Thursday, March 1, 2007

Al Gore: Mainstream Media Still Don't Get It


If you read this posting earlier, there's a bit of an update based in part on the excellent analysis by John Fleck:

The mainstream media still reject the scientific consensus on global warming, Al Gore told a media ethics conference earlier this week, The Tennessean reports.

Speaking of the conclusions of the IPCC, Gore said the media "have failed to report that it is the consensus and instead have chosen … balance as bias." Citing a study showing that 53 percent of newspaper articles on global warming offer false balance on the issue, he said, "I don't think that any of the editors or reporters responsible for one of these stories saying, 'It may be real, it may not be real,' is unethical. But I think they made the wrong choice, and I think the consequences are severe." The consequence, he argues, has been political gridlock on the issue.

I suspect Gore is referring to the study by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff examining "prestige press" converage of global warming between 1988 and 2002. ("Balance as Bias: global warming and the U.S. prestige press," Global Environmental Change, 14 (2004) 125–136.) Included in the survey were the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The researchers found that "the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action."

After the release of the Boykoff study, John Fleck posted an an excellent critique, noting that the researchers conflated the scientific consensus on science with the policy response. (Also see his comment below.) "While they may be correct that there are cases where stories about the science are marred by a bias created by false balance, their conflation of scientific understanding of the issue and policy responses renders their argument fundamentally flawed."

According to the Boykoff paper, "the scientific community has reached general consensus that immediate and mandatory actions are necessary to combat global warming." It may well be that most climate scientists agree with this statement. But that certainly doesn't mean most other people do. This is just pointing out the obvious — scientific consensus by no means equals political consensus. And as we all know, we're not even close to a political consensus yet. So journalists providing balanced coverage of the policy side of the issue are only doing their jobs. Gore is just flat wrong. They are not guilty of false balance.

I suspect Gore was reacting to the hyper-bloviation on global warming that's prevalent on cable news (much of it directed at him this week), and to the low quality of news coverage in broadcast media. In this case, false balance on global warming is probably the least of our problems.

-- T.Y.

12 comments:

John Fleck said...

I do not doubt that the "false balance" problem exists, but I seriously question the Boykoff study. As I've written elsewhere, a close reading of their paper shows a conflation of science and policy response that must certainly have led to them overstating the extent of the problem.

Anonymous said...

What is the mainstream media? Someone define it. If it's what people watch and read, then what's getting reported on climate change hardly seems to matter because no one watches or reads that stuff.

Me, I blame Howard Stern.

And the Pope.

HL said...

Tom, I have to take issue with one point you seem to be making.

As a reporter, I am not certain it is my job to determine which scientist is right. Even if many scientists say that climate change is primarily human-caused, and even if they are right, I am not qualified or paid to judge the validity of their opinion.

It's my job to report the news. That means, in many instances, including opinions that are not held by a majority of a scientist's colleagues along with the consensus view. The public can do what it will with that report.

I'm not sure that it's reasonable to expect journalists to act as educators on this issue. Just as we don't take sides in politics, even if most people view one side or the other of a policy debate as being the correct approach, we can't take sides in scientific debates.

Just because most scientists think the argument about the main cause of climate change is over does not mean we get to shut out the dissenters. If the majority in the scientific community wants to convince the public those dissenters are wrong, then they should do that through scholarship and their own educational work at universities and colleges. We'll certainly report, and report fairly, what they say.

But I have a hard time with this notion that journalists are obliged to become advocates for a particular scientific view, even if it is unquestionably mainstream and even if very few scientists seem to disagree. We are not scientists and we are not educators.

Now, I realize this might get your hackles up and provoke a comment along the lines that journalists have a duty to the truth. But how do we know what scientific truth is? Sure, we can do some research on the web or in a library, talk to the experts, read the literature. But how many of us are scientists? It is no more appropriate for journalists to be referees of science than it is for them to take on the role of criticizing the Supreme Court's legal analysis. We aren't lawyers, either (well, most of us aren't, anyway).

