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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Changing Views on Climate Change

Air Date: Week of September 10, 2004

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Part One: The Bush administration says its latest report on global warming is just a routine summary of the latest science. But critics call it a shift in the White House’s stance on climate change, finally acknowledging the extent of human causes of warming. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young sorts it out from Washington.
Part Two: Scientists and policymakers aren’t the only ones who may find climate change a thorny issue. Reporters who translate developments in global warming have a host of issues to consider. And, according to brothers Max and Jules Boykoff, balance isn’t the best way to handle the issue. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jules Boykoff about the findings in their new study, “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press.”
Part Three: Living on Earth takes a look at how the press has covered the complicated science and volatile politics of the global warming story. Two veteran journalists, Bill Allen, Editor in Chief of the National Georgraphic Magazine and Andy Revkin, environmental reporter for the New York Times, rate the press’ coverage, and tell us why what they call one of the most important stories of our times is not making headlines.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

If you want to try and understand just where the Bush administration stands on the problem of global warming these days, get ready to get confused. On the one hand, a recent Bush administration report cites evidence of global climate change and blames at least some of the warming on humans.

But, on the other hand, President Bush himself has said it’s unclear how much of the warming is due to human activity, and more scientific research is needed before any policies might change. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, all the confusion may be a sign that the White House stance on climate change is shifting.

YOUNG: “Our Changing Planet” is a mostly mundane report the White House Climate Change Science Program must supply Congress each year. This year’s report, however, struck some as anything but mundane. The studies summarized in the report conclude global warming is reducing the planet’s ice caps, and affecting plants and animals. Two studies found the warmer temperatures of the past 50 years were likely caused by people burning fossil fuels and putting heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere.

That’s not groundbreaking science. But when it comes bearing the signatures of top Bush administration officials, it raises some eyebrows. Phil Clapp of the advocacy group National Environmental Trust says that’s new for an administration that has downplayed evidence of the human influence on global warming.

CLAPP: They are, for the first time, seriously acknowledging that we cannot account for the changes in climate that we are seeing solely from natural phenomenon. It is significant that the secretaries of commerce and energy have now actually signed a document that says to Congress human activity is seriously changing the world’s climate.

YOUNG: But the president’s top scientist says that’s not how he reads the report.

MARBURGER: I don’t see the big deal here.

YOUNG: That’s White House Science Adviser John Marburger. Marburger denies that the report represents any departure for the administration, and says President Bush has for years recognized that people play a role in climate change.

MARBURGER: We’ve always thought that recent warming, the surface warming of the Earth, coming from data that are collected by a large number of stations and from a large number of sources, was most likely due to human involvement -- to paraphrase the president’s own words here. And this says, yeah, that seems to be right.

YOUNG: Business groups, and even some global warming activists, agree with Marburger that the report is nothing new. So why did a routine report stand out to so many others who closely follow the climate change debate? Daniel Lashoff is science director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center.

LASHOFF: In once sense, it’s a routine report. But in the Bush administration we’ve found that there’s nothing routine about putting out routine reports about global warming.

YOUNG: For example, Lashoff says when Bush accepted a National Academy of Sciences report in 2001 on the human role in global warming, he also emphasized what we still did not know about its possible natural causes. Bush dismissed a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency report that blamed warming on human activity as coming, quote, “from the bureaucracy.” And Lashoff says the White House censored the global warming section of an EPA report last year.

LASHOFF: So what’s new about “Our Changing Planet” this year is that it does contain reasonable summaries of scientific literature on global warming that were not distorted by White House censors. So, they’re faced with a dilemma. Do they try to deny the science, which is increasingly untenable, or do they acknowledge the science but try to defend a do-nothing policy, which is also increasingly untenable?

YOUNG: White House Science Adviser Marburger insists there is no dilemma within the administration and no need for a change in policy. He rejects regulation in favor of Bush’s call for voluntary greenhouse gas cuts and federal funding for technology to make those reductions possible.

MARBURGER: We are spending billions of dollars on these technologies, and if we didn’t think that it was necessary we wouldn’t be doing it. This administration has put its money where its mouth is.

YOUNG: Arizona Senator John McCain is watching this give-and-take with interest. His Climate Stewardship Act, cosponsored by Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, would regulate greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide for the first time. McCain is among the few Republicans pushing the administration to do more on climate change, and he sees the latest report as a sign that it might.

McCAIN: It seems to be a bit of a shift. We’re gonna have a hearing on that and we’d love to hear from them. And Joe and I will…Senator Lieberman and I will be again forcing a vote as soon as we can.

