the culture gap: even a tepid review (and this was far from a complete flame) with multiple links is not all bad.

I am convinced that journalism as usually practiced is due a fair proportion of the blame for our modern quandary. I don't propose to change that position without some compelling evidence. Compelling evidence, alas, is not what science journalism appears to be good at.

Michael Tobis said...

OK the quote at the top of the page has been replaced with something lifted from comments at Climate Progress. I expect Joel from Inwood will not mind.

The quote you got from White is still in my quotes gallery. I will remove it form there if you want.

I had always thought the point of saying things in public was to get them heard. Is it really bad form to briefly quote someone who is quoted in a published article, providing the link?

Tom Yulsman said...


You tell me how you would react if someone were to lift a quote from a story you've written without giving you any visible credit, and then go on to excoriate that very same story for being "vapid" and "confusing."

You clearly recognize that you've crossed some boundary here because you are now giving visible credit with the new quotation. It's just too bad that your sense of ethics wasn't developed enough for you to know not to cross that boundary in the first place.

I've extended a hand to you in emails and at my blog, telling you that I value your expertise on climate science and encouraging you to post comments at CEJournal. In return you plagiarize my work and at the same time call it vapid and confusing. So I now know what I need to know about you.

Tom Yulsman said...

Bi -- International Journal of Inactivism:

My apologies for not being as clear as I could have been. My point is that science is not the only arbiter of policy.

There is no question that science indicates grave risks ahead if we fail to take action on greenhouse gas emissions. But what action? Cap and trade? A carbon tax? A crash R&D policy to develop renewable energy? Unless I am working on an advocacy piece, my job as a journalist is not to pick and choose between these options. It is to write about their relative strengths and weaknesses. The science alone does not dictate which option must be chosen.

In this case, journalists are not providing the public with the information they need to make an informed decision. They are mostly reporting uncritically about cap and trade, and failing to adequately explain the alternative: a carbon tax, which is simpler and more straightforward. I am saying that our responsibility as journalist is to report fully and critically on both options. How do they work? What are their advantages? Disadvantages? Etc. And again, the science alone does not dictate which option is "better."

Moreover, policy makers are also grappling with many other problems: nuclear proliferation, instability in Pakistan, the need to help poor nations develop sustainably, a financial crisis that threatens to throw the world into depression, the need to reform our health care system, the coming entitlements financing bomb, etc. And some of those policy makers are going to make the case that one or more of these problems take precedence over climate change. You and I may disagree with them. (I certainly do.) But again, unless I am writing an advocacy piece, my job as a journalist is not simply to advance what I think is good policy based simply on my understanding of science. When it comes to policy and politics, there are many considerations that transcend climate science. And my job is to cover the full spectrum of views and options, whether I agree with all of them or not.

Are you suggesting that when we cover policy and politics, we should choose sides, and censor information that doesn't conform to what we believe? What if we choose the side you disagree with? Or are you saying that climate science dictates a particular policy option with no other considerations?

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader's position at all."

Heh! That'll be the day!
David Duff

jg said...

Mr. Yulsman
You said:
'But you write about "popular media" as if it is a uniform, monolithic entity.'

You are right. I apologize for that part of my comment. Michael's blog has opened me up to where I could finally vent my years of frustration with local papers and some of the media sources you kindly mentioned.

Michael Tobis said...

I would like to see more coverage of policy options, actually.

Journalists should be the enforcers of Moynihan's rule: that you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts. In order to do so, the journalists must be sufficiently conversant with the relevant facts.

Talking of cap and trade vs direct carbon tax is entirely sensible. I encourage it. I might even learn something from what you write.

I am trying to get a grip on it myself. But I don't write articles about it because I don't get it. I look for articles that are at an appropriate level of sophistication.

Maybe, if I fail to find one, I will take the time to investigate and write one. To do so I will have to move up to a higher level of sophistication than I originally sought. It would involve some substantial work. It would involve me being more than a blogger/essayist and becoming an internet journalist, which I'm not yet though I might aspire to it.

But if a journalist can't tell who the serious participants are on a subject and who the charlatans, that journalist should not be reporting on that subject. Otherwise the journalist becomes part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Michael Tobis said...

I think a link is conventionally considered enough. I certainly don't think it rises to "plagiarism", since I quoted someone through you and I didn't quote you. (And it's not as if I didn't expect you to notice!)

Admittedly I was harsh on your article. In a way it is something of a relief to see you being angry; now maybe you can be angry about something that matters.

You should save your ire for people who are misrepresenting science at the risk of the well-being of a hundred future generations, rather than somebody who only implicitly credited you as being the person who got a juicy quote.

This is not a game. You do real damage to the whole world with your balancing act. I am not the only person who is upset about this.