The phrase "We report, you decide" may have been tarnished by the propagandists at Fox News, but the ideal behind it is not a bad one.

And, BTW, you put up a post about how younger folks view the media. They don't want to be told how to think or what to think. Aren't we taking a chance that we're doing that if we simply cut them out of the process of deciding which scientists are right and which are wrong?

leestayton@spiderrock.com said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CEJ Admin said...

Hank,

You write that "even if many scientists say that climate change is primarily human-caused, and even if they are right, I am not qualified or paid to judge the validity of their opinion."

You may not be qualified to judge the scientific details of a study, but it is absolutely positively your job to do the reporting necessary to judge the validity of a scientific claim. "Valid" means "sound" or "authoritative." We check the soundness and authority of a claim in a number of ways. We check the credentials of the scientist making the claim to see whether he or she has relevant background, knowledge and experience. We also check to see whether the claim has been made in a peer reviewed journal. We check what research in the relevant field has shown in the past. And then we check with other authorities to see what they think.

When it all checks out, that doesn't mean we report the claim, or hypothesis, or theory, as correct. (Science never proves a theory a correct.) But we should be able to tell our readers whether a claim is considered credible, authoritative, valid — whatever word you want to use — by the scientific community.

It is also our job to give our readers a reading on the status of a hypothesis or theory. Is it cutting edge science that is considered credible (in the sense that it is worth investigating) but not yet well corroborated? In that case, it would be our job to include perspectives of scientists who both agree and disagree with the claim.

Or has the claim been very well corroborated by a great deal of science, and do most scientists in the field agree that it is most likely correct? In that case, we do our readers a grave disservice by giving equal time to both supporters and dissenters — because in that case we would be seriously misleading them into thinking that the issue is controversial when in fact it is not.

So in the case of climate change, without question it is our job to tell readers that the vast majority of scientists working in this field, and the overwhelming weight of evidence, support the claim that human beings are very likely responsible for most of the warming we have observed in at least the last 50 years. It is also our job to weigh the status of a scientific question like this so that we do not offer false balance.

If we were to do as you suggest — that is, give equal time to dissenters — we would be misleading our readers through false balance into thinking that the issue is far from settled. That would not be terribly far from lying. As a journalist, I'm paid to get at the truth, not to lie.

Lastly, this does not mean that I would never present the views of an authoritative scientist who is skeptical of one aspect or another of climate change science. Far from it. I'm very much open to it. The key is that I must make sure my readers understand the context of his or her views on the subject. I can't mislead them into thinking that this scientist's view is considered equally valid by the scientist's peers. It must be presented as it is: A skeptics view challenging the overwhelming weight of evidence and most experts in the field.

If we were to follow your advice, I think we would be abdicating one of our most important roles as journalists. If we didn't weigh the validity of claims made by our sources, in whatever beat we cover, then we'd be no more than glorified stenographers. That's not why I became a journalist.

-- Tom Yulsman

Anonymous said...

I’m more than a little taken back by your assertion that because you are not a scientist that it is not your job to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. No one is asking journalists to decide what is “right.” We are asking reporters to report – as in describe, contrast and synthesize - with insight and understanding. I believe that journalists are obligated to understand, to deeply understand, the issues they report on.

I think that good reporting is active and probing. It is an endeavor that requires intelligence and a willingness to roll up ones sleeves and dig into an issue. It requires a clear headed skepticism and never accepting at face value what anyone says. Like most other pursuits in this modern life – reporting requires specialists. The beat reporter, covering everything from a to zed is a thing of the past. In my experience the best economic reporting comes from journalists with intimate knowledge of economics and the best reporting on scientific issues comes from journalist who have been trained in the science involved.

I think that the main failure of much of today’s news coverage is that the women and men reporting the news don’t take the time required to become truly familiar with the issues. In their haste, they have forgotten that getting to the bottom of an issue requires a critical go for the jugular pursuit of truth. If a reporter doesn’t know about an issue then they should educate themselves about it.

