"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keith's Lament

On a recent article here, Keith (I am guessing Keith Kloor) laments:
I'm not defending my professional pride. I know well that journalism has its shortcomings. (See Iraq war for for obvious and tragic example.)

I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism's collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe. Or you at least hoped so at one time.

But now that you've apparently given up that hope, I'm asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let's stick to the guts of daily journalism--the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That's the cog in the wheel.

I doubt your grassroots effort will supplant the reach and influence of the mainstream media on this front. Nonetheless I welcome whatever innovation you can bring to climate change journalism. In the meantime, if you'd like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being "part of the problem), show us how it's done.

I'd like to see a blog out there that actually stops bitching about journalism and starts showing us how to do a better job. Criticism is easy and lazy. I can find a story I don't like everyday and carp about it.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to set up a parallel universe journalism web site, where someone like yourself writes up an alternative story to Pearce's. (I had high hopes that Grist would do this back in the day...but that's not going to happen now.)

At least then you and so many other climate advocates could constructively channel all that antipathy towards the press.
This is a thoughtful and constructive query. I'd be happy to have more discussion of it.

I'm not sure I have any advice for the individual journalist caught up in the day-to-day of conventional journalism. My beef is with the system.

There are at least two primary complaints that come to my mind.

Much has been made of the false balance problem. When there are two political parties, and the press implicitly is obligated to "split the difference", that provides a huge polarizing mechanism, motivating the most extreme possible positions to drag the "middle" slightly in the desired direction. The consequence of this, a particularly American journalistic ethic, have obviously been disastrous, not only on the climate question.

The second issue, though, is the "timeliness" one. My wife went to see a talk to budding journalists by Jim Lehrer, who spoke of a report on the Ogalalla aquifer as one of his worst mistakes as a young journalist; after all, the effects were not anticipated to even begin for forty years. But in fact it was not a mistake! It was an issue that people should have in mind forty years in advance, because the planning and coping for such a thing takes a very long time!

Any scientist (leaving aside economists, apparently) understands that phenomena have specific time scales associated with them. Science itself has a time scale of about a decade - it takes about five years between a paper being published and it being recognized as an important advance. This can vary, typically between, say, immediate and twenty years. An attempt to do a "This Week In Science" (and once say an awful eefort at this on TV) is therefore utterly ridiculous. News hooks in science simply don't have that shape! Biasing toward obvious "hot stuff" completely skews what people understand.

I think it might be better to identify fifty scientific disciplines, and do a "This year in solid earth geophysics" once a year; even then most of the items should be expected to be a year or two out of date.

Finally, every single person who talks about "the scientific method" as if there were one and they know what it is needs to have their mouth washed out with soap. Especially schoolteachers. Some of what needs to be conveyed is what scientists actually do, where these results come from, and how understanding actually emerges from these efforts.

As Clifford Johnson once said to me, "We need to explain that we are not special people. We are people doing a special thing." We try. But y'all journalists are supposed to be the professionals at explaining things.

In short, my advice is simple. Understand things. Explain them. Pay no attention to who wants which facts emphasized, and don't ignore stories just because they have long time scales. Is that so difficult?


Hank Roberts said...

> Jim Lehrer, who spoke of a
> report on the Ogalalla
> aquifer as one of his
> worst mistakes as a young
> journalist;

I'm sure people were confident 40 years ago that before the aquifer began collapsing, technological progress would develop a replacement for water.

Or we'd be so wealthy by now that we could buy water by squeezing it from stones economically -- after all wealth always increases, they told us.

Oh, wait ....

David B. Benson said...


Ver difficult to do well.

Marion Delgado said...

Bear in mind that working journalists are not professionals - they're hired hands. Professionals can choose their clients, and their peer associations have real teeth. Neither are true of journalists. They please their bosses or they hit the curb.

As a print reporter 15 years ago, I was occasionally given a week off to do an in-depth story, and I think that is far rarer now. To expect more than you're getting from chain papers that are ever-consolidating and faced with rising materials costs and declining advertisers is futile.

Something has to give. If your top priority is good depth journalism, including science, and you can't get grants or bequests or fund-raisers, then your news hole must be small, you must do a fair amount of labor-non-intensive entertainment most of the week, and save your energy for perhaps one day a week of good journalism. Once you sell to a chain, by the way, you won't be making those decisions.

Arthur said...


I just ran into this site:


- it's one approach to a "future of journalism" for science. I'd regard that as a sort of raw material though (well, the real raw material is the scientific papers and underlying actual work, so this is second-level) - there's a need for something at a slightly higher level than this, commenting, connecting, threading and putting things more into context for different audiences.

