Thursday, 8 July 2010

Campaigning climate journalism

As a nascent environment journalist, I’ve had a furrowed brow more then once over the past few months thinking about the responsibilities of the job at hand.

The main questions that preoccupy me are:

1. To what extent should climate change* journalism aim to motivate people to act on climate change? (*Where I write climate change you could sometimes easily substitute conservation, which might be an even more important than climate change.)

2. If you were to consider campaigning as essential to climate change journalism, what are the messages we should be sending out, anyway? And to whom?

3. How do we deal with sceptics?

4. What’s the future of climate change journalism? What are the possible solutions to the flaws in some of the dodgier climate change coverage, or just climate change coverage in general?

I’m going to be tackling these in a series of blogposts starting now.

Campaigning climate change

To lay all my cards on the table from the beginning, I think climate change journalists have a moral responsibility to get people to act to mitigate the shitstorm that’s on its way.

This is because journalists have a privileged position in society. Although the so-called ‘fourth pillar’ is among the least trusted profession, they have an unusual power to exert influence.

It is difficult to quantify the causal relationship between the quality and quantity of climate change coverage in the UK’s media and its effect on public opinion because of a lack of research, according to Bob Ward (a climate change policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment) in Climate Change and the Media. But a study done by Butler and Pidgeon in 2007 showed that the type of media consumed made a difference to the readers’ perspectives on climate change.

It’s this power to affect attitudes that gives journalists a unique position to act on what the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, has called climate change the “defining issue of our era”. If the media can wield its influence to campaign for both stronger mitigation policy and personal and community sustainability, then it is increasingly possible people will rise to the challenge of ameliorating climate change.

Hold your horses

But wait a minute, what about traditional journalistic values? Aren’t journalists meant to be mediators sifting the facts through a sieve of balance, impartiality and other journalistic values?

I quite like environment journalist and author Eric Roston’s definition of journalism, which he pinged to me over email:

Journalism is the word we use to describe how researchers who are financially independent from their subjects scrutinize people in power and contextualize these findings for a general audience. It's composed of two things, investigation and storytelling--and the possibilities for both are changing more rapidly than any single person can understand.

So if journalism is in flux, perhaps it should be admissible for journalists to wield their influence to get people to act on climate change? – After all, it’s in their own best interests.

Roston thinks no – although he says there is a continuum of what constitutes journalism – he tells me:

I would disagree that climate journalists should campaign for anything other than tools that help them conduct their work -- open data, "sunlight" policies that require certain disclosures from government, declassification of relevant materials, and maybe the most important, "shield" protection that prevents journalists from being legally compelled to reveal confidential sources. Our society is quite litigious, and a big concern I have about new journalism models is how journalists will be protected from investigation subjects protected by high-powered lawyers.

Powers of persuasion

I agree that these are very important freedoms and rights to maintain, but I also think that you must consider the impact you have on people when you write on the uniquely challenging problem of climate change. But acknowledging this responsibility also makes me feel uneasy. If climate change is so immense a problem that needs a complete culture change, like the austerity measures of the world wars, then doesn’t campaigning journalism, taken to the extreme, smack of a kind of brainwashing propaganda?

This quandary is well articulated by Bob Ward. He writes to me:

“The danger with campaigning is that it distorts reporting of an issue, so audiences do not receive a neutral, objective account of the news - basically it crosses the line from providing information into the realm of motivating action. In this case, audiences may lose trust in the source of information. Then again, the scientific evidence on climate change indicates that it could result in the future in profound and fundamental risks to billions of people across the world, so would it be desirable for the media to report on the risk of climate change as if it journalists have no interest in whether the Earth suffers the worst impacts?”


One answer is: it depends on how clearly different types of climate change stories are signposted. David Dobbs, a science journalist who writes for the New York Times and previously wrote about the environment says:

“There's reporting and there's persuading. I think you need to be clear to yourself and to the reader which you're up to. In the job's tightest definition — straight reporting — the responsibility is to inform, honestly and accurately. Yet as we all know, just reporting accurately will often influence readers, whether you set out to or not.

"If you're setting out to persuade, however, you should make that clear, even if not explicitly. Your facts should be just as solid as ever. But it should be clear to both you and the reader that you're marshalling those facts in service of an argument, rather as more-or-less straight information.”

So for Dobbs, if something is an op-ed, it needs to be demarcated from news clearly. So far, so straightforward, as all journalism should do this in accordance with industry regulator guidelines.

I asked the editor of the Guardian’s environment website, James Randerson, whether he thinks that the intention behind their environment editorial is always clear, and he responded that everything that is part of the 10:10 campaign is clearly labelled, as are lifestyle, eg Ask Leo & Lucy and comment piece, eg George Monbiot.

