News Media Complicity With Climate Science Deniers

Just 25 years ago, more than half of Americans (55 percent) thought that reporters generally got their facts right, according to the Pew Research Center. As of last fall, that view was shared by less than one in three Americans (29 percent). When Pew does the same survey next year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that number on the perceived accuracy of the news media to slide even lower.

Look at recent climate change coverage and you will see why Americans are so down on reporters and editors.

The way in which the news media is covering the string of recent vindications of climate science and the scientists responsible for it is frankly discouraging, and fails to effectively repair the damage created by the Fourth Estate’s rush to judge six months ago.   

Consider yesterday’s Independent Climate Change Email Review report, which was undertaken by Sir Muir Russell and his team in response to the publication of stolen emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Here’s what the University of East Anglia said when the report was issued Wednesday:

Nine months ago there was an unjustified attack on the scientific integrity of researchers at the University of East Anglia and, as a result, on climate science as a whole.  Emails stolen from this university were selectively misused to make serious allegations about the work of the Climatic Research Unit and the people who worked there or were connected to it. Some people accepted those misrepresentations at face value without question and repeated them as fact. Today, for the third and hopefully for the final time, an exhaustive independent review has exposed as unfounded the overwhelming thrust of the allegations against our science.  We hope that commentators will accurately reflect what this highly detailed independent report says, and finally lay to rest the conspiracy theories, untruths and misunderstandings that have circulated. Sir Muir Russell's team concludes about the staff of CRU that "their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt".

So far so good. Climate science and integrity of scientists vindicated! 

Well, that is until the media gets its hands on the story. Consider these headlines:

Report Backs Climate Data, Scolds Scientists, Wall Street Journal, 07/08/10. A U.K. investigation concluded Wednesday that researchers at a prominent climate-change institute didn't skew science to inflate evidence of man-made global warming, but it criticized them for not sharing data and, in one instance, for presenting information in a "misleading" way.  Taken together, the reports are in line with the 2007 conclusion by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global warming is "unequivocal" and is "very likely" caused by human activity. But the reports collectively warn climate scientists to be more transparent in responding to critics and in explaining their methods. The latest report also notes that it isn't assessing climate science broadly. Wednesday's report isn't likely to quiet the climate-science debate …

Climategate scientists were 'unhelpful' and not open about their studies ..., Daily Mail, 07/07/10.  Scientists involved in the 'Climategate' email affair were 'unhelpful' and not sufficiently open about their studies, an independent review said today.   

Things weren’t much better on Tuesday when a report was released vindicating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate science.    Here’s what that review released this week actually says

“The review is explicit in its finding that the key conclusions of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report are accurate, correct and supported entirely by the leading science in the field,” said Martin Parry, Co-Chair of AR4 Working Group II.  The reviewers looked at 32 statements on regional impacts of climate change.  Their summary is that all 32 are “well founded and none were found to contain any significant errors”.   The review also states: “The Working Group II contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report shows ample observational evidence of regional climate-change impacts, which have been projected to pose substantial risks to most parts of the world, under increasing temperatures.” 

Contrast that vindication with these bizarre find-the-grey-lining-in-a-sliver-cloud headlines:

Review Finds Issues at Climate Panel, Wall Street Journal, 07/06/10

Dutch agency admits mistake in UN climate report, Associated Press, 07/05/10.   (Always a tough break when the world’s most widely read news service gets it wrong!)

Accentuate the negative, The Economist, 07/05/10.

IPCC report 'played down positive impact of climate change', Daily Mail, 07/05/10.

In fact, it looks like there are two (or more!) negatively framed stories for every accurately positive article on the clean bill of health for the IPCC. One of those exceptions is the following:

IPCC report has no significant errors, Dutch review finds, Reuters, 07/05/10. In the latest of a series of reports backing the validity of work by leading climate scientists, the Dutch government said Monday that a review of a key report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had found no significant errors.  The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency took a look at the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, a 2007 study considered the basis for understanding climate change science, following criticism that the report had in several instances exaggerated climate impacts.

So, what accounts for the all of this unbalanced – and even flat-out dead wrong – coverage of the vindication of climate science?  

I think there’s a simple human nature explanation at work here. When climate science deniers attacked scientist Michael Mann and the IPCC report was falsely smeared about its findings on the Amazon, scores and scores of news organizations smelled blood and jumped on that story with both feet. 

As Media Matters points out, we are not just talking about the talk radio loonies and Faux News here:

On the December 4, 2009, edition of NBC’s Nightly News, host Brian Williams stated “Climategate they’re calling it. A new scandal over global warming and it’s burning up the Internet.” Williams continued: “Have the books been cooked on climate change?” Later in the broadcast, Williams stated: “There’s a new scandal that’s burning up the net these days.” Later during the segment, correspondent Anne Thompson reported: “Those that doubt that man-made greenhouse gases are changing the climate say these emails from Britain’s University of East Anglia show climate scientists massaging data and suppressing studies by those who disagree.”

And you can find the same stories at ABC, CNN, and on and on … and on. (Kudos, by the way, to Media Matters for taking the lead in urging reporters hoodwinked by the “Climategate” non-story to take back their bad stories!, which my colleague Dan Lashof blogged about yesterday.)

So where does the human nature explanation come in?

The reality is that like most people, reporters and editors don't like to admit when they are wrong. No editor wants to print a correction or retraction that they don’t have to. It’s much easier for news organization to do the same thing the climate science deniers do – find a few words or phrases in a report – such as the vindication of the IPCC report – and use that to justify bad reporting in the past, which, then, does not need to be corrected.

But that is sloppy and knowingly disingenuous reporting. And it explains why only a third of Americans now trust the media.

And just so I am not accused of being “unfair and unbalanced” myself, allow me to anticipate the obvious objection to the above:  What about all those stories last week on the vindication of scientist Michael Mann by Penn State University?  

In truth, there are dozens of good stories to be found out there along these lines:

Penn State clears Mann in Climate-gate probe, Washington Post, 07/01/10. A Pennsylvania State University investigative committee has cleared a climate scientist of ethical misconduct in connection with an exchange of e-mails about global warming known as Climate-gate.  

But those stories ran last Thursday night and Friday morning going into a long federal holiday weekend in the United States, when people tend to be least interested in in-depth news. The timing isn’t the media’s fault – but the result is that the number of people who will have seen or heard of Mann’s vindication is likely to be quite small.

So a month from now, the denial crowd will be able to exploit this low-visibility by pretending the unmerited cloud over Mann never lifted. And their task will be made easier since the subsequent rounds this week of unreasonably negative coverage of the CRU emails and the IPCC report makes that outcome even more likely.

As Lashof wrote yesterday,

Journalists have a responsibility to evaluate the meaning and significance of allegations before spreading them. In the case of the so-called “climate gate” episode they mostly failed at that responsibility.

In light of that failure, is it not incumbent upon the media to correct the false impression it has played such a critical role in creating? The record must be set straight. If I could have it all, it would be set straight with as much enthusiasm and exposure with which it was twisted in the first place.

But we’ll just have to see. Neglecting to do so would pretty much make reporters and editors who got the “Climategate” hoax wrong in the first place the willing handmaidens to the worst of the climate science deniers.