But it's certainly a start. Most of the stuff there looks better than anything I've seen Keith K. write.

Anonymous said...

"Understand things. Explain them. [...] Is that so difficult?"


-- bi

Unknown said...

Yes, that would be me, Keith Kloor.
The one thing you need to understand about newspaper and especially magazine journalism is that it is as much about storytelling as it is about communicating information and news.

Blogs don't require this and that's a good thing. Repetition is okay, so long as you can still be engaging. Example: If TPM didn't stay with the Bush U.S Attorney scandal, the rest of the media wouldn't eventually pursued the story.

Similarly, tv heads like Lou Dobbs can harp on illegal immigration every day for years if enough people care about the issue.

But text-based journalism for mixed audiences doesn't operate this way. There's got to be a fresh "hook" to tell a story. And that story need not rehash every salient fact and concern about climate change that you would like to see regurgitated in every story to the ignorant masses. You all will froth much less once you get this.

Fleck, you got anything to add or dispute? They respect and like you much more than me. Help me out, dude.

Michael Tobis said...

OK, it's difficult, but the concept is easy...

Anonymous said...


"Blogs don't require this and that's a good thing. Repetition is okay, so long as you can still be engaging."

Um, I don't know what you're talking about, because I thought the advantage of blogs is that it does not require one to repeat stuff. When blogging, I can simply link to an older blog entry and say 'here's for the background'; a news article writer can't do that.

As a quick check, I just grabbed a random article from Google News. Here's what it says:

"WASHINGTON -- US President Barack Obama will meet with new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, the White House said Friday.

"'On Wednesday the 23rd, the president will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama for the first time,' White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"Hatoyama was sworn in as prime minister Wednesday, two weeks after his center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the country's elections by a landslide. [...]"

followed by 3 more paragraphs of background. So that's 2 paragraphs of new developments and 4 paragraphs of background.

Now, maybe the rules are different for magazine journalism (your forte), but I imagine that even magazine articles will devote some space to background information -- so that readers can at least know what in the blazes the topic even is in the first place.

Which means, yes, I'm calling bull on the claim that "repetition" in journalism is not "okay", because it clearly is OK.

-- bi

Anonymous said...

Well, I think the key problem about "repetition" in journalism isn't whether to repeat stuff, but what background information to repeat, and how much space to devote to background stuff (in contrast to new information). Not all background information is equal.

-- bi

Brian said...

I think the false balance issue can be managed better, and here's how: instead of contacting Roger Pielke Jr. every time Andy Revkin (or another journalist) needs balance, he should email a list of 20 or so reputable sources and say "I'm reporting on X issue, I've heard from the people describing X, and if any of you disagree or think it's exaggerated then I'd especially be interested in talking to you."

A large group of experts will likely produce some disagreement from somebody on the particular issue, without going on to falsely question the larger understanding of climate, and otherwise say things that are outright wrong. And if nobody disagrees, that would be telling, too.

John Fleck said...

Keith -

Sorry for not jumping in sooner. I too know that journalism has its shortcomings, as you note, and I frankly tire of playing the role of its defender.

In particular, I've largely given up trying to engage Michael on this issue, frankly. I remain a huge fan of Michael's work and contributions, but his critique of journalism has become very much like Morano's emphasis on those exceptional cold days. There is a tremendous body of journalism out there trying to do what Michael seems to want done - the work of people like Seth Borenstein, Dan Vergano, Pete Spotts, Tony Davis, Shaun McKinnon, the list of day-to-day contributions is huge - which he seems to miss completely in favor of his critique of the outliers to which he objects.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

John Fleck:

So are you saying, as a journalist, that you absolutely must refuse to even try changing the way you do things?

-- bi

John Fleck said...

Bi -

Not saying that at all. I'm saying that the discussion about changing what we do has to be based on a discussion of what we're actually doing. That has largely been absent in the conversation about the issue here, which is why I stopped participating.

Michael's Jim Lehrer example is a great case in point. As the point is related in Michael's anecdote, Lehrer is obviously wrong. But we journalists already know that, which you can see by paying attention to what we're actually writing. In the last several years, for example, there has been an enormous body of journalism in the western U.S. focused on climate change and water supply issues on precisely the time scales Michael is arguing are important. It's been a dominant theme, in fact, in climate change journalism in the Colorado River Basin states.

