Disinformation, Financial Pressures, and Misplaced Balance: A Reporter Describes the Systemic Forces That Work against the Story of Climate Change Being Accurately Told

By Gelbspan, Ross | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Disinformation, Financial Pressures, and Misplaced Balance: A Reporter Describes the Systemic Forces That Work against the Story of Climate Change Being Accurately Told


Gelbspan, Ross, Nieman Reports


One central fact--as simple as it is overwhelming--informs the current understanding of global climate change: To allow our inflamed climate to stabilize requires worldwide cuts in our use of coal and oil of about 70 percent. This is the 10-year-old consensus finding of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--the largest, most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

To act on climate stabilization in the way that science guides us threatens the survival of the coal and oil industries that constitute one of the biggest commercial enterprises in history. Conversely, the findings of most scientists who study this issue indicate that a failure to address this issue rapidly and comprehensively threatens the continuity of a coherent civilization. (Already visible are some financial stresses that show up in the escalating losses by some of the world's property insurers.) Yet despite its scope and potential consequences, global climate change is probably the most underreported story.

Instead, stories about aspects of global climate change should be in newspapers at least three times a week and on radio and TV newscasts more frequently, too. In addition to reporting about its science, the climate issue involves the emergence of extreme weather events (debates about increasing strength of hurricanes is just one example), technology developments, oil industry movements, terrorism and national security, economic stability, diplomatic tensions, and significant policy differences between many state governments and the administration in Washington.

Why Climate Change Isn't Covered Well

Looking at how the news business works, however, there are several reasons why this is happening.

At one level, environment reporters usually focus their energies on mastering intricacies of the science and the mechanisms of ecological interactions. Were they to compliment this reporting with some investigative training, their treatment of the climate crisis might broaden significantly. The reason is that most reporting about the environment involves tracking conflicts about money, and these conflicts generally pit a specific environmental vulnerability against an industry, a business, or a developer. If reporters approached these stories through a wider investigative lens--and had the training necessary to know how to follow the money--they'd be bringing better tools with them to evaluate the responses they receive from corporate interests and likely be better equipped to sniff out the use of front groups, dubious economic claims, disguised or concealed lobbying strategies, and pressure tactics that are not readily apparent.

On the level of institutional culture, one barrier to comprehensive reporting about climate change can be seen in the career path to the top at news outlets. Normally the path follows the track of political reporting, as top editors tend to see nearly all issues through a political lens. While there have been predictable feature stories about climate change from Alaska and small, buried reports of scientific findings, global warming gains news prominence only when it plays a role in the country's politics. During the 1992 elections, for instance, the first President Bush slapped the label of "ozone man" on Al Gore because of his book, "Earth in the Balance." It is likely not coincidental that Gore ran away from the climate issue during the 2000 presidential campaign. The issue was prominently covered in 1997 when the Senate voted overwhelmingly not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. These stories spoke not to the substance of the scientific debate but to the political setback the Clinton administration experienced at the hands of a rebellious Senate. News coverage resurfaced when President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto process and again focused on resulting diplomatic tensions between the United States and the European Union and not on the climate change impacts. …

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