In the case of the Guardian I agree that individual pieces are well signposted. It is a given that their editorial stance is that the environment, alongside civil liberties, is a special area of interest. Randerson says: “Climate change is one of those things we do have a campaigning stance on. That means we do think there is a responsibility, not only to tell people news, but also to motivate them to understand what they can do about the news… to say what actions are effective and what’s just greenwash.He adds that straight news stories on climate change are reported and written in the same way as any other topic - without a campaigning slant.

In need of a makeover

However, in general climate change journalism can suffer from an image problem because of some journalism that recklessly sensationalises or distorts the facts – or even ignores them completely.

Historically, the press doesn’t have a good record on climate change reporting. According to Nick Davies, in Flat Earth News, “Scientists spent two decades warning the planet was heating up while journalists simply balanced what they were saying with denials from experts and oil companies.’” In this case “balancing” reporting with the manufactured doubt presents an inaccurate, misleading overview of the science.

Even now, there can still be problems with balance, particularly in broadcast media, which its British regulators, OFCOM, states must be impartial. According to investigative journalist George Monbiot in his book Heat: “Until mid 2005, the BBC seemed incapable of hosting a discussion on climate change without bringing in one of the Exxon-sponsored deniers to claim it was not taking place.”

In a case in point, Dr S. Fred Singer was called in to debate online ‘What does the future hold for climate change?’ as a climate change expert. However, Davies writes in Flat Earth News that The Union of Concerned Scientists found Singer’s work was promoted through 11 of Exxon's anti-climate change lobbying groups.

If balance is one of the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalyse, the three others are: sensationalism, denialism and straightforward distortion.

Contrast this piece from the Indy on 6 degrees Celcius rise by the end of the century with this, I think less sensationalist piece on the same report by the New Scientist.

A recent example of distortion from the UK press is that the Mail and Daily Telegraph misconstrued the work of a climate scientist called Mojab Latif to state the case that snowy weather in the UK this January contradicts the climate change consensus. Latif responded to clarify the meaning of his research in the Guardian.

Commentators can don a contrarian stance. This probably appeals to the right-leaning audiences of certain papers, ker-ching for the right-wing press. An example of a commentor that denies manmade global warming is happening is James Delingpole, writing for the Daily Telegraph. In this piece for the Telegraph blogs, he uses Climategate as a basis to deny the consensus of climate science. He calls it the: “Anthropogenic Global Warming myth (aka AGW; aka ManBearPig)”.

To read more about what some see as a concerted effort to undermine climate science, read this extract of Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton on the Guardian online.

(As an aside re Climategate, James Randerson told me about Fred Pearce’s massive investigation into the Climategate emails: “He says we’ve dug up all this dirt but it’s nowhere near as bad as many people have been saying, so where does it leave us? It leaves us that climate change is clearly happening, it’s clearly a problem, and there are issues [with the hacked emails] but they don’t change this. If we hadn’t done the big investigation first that would be just him [Pearce] spouting off, but because he’s done the investigation he can say that with credibility.”)

In a recent interview where I speak with Clive Hamilton, he says that the media does have a responsibility to compensate for bad coverage in the past. He thinks the main priority is to tell the truth (so far, so traditional) so people are informed and that’s the first step to what he calls ‘adaptive’ behaviour, meaning you act in line with the evidence. I’ve not read Requiem for a Species yet, but at his talk at the RSA (listen here) a couple of weeks ago, he did also talk about the importance of hope, and offering a positive vision. He told me some “positive stories are okay within a context of the reality of climate change.” (More on how we get might motivate people to act in the next post.

Wash hair, not brains

It is this question of making up for past sins that made me think of how far it’s possible to go without adding your own special bias onto stories to enhance their capacity to influence people to act. Where does one article or a body of work cross the fuzzy line from campaigning to a kind of manipulation? I ask Dobbs what is his take on this? He writes:

There's a sense in which any attempt to persuade is manipulative: You are, after all, manipulating an argument in order to get someone to change their minds or their behavior [sic]. But, again, this gets scungy when you twist facts to your cause or otherwise play sleight-of-hand. Transparency is the thing: Integrity to the facts, honesty about intentions, and you're playing fair.”

Okay, so I have to admit to mostly being a Guardian reader (I’m not going to look at each paper in depth, don’t you think this post is long enough as it is?) but it does seem to me that they will tackle news such as the retraction of a global warming paper and of course deep coverage of Climategate, which, as Randerson points out: “There’s no way we would publish that stuff if we were following a monomaniacal line that is like climate change is going to kill us all and everything has to fit into that.”

Although it must be uncomfortable covering stories that aren’t in line with their editorial stance, objectivity is the trump card. Not ‘balance’ but representing the truth of the situation as you see it – I mean, there’s no such thing as true objectivity since we are all the subjects of our perceptions. But as long as you do proper journalist-y things with the information you have, and you aim to be as objective as possible within the awareness of your own biases, what more can you do?