While Michael was fretting over the deFreitas paper and Morano's American Chemical Society kerfuffle - both of which got essentially zero coverage from U.S. journalists, who were smart enough to ignore them - he missed yet another wave of such news from the mainstream media, when Balaji Rajagopalan's latest paper came out.

Michael Tobis said...

Tamino points out on RC that the blame for our quandary falls squarely on those who propagate a dangerous mythology about our quandary, with at best the most stunning negligence.

A frustration with journalism is a frustration with its institutions, not with all of its practitioners, just as is a frustration with economists. Hey, some of my best friends have advanced degrees in economics. (They tend not to like its institutions either, though.) Far be it from me to criticize Elizabeth Kolbert,

I do on occasion criticize Andy Revkin, though I think I'd enjoy his company and I usually think he means well. It's just that, embedded in the New York Times culture, he is entitled only to hint at the balance of evidence, and a great counterweight of bafflegab is provided by John Tierney. And then there is George Will at the Washington Post promulgating complete bullshit. Let him take me to court on that one.

Are you guys saying that the information presented to decision makers about climate has approximately the same balance as the information generated by the relevant sciences? To the extent that it isn't, it's partly due to a failure of journalism to protect itself from malfeasance.

Of course, the real blame goes to the malefactors. But one wishes the press were less vulnerable to their machinations.

John Fleck said...

Michael -

I don't know how to be statistical about this, but every day, as part of my job, I cruise the news world looking at a that day's offerings of coverage of climate change science, politics and policy.

Every day I see a significant number of straightforward, workman and -woman-like coverage of climate change that explains the scientific consensus correctly, with little or none of what you might characterize as false balance bafflegab. To single out Tierney and George Will while ignoring the bulk of the coverage is, I repeat, equivalent of singling out the snowstorm in Las Vegas to try to say something useful about climate change.

By all means go after Will and Tierney as you see fit, but insofar as you act like they're a useful proxy for journalism as a whole, you're not not offering a critique that's of much use to this particular journalist in your audience.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, I have to disagree that Revkin's as yet un-regretted equivalence of Will and Gore, in the context of Tierney on the one side and nobody at all on the other, in the most influential liberal newspaper, while George Will essentially remains uncontested at the most influential conservative newspaper, constitutes cherry picking on my part.

I am sure there are journalists I agree with. In fact I sometimes consider myself a journalist, and I tend to agree with me, at least most of the time. That's not the issue.

I am sure the quality and effort that goes into the good stuff is by definition much higher than the quality and effort that goes into the worthless stuff. And all of the denial-friendly stuff is among the worthless stuff. That is hardly the point.

The point is what people see. And that's determined by the mass media, where the balance of presentation is far off the balance of evidence, and where any veering toward the truth is vigorously protested by those who are most invested in the lies. All of which constitutes trickery by the propagandists and vulnerability by the media.

John, if you object, then frankly it amazes me that you aren't seeing some truth in this. That's a story in itself. Who muckrakes the muckrakers?

John Fleck said...

Michael -

Your mental model of the news media offered two really great testable hypotheses recently, which you laid out in your blog.

In both cases - the deFreitas paper and the American Chemical Society kerfuffle - your hypothesis was found wanting. That is to say, neither got any significant mainstream media coverage in the U.S. This was unsurprising to me, as it was consistent with my expectations. I would have been pissed if they'd gotten coverage, and would have viewed it as a failing with the enterprise. But in these cases we did not fail, and I would give you more credit for thinking this issue through well if you would have adjusted your hypothesis.

You cite "Tierney on the one side and nobody at all on the other" in the New York Times, ignoring Krugman and Thomas Friedman.

Your use of the Lehrer anecdote in the face of a significant amount of actual journalism covering climate change and water supply on 40-year time scales is yet another example.

I think the shortcomings of journalism are enormous - some limitations based on poor execution of the job at hand, and some shortcomings linked to intrinsic limitations on what journalism can and cannot do.

But your particular critique of the shortcomings of journalism simply doesn't, in my view, hold up to scrutiny. It's not of much use to me because in each example you've offered of late (refusing to take Morano's bait, reporting on water supply on 40 year time scales, balancing Tierney in the pages of the Times) we seem to be doing the things you say you want us to. You've just chosen, for whatever reason, not to notice.

John Fleck said...

As an addendum, it's also incorrect to say "George Will essentially remains uncontested" at the Post. Just a reminder about the story by Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan that explicitly called out Will's errors in the paper's news pages. Eilperin's work is another good example of solid explanation of the science without resort to bafflegab.

Anonymous said...

The main point Michael is making is that –on average- “the balance of presentation is far off the balance of evidence”, some good examples notwithstanding.

That is also the impression I’m having when I stroll the mass media, though in Europe it is probably slightly better than in the US.

It is also backed up by eg this (slightly dated) paper, which you probably know:
Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias

“This paper demonstrates that US prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 has contributed to a significant
divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse. (…) this paper focuses on the norm of balanced reporting, and shows that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.”

And an article about the same paper here:

“From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.

More specifically, we discovered that:
• 53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.
• 35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.
• 6 percent emphasized doubts about the claim that human-caused global warming exists, while another 6 percent only included the predominant scientific view that humans are contributing to Earth's temperature increases.

Through statistical analyses, we found that coverage significantly diverged from the IPCC consensus on human contributions to global warming from 1990 through 2002. In other words, through adherence to the norm of balance, the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias.”

Now that’s a problem that needs fixing. And, as Michael said, the problem may lie much more with the institutions than with the individuals. The same counts for the role of scientists in communicating the science to the public (see the current RC thread): Many scientists would love to spend more energy on communicating to the public, but the way scientific work is structured and valued actually dissuades them from doing so. That too is a problem that needs fixing. Idem dito for problems in scientific literacy of the public, the education system, the political system. There are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of science.


John Fleck said...

Bart -

It's useful, when quoting Boykoff, to also note his more recent analysis, described in a paper last year in Nature Reports Climate Change. Here's what he concluded:

"Evidence suggests that coverage of some areas of climate change is improving. For instance, attribution of climate change to human activity has received accurate coverage recently in a number of sources, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Times (London), The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Independent and The Guardian."

In other words, he argues the situation has improved since he did the analysis you cite. Importantly, the content analysis done by Boykoff on the specific publications noted by Michael - the Times and the Post - is, as measured by Boykoff, accurate.

In other words, according to Boykoff himself, in terms of the publications Michael cited, the problem has already been fixed.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

I asked:

"So are you saying, as a journalist, that you absolutely must refuse to even try changing the way you do things?"

John Fleck:

"Not saying that at all. I'm saying that the discussion about changing what we do has to be based on a discussion of what we're actually doing. That has largely been absent in the conversation about the issue here, which is why I stopped participating."

So you're saying that, as a journalist, you absolutely must refuse to even try changing the way you do things, because we're not talking about whatever you're actually doing, and whatever you're actually doing doesn't need any changing because it's all perfectly OK and even if it's not perfectly OK it's not your fault anyway and there's nothing you can do?

OK, then why don't we discuss the things htat you and your colleagues are not doing? Where on earth is your coverage of the "Heartland 500" brouhaha? Where's the story on Tom Harris's "coordinated local activism" speech?

Where are these stories hiding, and why are they hiding? Is it because you're deliberately try to avoid covering any story that's potentially controversial?

So, "telling truth to power" = "try to avoid offending people"?

-- bi

John Fleck said...

Bi -

Thanks for you comments.

One of the real risks in debunking, which I learned a long time ago in writing about evolution/creation, is that in order to debunk it, you have to repeat the bunk. And there's good research suggesting that, in such situations, a very large fraction of a naive audience (by "naive" here I mean people who haven't thought about the issue one way or the other) remembers the bunk rather than the debunking. (NIH has funded some really interesting research in this area in the public health communication arena.)

Let me give you a concrete example of how this recently influenced my approach to a journalistic question regarding climate change. The folks at CSICOP recently did a great and thorough debunking of Marc Morano's list of 700. Most of my audience will never have heard of Marc Morano's list of 700. This is one of those things that bounces around the Internet echo chamber among people who already have strong feelings about the issue. Y'all want it debunked, and view journalism's failure to debunk it as a problem. But Morano's list isn't up on the general public's radar at all. The CSICOP guys contacted me about the possibility of writing about their debunking. I declined, reasoning that, based on the message from the NIH data, at the end of a newspaper story, there would actually be *more* people in my audience who remembered the bogus Morano list than before. A story would have the effect of increasing its reach and prominence. "Hey, Martha, did you see this, that there are 700 scientists who think global warming is bunk?" So writing about it creates a clear risk that we do more harm that good. In fact, the CSICOP guy told me he got a similar response from other news outlets to whom he shopped around the story.

