The danger of fair and balanced

As the science grew more convincing about man's effect on climate change, it's as if the journalists were stuck in time

Meltdown An iceberg calved off one of the glaciers south of Juneau, Alaska, while a rainbow rose over the hillside. (Ian Berry / Magnum Photos)

On a sweltering June day in 1988, James E. Hansen, then the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, appeared before a key committee of the United States Senate.

Seated before a bank of cameras and a panel of grim officials, Hansen delivered testimony that would start to swing accepted wisdom on the emerging science of climate change.

“I would like to draw three main conclusions,” he began. “Number one, the earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements. Number two, the global warming is already large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect. And number three, our computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves.”

The “greenhouse effect,” what we now know as climate change or climate disruption, was caused by human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, said Hansen and other scientists that day.

Colorado Sen. Timothy E. Wirth attended the hearing and in his opening remarks said: “The Energy Committee must move aggressively to examine how energy policy has contributed to the greenhouse effect and the kinds of changes in energy policy that may be needed to reverse the trend of increased emissions of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels.” Humans, in other words, where driving the warming, and Congress should step in to avoid even more devastating impacts.

At the time of Hansen’s testimony half of the United States was an agricultural wasteland. Meteorologists had declared the worst drought since the Great Dust Bowl. The Mississippi River sank to its lowest level since at least 1872, when record keeping began. The 1980s would become, up to that point anyway, the warmest decade on record. Television screens just a few years earlier beamed images of emaciated figures half a world away, victims of a prolonged drought in the African Sahel. “The Endangered Earth” was Time’s “Planet of the Year.” That climate conditions could cause severe economic damage and deep human suffering was not a huge leap.

Hansen’s forceful testimony about the greenhouse affect wasn’t the first to greet Washington’s political class. As early as 1965, President Johnson was told by his Science Advisory Committee of increasing evidence that human-generated industrial emissions were impacting the atmosphere.

Yet Hansen’s testimony stoked front-page coverage of the issue for the first time and is widely viewed as a turning point in public understanding of human impacts on the climate. The New York Times ran this headline on A1: “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” In January 1989, PBS’ NOVA aired “Hot Enough for You?” In the fall of that year, The End of Nature, the first book about the greenhouse effect written for a general audience, hit bookshelves, written by a 29-year-old New Yorker staff writer named Bill McKibben. The media had woken up.

Even if the concept of global warming was rising, it seemed another leap of faith for most outside the scientific community to believe humans could be o profoundly transforming something as vast and seemingly permanent as the Earth’s climate—and do it in as little as one hundred years.

In trying to puncture this idea, Hansen and those like McKibben based their argument simply on science and made their case through explanatory writing. They talked about the ways the greenhouse effect would cause more frequent droughts and the sea levels to rise.

They seemed to make what clearly has proven a naïve assumption: that by presenting only the science, they could provoke swift, determined action to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. Politics was not much on their radar.

McKibben is no longer a staff writer at The New Yorker but he remains a journalist, continuing to publish books and influential articles for Rolling Stone about climate change and the need to quickly curb fossil fuel use. He is most known these days, however, for co-founding, an organization leading the charge against the Keystone XL pipeline and urging global action on climate change.

“There was a lot of coverage and most of it was smart,” he says by phone from his home in Vermont. “Journalists talked to scientists and just reported it. It hadn’t occurred to them that it should be treated as a political issue as opposed to a scientific one,” McKibben says of coverage in the late 1980s.

But, he adds, “It wasn’t long before the fossil fuel industry did a good job of turning it into a political issue, a partisan thing they could exploit, when they started rolling out all the tools that we now understand as an effort to overcome the science. And their main target was the media.”

The fossil fuel industry succeeded. In the ensuing years, the industry not only won over conservatives on the matter of climate change, but they also played into the media trope of balance and fairness.

Since those early days of climate coverage, scientists have grown more certain that there is unassailable evidence that human behavior is making a dire contribution to the planet’s rising temperatures. Yet it’s as if journalists are stuck in time, presenting the science as something still under debate. A notion to be evaluated, tossed around. As scientific certainty grows—97 percent of qualified scientists agree that the planet is warming and humans are the cause—today’s reporters, editors, and producers should cease with the false conceit about a debate and instead drill deeply into the political terrain.

Many scientists and academics say that journalists might focus their inquiries on the sources of scientific misinformation, namely the fossil fuel-funded and ideologically driven think tanks opposed to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Journalists might also do more to address solutions to climate change in hopes of dampening American anxieties about the economic consequences of facing the issue.

In the ensuing years, the industry not only won over conservatives on the matter of climate change, but they also played into the media trope of balance and fairness.

In 1992, just four years after Hansen’s alarming testimony, *investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan retired from journalism and begun penning political fiction. Gelbspan had undertaken sweeping exposes of the Soviet Union and the Reagan Administration’s “dirty wars” in Central America, while at the Philadelphia Bulletin, Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. So when a Harvard Medical School doctor named Paul Epstein approached him with research linking climate change and the spread of infectious disease, Gelbspan’s reporter instincts once again took over.

