Newspapers and Climate Change

By Ward, Bud | Editor & Publisher, February 15, 2007 | Go to article overview

Newspapers and Climate Change


Ward, Bud, Editor & Publisher


Throughout 2007, newspaper editors, faced with a certain "inconvenient truth," will need to probe bedrock journalistic principles. Does the emerging global warming crisis pit the two hallmarks of accuracy and balance against each other?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- a joint effort of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization -- has now released its much-awaited Fourth Assessment Report, based on the findings of thousands of the world's most respected climate scientists. As the most authoritative reference on global warming, our influence on it, and what it means for our future, these reports are at the core of our understanding of climate change.

Editors are in a sensitive position. On a science-driven issue with so much at stake, how do they ensure their coverage accurately and fairly represents the state of accepted scientific knowledge?

Major news organizations over the past few years have often acknowledged the growing scientific consensus that excessive emissions of carbon dioxide are directly affecting our climate. Increasingly they are going beyond tired "he said/she said" formulaic coverage of the issue. More and more of them recognize that the professional scientific community overwhelmingly accepts the troubling underlying science on the issue.

IPCC's reports are widely recognized as the gold standard on climate change, the term many scientists prefer to the more colloquial "global warming." Following the traditional journalistic approaches made popular in Journalism 101, the media long had sought to "balance" the IPCC findings with the contrarian views of a handful of professional doubting scientists -- or, far worse, political operatives.

That often made for good copy, but not for good science reporting.

Like long-forsaken efforts to "balance" the coverage of health impacts of tobacco, that approach has pretty much fallen by the wayside as editors strive to balance not mere opinion, but scientific evidence. For every Galileo, as they say, there are thousands of wannabes and pretenders. "Balancing" a few paid deniers against the broad consensus of thousands of the world's climate experts no longer cuts it.

The IPCC "Working Group I" scientific report is the first of several due from the IPCC during the year. They arrive at a time not only of growing international and domestic concern, but also at a moment of broadening corporate and private sector recognition of a need to act on, and not just further study, the challenge. …

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