YOUNG: So, you do think that is a significant shift?

McCAIN: Ahh, I wouldn’t use the word significant. (LAUGHS) But it’s a shift.

YOUNG: Whether it’s a shift that moves the administration any closer to action remains to be seen. McCain hopes to learn more when he hosts the Senate Committee hearing on global warming this month. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Washington.

CURWOOD: Now, the first lesson in Journalism 101 is to get both sides of the story. Balancing viewpoints is supposed to prevent bias in reporting. It’s also supposed to give your audience a full picture of the issue at hand. But when it comes to the science of global warming, two brothers say this rule should be reconsidered because balance in climate change coverage can actually mean bias, they say.

Max and Jules Boykoff are co-authors of a study which appears in the recent issue of the journal Global Environmental Change. It’s called “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Jules Boykoff joins me now from Whitman College, in the town that’s so nice they named it twice--Walla Walla, Washington. Jules, welcome to Living on Earth.

BOYKOFF: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Balance as bias. (LAUGHS) You know, I gotta say this phrase sounds a little counterintuitive at first glance. Can you explain what you mean by this?

BOYKOFF: Sure. Well, we started this study because some people had been talking about a certain level of balance being in the “prestige press” regarding the issue of global warming. And by that they meant--on one hand, you had the climate change scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the IPCC. And, on the other hand, you had the global warming skeptics, a few dozen scholars and others who were trying to cast doubt – in fact, were casting doubt – on whether humans were contributing to global warming.

And so, what we decided to do was to take that hypothesis, if you will, and to systematically test it by looking at articles that appeared in what we called the “prestige press” between 1988 and 2002. By “prestige press” I mean The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The L.A. Times.

CURWOOD: What were you able to find?

BOYKOFF: Basically, in that article we looked at these articles from 1988 to 2002. In total we took a sample of 636 of them, a random sample. So we found that, in fact, once we went through all these articles and we analyzed them, we found that more than half of them gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations. So there was roughly a balance between those two views.

Then, the second category was articles that emphasize the roles of humans while presenting both sides of the debate. 35.3 percent emphasized that, in fact, scientists and others really do believe that humans are contributing to global climate change. And we felt like this was really accurate coverage. And that’s really a positive point of this study, too. A lot of times people take it in the negative, and that we’re being very, very critical and there’s all this undue balance. But actually, if you look at it, 35.3 percent got it, we think, just right. At least according to what the IPCC says.

Then, just to continue on, 6.2 percent of them emphasized the dubious nature of the claim that anthropogenic global warming exists. And on the other side, 5.8 percent contained exclusive coverage of human contributions. So, you kind of have on each side roughly six percent of articles that said that either it was all human-induced or not at all, it was all natural.

CURWOOD: Well, what kind of language were these coders on the alert for here? Maybe you could give me some specific examples of the language you found in the newspapers that represented bias in the study from your view?

BOYKOFF: Sure. I mean, let’s just take a prototypical example. Let’s say that the “news peg,” if you will, was that the IPCC just came out with a new report saying that global warming is, at least in part, caused by human activity. And then the journalists would say that on the front end, and then it’d say, “however,” and then they would turn to somebody say, from, the Global Climate Coalition, let’s say, which is a network of automobile manufacturers and oil producers – many of whom have dropped out of this coalition recently. But they’d turn to the Coalition and say, “However, there’s other scientists who say that this is, in fact, not real,” and they’d point to people like Richard Lindzen and others who are global climate change skeptics. And they would say, “Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as it seems,” and so then they’d go from there. And if it was roughly equal attention given both to the news peg – IPCC report – and the subsequent rebuttal from the global climate change skeptics, well, then it was coded as balanced coverage.

But a lot of what’s really important – you asked about language. Well, how are the tags put on who’s talking? Do you just say Frank Maisano, a global climate change expert? Or do you say, Frank Maisano, Director of Strategic Communications with the law firm of Brace Well Patterson, and former spokesman of the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition? Do you see what I mean? The very tag that is applied was also important, and that’s another reason why we decided to go with the more painstaking article-by-article coding system.

CURWOOD: Now, it seems to me that any person well-schooled in science who looked at the sources here would not strike the kind of balance that you found so prevalent in what you call the “prestige press.”

BOYKOFF: Umm-hmm.

CURWOOD: So, I have to ask you, how much of this phenomenon do you think is a function of journalists being either ill-trained or in a hurry or lazy?