The duo wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post’s Outlook section, “Should we fear a global plague?” highlighting Epstein’s research and warning of the migration of many diseases due to a warming world. Gelbspan was about to launch a book-length investigation, but soon after the op-ed was published, he began getting letters from Post readers questioning whether he overstated his case. The rising temperatures were temporary, they said, and part of a natural cycle.

The letters gave him pause. Some of them recommended that he consult the works of climate change skeptics like Richard Lintzen, Fred Singer, Pat Michaels, and Bob Balling. Their arguments were persuasive, and Gelbspan started feeling relief that humanity was not on the precipice of climate catastrophe.

Gelbspan planned to drop the book project. But he had scheduled interviews with several leading climate scientists and felt obliged to honor his commitments. When he spoke with one of them, the scientist dispelled Gelbspan of the idea that the so-called skeptics stood on sound ground. They cherry-picked data, the scientist said, and sowed doubt when in fact virtually all scientists were certain about climate change dynamics.

But one thing perplexed the scientist with whom Gelbspan spoke: who was funding these scientists challenging climate change? They weren’t receiving grants from the usual foundation sources, like the National Science Foundation. Many of the skeptics were legitimate scientists, albeit not specialists in fields related to climatology, but their funding was a black box.

Whoever they were, the skeptics were having an effect. Journalists sought them out in order to provide an opposing view to scientists like Hansen and Roger Revelle, who wrote the 1965 report for the Johnson Administration. Again and again climate change deniers like Lintzen and Singer would appear in media reports, saying the science wasn’t settled or the warming trend was due to a natural cycle.

Gelbspan, by now, was back on the story. He heard that the Minnesota legislature was holding a hearing on the environmental impacts of coal burning. Not only would acid rain, smog, and other types of air pollution be discussed, but a state legislator had requested that global warming be added to the list of impacts to study.

“I had a long talk with the assistant attorney general who was conducting the hearings,” says Gelbspan. “She told me that the coal industry was flying in four skeptics to testify. And this is a really obscure hearing—at the Public Utility Commission or something—and I said, well, how about you compel them to disclose their funding sources.”

On the day of the hearing, the retired investigative reporter says that he was the only journalist in the room.

“Lo and behold, under oath, they provide their list of funding and it’s all coming from the fossil fuel industry,” Gelbspan told me later. “And I say, holy shit, this is what’s going on here.”

What came next was what Penn State University climate scientist Michael E. Mann calls the climate wars, and a principal line of attack was to question the work of reporters who portrayed climate change as settled fact.

It was the perfect line of attack, because it played into a core maxim of journalism: to be fair and balanced in presenting the contours of a debate. Yet to do that, reporters were frequently using industry-backed spokespeople as key sources about the actual science—not about a debate over potential policy solutions, of which industry should fairly be a part. Yet since policy solutions to climate change could severely choke profits, what better way to push back than to question the underlying science?

What McKibben considered accurate coverage of climate change in the late 1980s—reporters covering the science, not the politics—was in Gelbspan’s estimation a major, structural failure on the part of journalists in the 1990s.

It began with who was assigned to cover the subject. “It was only science writers that were covering this stuff and they were not the types to follow the money,” Gelbspan says.

Climate change doubters in those years were taking a page from the fight against the regulation of tobacco products, urging newspapers and radio and television networks to provide “balance” in their reporting of the science. Gelbspan was among the first to understand the folly of their claims. But journalists of lesser mettle were easily fooled or simply too caught up in the quotidian pressures of meeting deadlines. In this way, the denialist community successfully drove a wedge between scientists and reporters.

In Merchants of Doubt, historians Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes trace this history of industry-funded and ideologically driven deception from tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, and through to contemporary fights about climate change.

“Tobacco was the first big, systematic denialist campaign,” says Oreskes. “The obvious lesson for journalists is to know that this exists, that it depends on appealing to journalistic virtues of balance and objectivity.” But, she adds, “It leads journalists into a swamp.”

The swamp, in other words, was produced by feigning ignorance toward the accumulating science. There were elements of uncertainty in some areas—about the links between climate change and some extreme weather events, for example. But to say a scientific debate exists about whether temperatures are warming, or that humans are causing it, is to baldly ignore the facts.

With each passing report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists stated with increasing certainty the link between human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The panel’s first assessment report, published in 1990 stated: “Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases,” and those gases “enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface.” Its second report, released in 1995, warned of “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This past September the IPCC released its fifth assessment report, which says: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950.”

In 2009 came a fact that would be oft-repeated—that 97 percent of scientists with expertise on climate and atmosphere believed in a link between human-generated greenhouse gases and global warming. That’s a level of consensus only slightly below that of the existence of gravity and equivalent to scientific evidence linking tobacco use and cancer.

Given this level of confidence, says Oreskes, the goal of journalists should have been accuracy rather than balance. Journalists, in other words, wouldn’t have provided “balance” to a debate on gravity, giving equal time to someone asserting that it doesn’t exist; why would they for climate change? As for the two or three percent of so-called skeptics, Oreskes says journalists should be evaluating the motives for their dissent, especially given the history of industry- and think tank-led disinformation campaigns.