When George Will, on the other hand, published bunk in my newspaper, I debunked it in print. It's worth noting that Juliet Eilperin, who covers climate for the Washington Post, did the same thing in the Post's news pages. (Sadly, our efforts to get my piece distributed to the full Washington Post syndicate failed. Count this as a clear failing on the part of the Post syndicate.)

This has nothing to do with trying to avoid offending people, and everything to do with a calculation aimed at trying to maximize the net proper understanding that my readers have. If the Heartland 500 had entered the public discourse here on its own (if, for example, a New Mexico congressman cites it in support of his political position) then I would be all over it. But bringing it up on my own is likely to do more harm than good.

Michael's argument in the thread to which you linked, regarding a lack of MSM coverage of the Heartland 500, is in fact a good thing. Coverage to debunk would end up leaving far more people who had never heard of it believing Heartland.

There are tons of examples like this. I could, for example, write a story debunking the "it's the sun argument", or the deFreitas paper, or Morano's ACS kerfuffle. Again, if my congressman brings them up, or they otherwise leak out into the broad general public debate on their own, then I'll take them on. But if they don't, the data suggest bringing it up on my own would be counterproductive. Such work would represent a step backwards in achieving your goals.

What the communications research suggests is that the most effective approach to communicating with a broad general public is, as I described in the thread to which you link, the process of agenda setting - repeating the same "heat trapping gases from our tailpipes and smokestack" line again and again. My own little informal literature review that I conducted in response to this post (along with the recent more formal lit survey by Boykoff) suggests we are doing that.

I think we could do this better, but by better I mean more, in more different and clever ways.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

John Fleck:

"And there's good research suggesting that, in such situations, a very large fraction of a naive audience [...] remembers the bunk rather than the debunking."

Number one: that wasn't what you said earlier.

Number two: I'm calling bunk on this latest blanket assertion until I see for my own eyes what the "good research" actually says in detail -- I'd guess the solution isn't to discard the story, but simply to devote less attention to the bunk itself (it's bunk after all) and more attention to the debunking.

And in any case, in between yourself and Kloor throwing out all sorts of excuses for not changing the way you do things, aren't you missing a really big picture?

Let me put it this way:

The public has a need -- indeed, a right -- to be aware that

(a) there's a climate inactivist noise campaign out there;
(b) it's very well-funded, very calculated, and very deliberate;
(c) it uses morally (and sometimes legally) dubious tactics; and
(d) we have evidence to show for it.

It's not just about debunking random pieces of bunk. It's about shining the light on the entire noise campaign, and calling it as it is. I don't see what purpose is served by not talking about it.

-- bi

John Fleck said...

Bi -

Thanks for the comment.

Do you mean stuff like Revkin's front page story in the New York Times in April about the American Petroleum Institute, or the widespread coverage of the fact that API was behind the citizen energy rallies, or the stories on the forged ACCCE letters, or the work I and others have been doing on the new "C02 is Green" campaign (more to come, early days on that) or Ken Ward Jr.'s reporting from coal country on Blankenship and Massey? You mean more of that sort of thing?

I think we could agree here, that more of that kind of reporting would be a good thing.

Hank Roberts said...

I haven't yet been able to find the NIH research that John hints about. I'm looking.

I know of one CDC report, well blogged and written about by a science journalist.

Links here, edited from something I wrote at RC a while back:


... one sure way to make people remember bogus claims is to repeat them.

You might consider not doing that. Restate to explain how to get good information. This explains why:

The Deck is Stacked Against Mythbusters



‘… for correcting … myths. The article suggests that, rather than repeat them … one should just rephrase the statement, eliminating the false portion altogether so as to not reinforce it further (since repetition, even to debunk it, reaffirms the false statement)….”

—-end excerpt—

Read that linked blog page.
It includes further links to the news story about this, worth reading

It’s important if you want to be effective teaching facts instead of the controversy.

Also most relevant -- this is the takehome for people trying to affect what large numbers of people understand:


The Florida "truth" anti-tobacco campaign was the first counter-marketing campaign funded with tobacco industry settlement money. Its strategy of undermining conventional attitudes about tobacco use, and showing how the tobacco industry purposely targeted teens, has been widely used by other tobacco prevention programs. This case study describes the strategic decisions that gave rise to the "truth" campaign, and speculates about why "truth" was so effective, with a particular focus on peer-to-peer communication.

John Fleck said...

Hank -

Thanks. The Schwartz study is the one I was remembering. It was an "aha" moment for me as a journalist, because of my longstanding frustration in the lack of success in busting myths on a wide variety of issues, from evolution/creation and radiation risks to Roswell.