Your job is to figure out who is telling the truth, and explain it to others. If you fail to do so you should find something else to do.

In return, I will be explicit about where I found quotes in the future.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Yulsman, I thought it was pretty clear what you said:

"As journalists, it’s our responsibility to cover the full spectrum of political views, not just the ones we think are in tune with the scientific evidence,"

This is flat-out nonsense.

"The science alone does not dictate which option must be chosen."

True, but the facts of the matter exclude certain options.

For example, any 'policy option' which assumes that nuclear power plants are a dime a dozen can be immediately thrown out of the window.

Any 'policy option' based on the belief that global warming has always been only about polar bears, well, it deserves nothing but mockery.

Do you do so? Do you bother to do fact-checking, or do you just insist on covering "the full spectrum of views and options", even if most of these "views" are plain nonsense?

* * *

Michael Tobis:

"you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts."

Again, well said.

-- bi

Anonymous said...

Tom writes that he has "worked for more than 30 years as a science writer. My first story on climate change was published in 1983, and I have written extensively on the subject every since. I edited a magazine called Earth magazine for four years, and we covered the issue proudly and boldly when few others would touch it. My whole journalistic career has been dedicated to striving for the truth. I can't say that I always succeed. But I try as hard as I can."

And what have all of those decades of striving for truth, proud and bold coverage of climate change, etc. amounted to when the rubber actually meets the road?

... a post by Michael Zimmerman, director of the Center for the Humanities and Arts here at the University of Colorado. His thoughtful and revealing article on Prometheus, “Coal Trains, Death Camps, and Recent Anti-Modernism”, is an intelligent antidote to the emotionalism and extremism I’ve been encountering.

Zimmerman's unhinged rant against Hansen was so embarrassingly wrong that Pielke pulled it* from Prometheus.

With science writers like these, who needs Moranos?

*As an aside, Pielke retracted Zimmerman's hatchet job on March 3rd, within a day of posting it. There is no mention of this in Yulman's article, over a month later.

Anonymous said...

Re opinion and fact:

Different opinions on eg policy options should indeed be reported on. But scientifically proven untruths should have no place in journalism. They don’t contribute to the debate. To the contrary.


Michael Tobis said...

Bart, yes. But not everybody is equipped to know the difference.

This is what horrifies me about Revkin, in that, after all, I believe he is sufficiently informed to know the difference, yet he habitually gives attention to the nonsense anyway.

What to make of other reporters who do this depends on the reporter.

But all of this is an argument for recruiting scientists to learn enough journalism to do science reporting, rather than trying to train journalists to have enough scientific sophistication.

Michael Tobis said...

I took out "vapid confusion" and put in "lukewarm indecision" instead. I am tempted to take the whole article down, despite having said some useful things here.

I don't like making enemies.

Even more, I really don't like how much more attention an article gets when it can be seen as attacking a person than when it simply advances an idea.

It's discouraging.

Michael Tobis said...

In defense of Yulsman

1) The article in question really did have some great quotes.

2) I was indeed a bit unkind and regret it.

3) He is just now raking George Will over the coals along with almost everybody else, so maybe he is getting the message.

4) I'm looking froward to his upcoming Hansen piece.

Re bi's point:

Y: "As journalists, it’s our responsibility to cover the full spectrum of political views, not just the ones we think are in tune with the scientific evidence,"

bi: This is flat-out nonsense.

No it isn't. Think about it.

It doesn't mean the press has to treat positions based in ignorance with undue respect either. We don't need to take them seriously intellectually, but they are a real force politically.

All I'm asking for is that the press stop keeping everything at a standstill. The body politic MUST make progress.

I think George Will is silly; I have a hard time believing anybody takes him seriously. But the fawning article about Dyson in the NY Times was a disaster. Any idea of journalistic ethic that says otherwise needs revision.

EliRabett said...

First we kill all the journalists.

OK, maybe we let John Fleck go on living=:>

David B. Benson said...

I read, with great pleasure, Leslie Kaufman's article about Marc Marano in today's TNYT. Joe Romm rakes her over the coals for it. I and several others think she skewered MM most thoroughly, in effect stating, four times, that MM was a liar and more.

So Eli, let's keep her around too.

Steve Bloom said...

David, for the Moranos of the world the old maxim "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is completely apt. Such articles help him, even if those in the know can snicker to themselves about what a fool he is.

Anonymous said...

"Patients with broken legs need more options, not less", Kelpie says. "Like it or not, faith healing and voodoo are part of the medical repertoire at the doctors' disposal nowadays."

Take for example this patient: Her leg was broken six weeks ago, and seems to have healed sideways, despite intensive voodoo rituals performed by a well paid contractor down in Haiti. With thousands of cases like this, someone could perhaps say that Voodoo healing was a sham, but that would be just taking sides in a political argument.