As to the issue you mention regarding “taking sides.” Every journalist brings a “side” to every issue. A reporter is human and being human means that reporters (like the rest of us) are fully equipped with their own unique set of values and perspectives. Don’t dodge that, don’t deny it. Just admit it, be aware of it and move on. Readers aren’t fooled into believing that reporting is, or can be, unbiased. But readers expect that a journalist is honest about their own perspectives.

I believe your right about it not being a journalist’s job to declare what truth is. Any scientist worth their salt will admit that science isn’t about truth - it’s about the pursuit of best possible explanations. Scientist’s seek explanations that are logical, testable, and that can be used to predict future events. Journalists could immediately improve the quality of their reporting by simply using a more scientific based approach to news gathering and interpretation.

I believe that it is a journalist’s responsibility to disclose. Disclose what they discover and uncover, as well as what they can’t uncover. Disclose the pros and cons of an argument if possible. If consensus is muddled, or differences seem irreconcilable the journalist should attempt to explain why. To me good journalism is active and confrontational and reporting is difficult and demanding. If a journalist can’t leave me with an informed opinion then they should at least leave me with an informed question.

Anonymous said...

Gore is also unethical. He knows the truth in regards to human induced climate change, but has a carbon footprint larger than most of the people on the planet. Offsetting doesn't cut it; he needs to reduce his emissions.

CEJ Admin said...

Well, to one degree or another we're all hypocrites. I write about global warming, teach my students about it, and do everything I can around the house to reduce my carbon emissions. (For example: The heat goes down to 52 at night. Brrrrr!). But then I jump in my minivan to drive 80 miles round trip to take my son to Denver almost every week for music rehearsals. And I don't ride the bus to work nearly as often as I should.

None of us are pure on this issue because we live and work in an economy that runs on fossil fuels. One legitimate question that we might ask is whether the world is better off for having Al Gore bring attention to the issue of climate change, even if that entails his having to fly incessantly around the globe to deliver his message. The Guardian in England had an interesting take on this last week.

-- Tom Yulsman

Anonymous said...

HL, I guess when you report on global issues, you include the assertion that the earth is flat? And when you talk about pigs, you leave it in the middle whether they walk or fly?

Annie Jia said...

Although I think is has been a big problem that the media has portrayed a "false balance" in the "debate" of global warming, I think there is also something to be said for global warming skeptics' concerns not being addressed well enough by the non-skeptic side of the climate community.

Maybe it is true that for general American public, whose primary source of education comes from the evening news, it is best to just tell them that there is a scientific consensus on the issue of global warming. Maybe it is best to tell is as the "truth." Maybe for many many people, they are not concerned with nuance and just want to what what "is" up.

But I also know that for many an educated, critically thinking American, they actually do want to know the more complex picture. And when there still are two sides to the debate floating out there (even though one side says there's a consensus) - and when they don't know enough about the science to critically judge the validity of each side - I think that for the sake of those people, we lack a cohesive public discourse on the side of climate change scientists/advocates that acknowledges and seriously addresses the concerns of climate skeptics.

This is an issue that I began to see recently when engaging in an e-mail discussion with my cousin's boyfriend and his friends who are climate skeptics. I realized that as educated as I was about climate, I had never in my education been taught about the skeptic's side of climate change, much less how to talk to a climate skeptic.

My impression is that most people who are seriously concerned about the climate issue will, most of the time, turn their noses and dismiss climate skeptics as uninformed or politically motivated. But if we really want to reach those people - people who are skeptical of climate change because they simply do not know enough about it and dare to ask questions that are skeptical of what they hear in the news - then shouldn't we try to seriously probe into, assess, and address their questions? I think we ought to, but I don't think we do it enough.

Anonymous said...

Mr Gore get a job. You have to much time on your hands. Worry about the climate, read the bible. The bible tells of the last days. Get a life.

Jakki said...

Can anyone provide me a reliable news source that reports on this quote? I would like to quote this but not quote I can find can be linked to a prominent news outlet. Kinda ironic if you ask me...