Thursday, September 06, 2007

Editor and Publisher columnist: "Climate Change: Get Over Objectivity"

I've argued on this blog that the denialists haven't been getting nearly as much of their material in to the traditional media since the IPCC report came out in February (when I started this blog). They're mostly heard in the right wing outlets and in editorial and columnist pages (and in the non-traditional media.)

But other's are still concerned. The excellent column by Mark Lynas (below) started out haranguing the false balance in global warming stories. Now Steve Outing, a columnist for the newspaper trade magazine Editor and Publisher, has published a strong argument for abandoning "objectivity" about climate change.

He starts out thinking about what he can do do make his kid's world better:
I've also been thinking about the newspaper industry and global warming. And frankly, I don't think newspapers are doing enough. Indeed, newspapers' fabled commitment to "objectivity" has been a detriment to efforts to combat global warming.

The industry still has a lot of power to influence people. How about if newspapers abandon their old way of doing things when it comes to the issue of global warming, and turn their influence to good? It just might be that through this issue alone, newspapers revive themselves to some extent. Editors are shirking their responsibility to improve our world, in my view, so let's change that.
This echo's Mark Lynas' call for a "more rigorous and honest approach".

He then goes on the say where objectivity is meant to be used:
I have no quibble with the status quo when it comes to controversial issues where there is a significant split of opinion. Outside of the opinion section, most newspapers are not going to allow writers and editors to express an opinion on hot debates like the right to abortion, or public funding for stem cell research. There are sizable groups of people lining up on both sides of those issues (not to mention those who fall in between). It would be journalistic suicide to take a mainstream paper and go on an advocacy tear about abortion, for example.

But advocacy in terms of encouraging people to act to alleviate climate change is really a wholly different issue. There's clearly scientific consensus that humans are altering the planet's climate, and that the effect is accelerating. Stronger hurricanes, melting glaciers and sea ice, worse wildfires and longer fire seasons, more severe droughts and flooding, and more frequent bizarre weather events overall.
Wow. I'm glad that message has gotten through to this non-scientist professional newspaperman.

For me the most interesting part was this mini-history of "objectivity":
The problem with that kind of coverage is that it doesn't permit journalists to find the truth in an issue, like global warming. Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University and a respected new media observer, points out that journalistic objectivity first arose in the 1920s and '30s -- following a period of sensational, "muckraking" reporting by newspapers.

"Part of the problem is that journalists don't realize what objectivity was in the first place," says Rosen. "From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it's hard to figure out who's right and what's really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to 'de-voice' or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product. But the costs of that system have built up over time.

"One of the most insidious and deceptive things about the system of objectivity is how it persuades journalists that the alternative to it is 'subjectivity.' From this angle, to relinquish objectivity means to surrender to partisanship, opinion, bias. Not very attractive, that. But what if the real alternative is truthtelling itself?" Rosen adds.
That's a powerful observation that should be repeated often to anyone trying browbeat the media into downplaying or denying global warming. The alternative to false-balance "objectivity" in global warming reporting is not advocacy or subjectivity but truthtelling.

He concludes the philosophical discussion:
The good professor would seem to support my idea that newspapers' sacred commitment to journalistic objectivity perhaps is hindering the power of the press to impact humans' behavior, because in the name of objectivity, reporters must give equal time to the tiny minority of skeptics and not go too far out on a limb to declare that climate change indeed is caused by humankind. (Perhaps that's why during recent news coverage of severe summer flooding in the Midwest US and historic wildfires in Greece, seldom is mentioned the possible -- I'd suggest, likely -- link between those events and human-caused climate change.)

As long as news organizations keep alive the idea that there's still a "debate" about whether human-induced climate change is real or not, people have an excuse for not changing their behavior.
What I take away from this is that editors need to go beyond making sure their reporters don't fall for the denialist spin, they need to also clean up their editorial pages.

Mr. Outing's inbox was apparently filled with flames from a few newspaper people and some denier usual suspects. Lets let him know his views are appreciated.


inel said...

I agree with you and the stance taken by Outing. A few more of my thoughts on this are collected here.

inel said...

On Wednesday, a meeting between editors and scientists took place at Stanford. It is reported on here in the Sacramento Bee by Rick Rodriguez, its executive editor and senior vice president, who attended.

His story begins,
"A group of the world's leading scholars on climate change had a message for news executives earlier this week: In reporting the global warming story, you have taken "journalistic balance" too far."

and is an interesting read, though I must admit I still feel that journalists are too scared to face aspects of this issue head on and stand their ground against those who complain they are under-reporting the minority opinion. Of course, there are naysayers pouncing on the comment stream as usual.

Another case in point is here, where the 2nd commenter is becoming a familiar one on British and American local papers, and invariably directs people to InteliOrg with the same boilerplate message. Rather sad …