REF: doi: 10.1088/1755-1307/6/26/262008


  1. Agree with the campaigning point. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Sometimes it's important to rally behind important directives, to generate a momentum in the right* direction; but, hypocritically, when faced with campaigners I just see people who have made up their mind in one direction and will flog that horse come what may and in the face of other shades of grey.

    * whatever 'right' means

    DOI too, you make it too easy Christine ;-)

  2. I tell you what you should do Christine. You should unblock my Twitter account @omnologos so that I can follow your tweets once more.

    Ah, and in the meanwhile you might also want to explain please what exactly I have done or said, in order to earn myself the "block".

    thanks in anticipation

  3. Interesting post.

    Two further questions it made me wonder about (though I have no answers and don't expect anyone else to necessarily have any either):

    1) Could say similar things about health journalism, or are they different?

    2) Has blogging promoted (science) journalism to be more partisan?

  4. what I've learned about climate change reporting in the last year or so - since a conference on "framing" I attended June 2009, to be precise, that in this case, more information may not actually change a thing. It's more about how this information is framed and made to appear relevant to people's lives. So what you can do is to think of new ways of reaching people that would not normally be reached by science reporting.

  5. @Alice substantial food for thought, right there

    @Michael - very interesting. Do you have any good examples?

  6. I don't know much about the ins and outs of journalism. I don't understand why something would need to be "balanced" if we know it's true. It's not some scientist opinion, it's accepted as happening.

    I think journalists have a responsibility to state whether or not they fully understand what they are reporting. If they don't understand the data, don't analyse it, just print it.

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  8. I don't think its a simple dichotomy between "objective journalism" and campaigning. There is a third way - of representing the facts in the context the whole sum of evidence so your point about balance is bang on.

    Whilst many people would be uncomfortable with an overt campaigning article being penned by a nominally objective journalist, it is surely acceptable to go beyond simple reporting of opposing views.

    In the case of climate change I think this means still covering the views of people who dispute that AGW is real, but framing that within the broad scientific consensus that exists, the uncertainties that remain, and the best estimates of the consequences of each emission scenario (space allowing!).

    However I think Alice is right that "balance" is not a unique issue to climate change. Health reporting is equally at risk. Fiona's blog on the BBC is a good critique of balance in science journalism:

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  10. Journalists should, as a minimum, determine and distinguish between climate sceptics and climate cynics:

  11. Hmmm. Monbiot's appalling abuse of those who challenged his position as self-appointed AGW saviour of the Universe turned me from a default AGW believer into a firm sceptic.

    Reading on the matter, particularly The Hockey Stick Illusion's deconstruction of Mann's appalling behaviour, and Peter Taylor's "Chill", which examines all the climate forcing factors that affect the climate but are NOT factored in by the AGWers, has turned me into a total sceptic.

    Well done George. You really are a pompous, sanctimonious arse, but thank you for enlightening me re the AGW scam.

  12. @Elby the Beserk

    Why are you writing about Monbiot on my blog? I know I mention him in my post but your comment seems a little irrelevant to the questions I pose here.

  13. As others have said I don't think the question/issue is unique to climate change but it is arguably 'the' issue which has the ability to divide opinion, and especially scientific opinion. This, quite rightly should give journalists pause. Reporting an issue or event where there are facts or events which are observed and easily understood must by comparison seem very attractive.

    With such important questions as whether climate change exists, whether it is man made, what the effects may be or what should be done readers will to some extent gravitate towards journalism which echoes what they 'feel' are the answers.

    Governments and scientists do the research, publish the figures and make policy. The media provide the filter through which most will receive the messages and this should be as transparent a filter as possible, free from influence either way. That said, when we move beyond reporting, journalists have a responsibility to ensure the information the public receives is set in a wider context, that where contrary informed opinion exists this is given a voice, and that we know as much as we need to about the interests of those giving their opinion. Equally readers should make themselves aware of the backgrounds of the journalists they read and the organisation that pay their wages.

    There is no reason, I can see, to argue against a campaigning role for journalists provided that it transparent and doesn't mask the facts (such as they are). We are after all used to editorials and reading journalists with an 'opinion' and I would suggest that most people form an opinion first and then find the writing that reinforces this rather than the other way around.

  14. When the truth is on your side, the activities of campaigning and informing the reader aren't actually distinct. So just aim at informing and explaining as damn well you can, and leave it to the reader to draw consequences. Of course as you say, there is nothing wrong about being explicit about your own views, as long as they are marked as such.

    A bigger conflict than between "campaigning" and "informing" I see between conveying scientific content and the need to present a compelling narrative. This is indeed a big challenge, and something only the best journalists -- and writers generally -- manage.

    One more free advice though, as you seem to be close to Monbiot, Pearce and Randerson: don't ever take shortcuts with the truth in order to make a good story, as that is the road to perdition. Keep digging, and keep studying, until you're confident that your understanding holds up. And some humility when dealing with science: science is hard, and its practice somewhat special. Ask those practitioners, most are only too happy to share.

    BTW I see two link spams in this thread.