Says Oreskes, “It is information that is necessary to judge the objectivity of those researchers and to highlight potential conflicts of interest that can bias research findings.”

it has been 26 years since Hansen sat before the Senate panel with his trove of scientific data. Yet journalists still stagger over their coverage of climate change. When the media industry was flush with revenue, newsrooms were well stocked with experienced, issue-specific reporters and editors. But since the early 2000s, shrinking staffs, the elimination of environmental desks, and narrower news holes has made reporting on climate change even more difficult. The industry has been corrupted not only by its inability to evaluate the political interests of deniers, but by the market forces bearing down on their own business.”

“You cannot look at the media’s coverage of climate change outside of the context of industry-wide decline,” says Bud Ward, a four-decade veteran of environmental reporting and editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

Whatever the factors that produce it, false balance remains. USA Today, for example, as a matter of policy requires that an editorial on a “controversial” topic be paired with an editorial arguing in opposition. In October, the paper editorialized on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. In keeping with its policy of providing balance, it gave space to Joseph L. Bast, the head of the conservative Heartland Institute, which is funded by fossil fuel companies and foundations opposed to government regulation. Bast authored op-eds for several other newspapers, including The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.

Perhaps more harmful than distorting the science has been the phenomenon, particularly on the leading Sunday television talk shows, of completely ignoring the issue of climate science altogether.

In May 2013, Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, which reports on and analyzes the science and impacts of climate change, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation. It was the first time in five years, according to Media Matters for America, that a scientist had appeared on any of the Sunday talk shows to discuss climate change.

The Copenhagen climate conference, Superstorm Sandy, record high global temperatures, persistent US drought, record wildfires in Australia, and flooding in Europe were top stories during the early 21st century, among many other climate and weather-related events. Yet these influential shows failed to invite any scientific experts to explain what is—and what is not—understood when it comes to global warming, its connections to extreme weather events, and the influence of human activity on them, Media Matters found.

Instead, the Sunday morning shows ran debates between politicians, industry representatives, and opinion columnists who often went un-challenged when mischaracterizing the science to argue a particular political position.

Yet if the fossil fuel industry won the first round in their campaign to influence the media, environmentalists are moving to win the second. Among their weapons are a growing number of specialty websites, such as Climate Central, ClimateWire, The Daily Climate, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning website InsideClimate News, as well as Mother Jones. New entrants into the American media market, too, like The Guardian and Al Jazeera America, the Doha-based network’s US channel, have led the media in their forward-minded coverage of climate change.

Indeed Al Jazeera America, on its inaugural day, aired a 30-minute segment on climate change, which, according to Media Matters, accounted for nearly half of all broadcast coverage of the issue in 2012. When television news coverage of climate change is as anemic as it has been, it doesn’t take much to overtake a tired and confused competition.

The climate wars are also being played out among those who write checks to fund it. Conservative foundations donated just over $900 million annually between 2003 and 2012 to nonprofit organizations and think tanks that engage, at least in part, in efforts questioning climate change, according to a study by Drexel University Professor of Sociology and Environmental Scientist Robert J. Brulle. While much of that funding, in the post-Citizens United political era, is directed toward electoral campaigns and issue-based advertisement, influencing the media remains a central goal for these groups.

It is hard to gauge which side is winning, since comparable numbers for environmental group giving specifically to push climate change awareness are difficult to come by.

Money doesn’t ensure, however, that a group’s message is persuasive. The clearest indication that the media hasn’t done its job is the grave level of public understanding of climate change revealed in opinion polls, which has only gotten worse since the onset of the climate wars. In its latest annual environment survey, Gallup found that 42 percent of those polled believed that the media had overhyped the threat of global warming. Media institutions are but one influence on public opinion. Yet the poll results implicate media institutions’ failure to explain the issue accurately.

“The news media are reflecting the cowardice of the larger society in not looking reality in the eye and reporting the truth of our situation,” says Gelbspan. “It is a damning betrayal of the public trust.”

Says McKibben, “There’s no other way to say it other than that, over 25 years it’s been a massive failure of journalism to communicate the idea to the public that the most dangerous thing that ever happened in the world is in the process of happening.”

Gelbspan believes the path to improved coverage may be for journalists to examine more closely the impacts of climate change, whether economic losses due to more frequent, more intense extreme weather events or how climate change leads to more civil and political conflicts.

Many mainstream media organizations have undertaken deep examinations of the influence of fossil fuel- and conservative think tank-funded political networks, such as those of the Koch Brothers or ExxonMobil. In this way, political reporting and not that of the science writers has been more enterprising in tackling the nexus between these groups and the science coming from them.

Still, ample work remains. By now, we should have progressed to intense coverage of policy debates about how best to address climate change, not whether it exists. In this one case, balance has been the enemy of the truth. 

* In the original version of this article, we referred to Ross Gelbspan as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Gelbspan served as an editor on a Boston Globe team that took home a Pulitzer in 1984, but the prizes do not list him as a winner.

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Robert S. Eshelman is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance journalist and associate producer on the Showtime series "Years of Living Dangerously."