Climate Change: Get Over Objectivity, Newspapers
This column originally appeared on Editor & Publisher Online. It’s re-published here because it’s no longer freely accessible at editorandpublisher.com.
By Steve Outing
NEW YORK (August 28, 2007) — I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change (aka, global warming) a lot lately. (Haven’t you?) Having kids, I’m concerned about what kind of world my generation is leaving them, of course. And I’m mulling over what I can do, to “do my part” (ride my bike to work more; my family bought a hybrid car; teach my kids green habits; etc.).
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.
A Return to Advocacy
In recent decades, “advocacy journalism” has been relegated to the alternative press, or in the mainstream press on editorial or op-ed pages (and perhaps blogs, too). The news sections of mainstream newspapers are still the realm of “objective journalism,” where reporters hide (or purport to) their personal opinions and biases, and try to present a balanced view of any issue. Advocacy does not make it to the front page.
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.
The few critics of the consensus are a small and shrinking group, who to most observers seem irrelevant. To the mainstream, they may as well be flat-earthers.
Why is it, then, that mainstream coverage of climate change is still mired, too often, in he-said, she-said reporting where both “sides” get their time? When the evidence is so overwhelming to support the idea that humans are changing the climate, why should the news industry give the tiny number of skeptics a higher percentage of time within a news report on their viewpoint than they deserve?
It’s probably not a perfect analogy, but with a tiny number of people in the U.S. supporting polygamy (estimated at 37,000 living in the Western U.S.), news organizations don’t tend to give a lot of space to polygamists explaining why their lifestyle is a good thing and should be allowed. (Though polygamists have gotten more press lately, since the hit HBO show “Big Love.” The Salt Lake Tribune even has a full-time reporter on the polygamy beat.) At this point, global warming skeptics have little credibility.
A recent example was a story of NASA scientists recalculating some average-temperature figures that appeared to indicate that “Dust Bowl” year 1934 was the hottest year on record, not 1998, as was believed. Newspapers dutifully reported on the “controversy” as global warming skeptics seized on the erred statistic to support their notion that it’s all a hoax, as in this New York Times report, even though scientists involved explained that it was inconsequential in terms of the larger global temperature trend, “nudging it by an insignificant thousandth of a degree.”
The Origins 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.
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 Can Newspapers Do?
If you’ll buy into the argument that climate change is different than other issue controversies, what should newspaper companies be doing to help the planet? (And really, can any editor or publisher be faulted for using the organization’s power to encourage and promote people doing good things for our planet? I fail to see how this can be controversial, except to fringe groups who inevitably will paint it as “liberal conspiracy.”)
Here are some ideas. And while my column nearly always focuses on online journalism and media, these suggestions emcompass the entire newspaper operation — print and online.
Develop a Behavior-Change Campaign That Encourages Action.
Many newspapers as well as other types of news organizations have embarked on climate-change special series, but most tend to focus on in-depth reporting of the issue. I can’t fault most papers from covering the issue intensely; there’s some excellent reporting being done by environmental-beat reporters. But most of these special efforts don’t include much in the way of calls for action — an advocacy component. What’s missing is for newspaper coverage of the issue to be pro-active in encouraging behavior change.
Solicit Ideas From Readers.
Many people don’t know what things they can do to help combat climate change, so tell them. Ideas from the experts are all well and good to report on, but be sure to solicit ideas from your audience. The website is the obvious venue to collect ideas. Rate them, with ideas that are submitted most often rising to the top — so readers can benefit from seeing the best things they can do without wading through a long list. Have readers rate the ideas using a 5-star system, so quality ideas rise to the top. Find a “green” sponsor to award appropriate prizes (say, bus passes or discount cards for bike shops) for winning ideas.
Who in your community is doing the best job of cutting their personal “carbon footprint“? Run a contest where people submit copies of their home energy bills, demonstrating how much they’ve saved by behavior change in the last year. Give prizes to the people who show the largest percentage drop in their bills. Do this in conjunction with your local power company, since most of them have campaigns encouraging people to conserve energy use.
Create Online Trackers of Green Activity by Consumers.
Most of us don’t know how much we personally contribute to the problem. An online “tracker” can be used for people to, for example, record how they got to work (mode of transportation) and mileage. As a person’s data is collected, he/she can see how much pollution was not put into the atmosphere by their choices, tracking themselves week by week and seeing how adjustments in their behavior affect their personal carbon statistics. Make it a social game, where a person’s tracked commuting behavior is quantified and compared to other people.
Collect Ideas For Auto Makers.
Automobiles are a big part of the global warming problem, yet automakers continue to resist calls for raising mileage ratings for cars. When presidential candidate Barack Obama castigated the auto industry, suggested that tighter fuel-efficiency standards are needed, and implored them to make more fuel-efficient cars, the crowd of auto executives sat silent. A newspaper could collect readers ideas for the automakers on how to get to more fuel efficiency, then present it to Detroit.
Create Online Communities of Pro-Active Consumers.
Create and host online communities for groups within the green culture, such as solar home owners. It can be a place for them to share their stories and advice with fellow solar enthusiasts, as well as educate others who are considering solar technology to cut their energy bills and make a personal difference in the effort to slow global warming. Other groups: bike commuters; composters; environmental educators.
Facilitate Consumer Reviews of Green Products and Services.
Again, tap the collective intelligence of your readers.
Put Your Campaign on The Front Page And on The Homepage.
I’m reminded of the fabled San Francisco Chronicle headline of many years ago, “A Great City is Forced to Drink Swill,” which was followed by an “expose” of the alleged bad coffee in the city’s restaurants. When is the last time you saw a newspaper take that kind of crazy chance? Well, perhaps it’s time for newspaper editors to take a stand on something — something more important than bad coffee. A bland approach to covering climate change is not going to produce much change.
It won’t be hard for you to add to my short list of ideas above.
Advocacy has gotten a bad name in modern news media. I would argue that climate change is too important of an issue squander the power of the news media. Newspapers can and should not only educate people about what they can do, but pro-actively lead and encourage behavior change. That will mean setting aside a time-honored journalistic practice — for this one vital issue.