Is the Press Misreporting the Environment Story?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Uriel Sinai / Getty

Melted water runs over the Greenlandic Icecap.

When I tell other journalists that I cover the environment, I usually get the same reaction: you're really lucky. (I'm assuming they don't just mean because I still have a job.) After years on the back pages and the back burner, the environment has emerged as one of the major issues facing the globe today, with the attendant media attention to match. But what keeps it perpetually fresh as a subject is its scope — climate change touches on science, Washington, business, society, geopolitics, even religion, and the reporting does as well. The sheer complexity means there's always something to write, blog or podcast about — as my editor likes to remind me. Frequently. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)

But that complexity poses a unique challenge for the media, one that in its increasingly decimated state it may be ill-equipped to meet, as Eric Pooley — the former editor of Fortune and a Time contributor — argues in a recent paper for Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center. It was difficult enough for reporters, even scientifically literate ones, to dig through dense studies and accurately gauge the state of climatology. Now the big questions facing environmental reporters are not so much scientific as economic, as the country comes to grip with the true cost of fighting climate change. And national politics enter the equation as well — the difference between what science demands and what electoral politics might allow can be vast. It's not an easy beat to cover by any means, and the media may be falling down on the job. "This is the great political test, and the great story, of our time," writes Pooley. "But news organizations have not been treating it that way." (Listen to Pooley talk about reporting and climate change on this week's Greencast.)

In his paper, Pooley examines coverage of last June's Senate debate over the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act, the first carbon cap-and-trade bill to get a real hearing in Congress. The main question posed by the bill was economic: how much would capping and bringing down carbon emissions cost the U.S., and could we afford it? (As Pooley writes, these days "the economics of climate policy — not the science of climate change — is at the heart of [the] story.") In the months leading up to the debate, both sides — those in favor of strong action on climate change, and those against — released economic studies that attempted to predict the cost of Warner-Lieberman, with the skeptics emphasizing far higher costs than the greens. (See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.)

Rather than try to unpack the dueling economic models and figure out which side had a better claim to truth, Pooley argues that reporters fell into what he calls the stenography model of journalism, simply reporting both sides with equal weight. The problem is, the two sides weren't equal. The skeptics' models tended to assume, quietly, that the pace of technological advance for renewable energy would be sluggish — significantly raising the costs of trying to cap carbon emissions. The models from the green side — led by the Environmental Defense Fund — tended to be fairer, projecting a range of possible economic impacts from cap-and-trade. Increasingly, mainstream economists are arguing that the costs of doing nothing about climate change will outweigh the costs of action. But too often journalists — many of whom lack a sophisticated understanding of economic modeling — resorted to "he said, she said" reporting that reinforced the idea that the two sides were equal. Not coincidentally, the Warner-Lieberman bill eventually went down in an embarrassing defeat in the Senate.

Rather than a stenographer, Pooley would prefer to see the media adopt the position of an "honest referee — keeping score, throwing flags when a team plays fast and loose with the facts, explaining to the audience what's happening on the field and why." In an issue as complex as climate change, the country badly needs smart, fair umpires, and the media can play that role. But the wave of cutbacks and closings that have hit the American media could make that all but impossible. Referees need to know the game cold, and climate change demands day-in, day-out experience from dedicated reporters. But a dwindling few media outlets are willing to pay for that kind of coverage at a time when the economy is crashing — Time's corporate cousin CNN has eliminated its entire full-time science section.

Admittedly, I may be just a bit self-interested here, but such cutbacks couldn't come at worse time, with the climate battle truly ready to heat up. (In his address on Feb. 24, President Barack Obama called for Congress to send him cap-and-trade legislation.) It won't be easy, but as Pooley argues, climate change is too important to be treated like a "disposable beat," even as the media itself seems increasingly disposable. Until that changes — until reporters embrace their roles as honest referees and their bosses give them the space and resources to do their job — "the press will continue to underreport the story of the century: the race to save the planet from the meteor known as humankind."

See pictures of Earth from space.

See pictures of the effects of global warming.