BOYKOFF: Well I would say this: I mean, a lot of what you said is absolutely relevant. Part of this, the reason why this happens, is because journalism is a very professionalized field. People go to school for this, and you’re taught that you’re supposed to tell both sides of the story, so to speak. So, I mean, on one hand, it’s because of the professionalism of journalists.

Also, you’re right. I mean, there are spatial – you only get so many column inches, there’s spatial dictates, there’s organizational dictates – like you have to make a deadline. And the other part that you’re talking about is that some people might not be all that well trained in science. Now, in the case of, say, like The New York Times right now, they have a very able person writing on global warming, Andrew Revkin. But a lot of places aren’t so fortunate.

And what happens, also, is there’s a political/economic dimension to this that I think is really important. And that’s that as mass media conglomerate, a lot of times investigative journalism gets dispensed with. A lot of times people are asked to become generalists – people who were formerly specialists. Which is to say, people are reporting on areas that they’re not really all that well versed in. And so, therefore, the tendency is to tell both sides of the story, because you want to cover it from as many angles as possible. And so, basically, by this study we’re hoping that we can begin a more in-depth interrogation of this notion of balance.

CURWOOD: Jules Boykoff is a visiting professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington State, and co-author of the study “Balance As Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Jules, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

BOYKOFF: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Coming up: two journalists reveal how climate change has evolved as a story at two of the nation’s top publications. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle “Counterweight” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’ve just heard from one of the authors of a recently published study that concludes, for more than a decade, the nation’s top newspapers over-represented the views of scientific skeptics when covering global warming.

Here to talk with us now from the point of view of those covering this issue is Bill Allen, Editor in Chief of the National Geographic magazine, and Andy Revkin, environmental reporter for The New York Times, one of the papers cited in the study. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today.

ALLEN: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m going to start with you, Bill, even though the study didn’t talk at all about how the National Geographic covers climate change, because your recent issue has as the cover story “Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” And inside on the page that says “From the Editors” are pictures of some pretty upset penguins and a note from you that says that you expect to lose some readers from this. You say, quote, “some readers will even terminate their memberships because some of them won’t believe that global climate change is real and that humans contribute to the problem.” Well, the issue’s been out for a while now, Bill. What happened with your readers?

ALLEN: Well, we have indeed, Steve, received some of those cancellations of memberships as I had anticipated. But we’ve also received far more letters of support and appreciation.

CURWOOD: Tell us just for a moment what the readers told you, those that bothered to write in to say they wanted to cancel because of the story?

ALLEN: Well, there were a few specifically. One from my native Texas that said “by presuming to know with certainty that the globe is still warming and at an accelerated rate, and that such warming would be a bad thing and that we humans are the villains, you created a platform to preach from.” So they were accusing us of sort of preaching about this.

And another one said, “many of the so-called scientists you cite on the latter are no more than witch doctors throwing chicken bones on a dirt floor.” Well, I’m not so sure about that one.

And then, from California, they said “since National Geographic has decided that there is, quote, ‘no doubt that man’s activities are the largest factor in causing global warming,’ we don’t want to promote an organization which obviously has an agenda which runs counter to the best interests of the United States.”

So, I take these things very seriously but I hasten to add to all of these people that what we’re doing is as Sgt. Friday did on the old “Dragnet” show – Just the facts, ma’am. We’re taking a look at what the scientists have told us, thousands of scientists from around the world. And these are their conclusions. It’s not necessarily what everyone wants to hear, but these are, indeed, the scientific facts.

CURWOOD: Andy, I don’t want to put you in too much of a hot seat here, but –

REVKIN: Oh, I love it.

CURWOOD: -- but you kind of are. I mean, the Boykoff study says that the paper you write for now, The New York Times -- one of the quote “prestige press” in this country, with plenty of money, plenty of science reporters, plenty of resources – in many cases really did not properly report the weight of the science here…gave far more credence to scientifically marginal skeptics than the facts would warrant. Why do you suppose that happened?

REVKIN: Balance is a big impediment to effective communication of complex subjects, period. That’s a fact. And it is also a bane of our existence in the journalistic community. Especially in the daily news cycle where time is precious and reporters feel, at the end of the day, if they have a story that gives you the news, gives you a sort of “he says, but she says” structure, then the reporter goes home and says, “I’ve done my job” that day. And it’s really a crutch, of course. It doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way if you don’t characterize the voices that are in the story.

The other things that have been in play, of course, through the nineties, particularly as industry fought the prospect of the Kyoto Protocol, big money got spent on dis-information campaigns. Where scientists were trained to talk to the media and put out there definitely to sort of propagate the skeptical view. And more than a few people got suckered into that, I’m sure, over the years.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you think of this whole issue of balance, