One of the first things student journalists learn in their introductory college courses is how important it is to be fair. Reporters always must include the other side, a principle of practice they’ll hear countless times before entering the field.
It’s a good rule, one I embraced during a long newspaper career. But I discovered something that probably would make my old journalism professors cringe: sometimes, there is no other side.
It’s important that the media recognize that there are rare occasions when it’s not possible to offer a credible opposing view. This is when the evidence on one side is so compelling as to demolish any possible arguments to the contrary. When this happens, the media have as much responsibility to say this as they do to present the other side, when one exists. Moreover, they should never overreach to find one.
USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder, former editor of the American Journalism Review, calls this “false balance.’’ In a July 2014 column, he wrote: “No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day. The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.’’
It is an excellent point. Reporters (and readers, for that matter) shouldn’t confuse neutrality with objectivity — and, most important, when one side makes a spurious or dissembling argument, it should be called out as such. This doesn’t happen nearly enough.
This became very problematic for me as a reporter during the 1990s when the Food and Drug Administration was conducting its controversial investigation into tobacco. The scientific evidence of nicotine addiction, and the clear relationship between smoking and cancer, heart disease and numerous other life-threatening conditions was staggering, with virtually no data to refute it.
Yet we were under constant pressure to include the “other side.’’ As a result, we took to quoting spokesmen from the tobacco industry who — no surprise — consistently described the science as unproved, and declared smoking to be safe. Today, we would scoff at their comments, let alone ever use them. And if we used them, I would hope we would find a way to point out how ridiculous they were.
The same can be said about climate change. It took far too long for the media to figure this out, especially with convincing data and near unanimity among climate scientists. They allowed so-called “deniers’’ to call global warming a hoax, and to dismiss human-caused pollution as its cause. They didn’t examine their scientific credentials, or ask where the money funding their anti-climate change campaigns was coming from.
Just as spokesmen for the tobacco lobby lacked expertise to speak of the medical dangers of smoking, members of Congress today are similarly ill-equipped to discuss climate science, as are conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute, with its oil and gas industry ties. And yet, they still get to air their misguided views in the media.
While Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gets it (note her acceptance speech line, referring to climate change: “And I believe in science.’’) certainly GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump does not. He, in fact, has described climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese. No one believes this, but the media have to cover what he says because of who he is. But he is wrong and they need to say so.
Still, there is good news. Some mainstream media in recent years, finally, have been catching on.
A 2013 New York Times story, for example, described deniers as “climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington.’’ That same year, the Los Angeles Times stopped publishing letters from climate change deniers, saying, as an aside to an explanation related to another issue: “Letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.”
But the most dramatic changes occurred with the coverage of last fall’s climate negotiations in Paris. Climate Nexus, a strategic climate change communications organization conducted its own analysis of media coverage between November 22 and December 17. [Climate Nexus and Nexus Media are both sponsored projects of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.] The group concluded that editorial boards were largely supportive of the summit negotiations and outcome, with more than four times more positive than negative editorials. Similarly, for op-eds, “the positive outweighed the negative by a factor of three.’’
Most important, the group found almost all of the coverage — including the negative — no longer disputed (or even debated) climate science, but rather devoted its reporting and analysis to the impact of the talks, and how they differed from the largely unsuccessful meeting that took place six years earlier in Copenhagen. Moreover, there was “frequent praise’’ for President Obama’s bilateral negotiations with China and India, according to the report.
“Even the coverage around the Republican pushback on the climate talks frequently mentioned that the party’s views were far outside the global mainstream,’’ its analysis said.
Paradoxically, some found the Paris coverage undeservedly positive, saying it was not tough enough. “The media has bought the line that everybody is now on track to solve the problem, [which is] a complete fraud,’’ says James Hansen, the former NASA scientist and one of the earliest to warn the public of the dangers of climate change.
Regardless, there is much work remaining when it comes to media coverage of climate change. Although the “false balance’’ syndrome may be easing in some quarters, the current volume of climate change coverage overall still fails to reflect the scale of the problem.
Even worse, the growth of social media and atomized news outlets all too often allow unqualified voices — Trump’s, for example — to have an overblown influence on what people hear and read about the issue.
Climate change contrarians haven’t gone away and aren’t likely to anytime soon. Rather, some have started to reframe their media arguments. They don’t always talk about the “hoax’’ of global warming (except for Trump), but focus on the economics — whether the problem is too expensive to fix.
“Even the most extreme climate change deniers have moved on from the argument that climate change is not human caused,’’ says Michael Mann, professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, who frequently has found himself the target of so-called deniers. “During the last year, there has been more of an emphasis on economics. The retreat from denying underlying climate science has been extreme.’’
He and others credit many well-publicized events — the Pope’s pronouncements, extreme weather, including heat waves, that have affected people personally, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris accords — as factors leading to media changes. “I feel as if the mainstream media treatment of the issue has moved along with the weight of evidence and public sentiment,’’ Mann says.
I agree, I just think it took too long. Members of the media must become savvier, able to recognize sooner when the preponderance of proof does not support an opposing argument — when climate deniers are spewing fiction, reporters need to say so.
And they need to push back against editors and others who insist on false balance. The USA Today’s Rieder, in his column, quotes the late New York Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose words are worth repeating here — and remembering for the future:
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.’’
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.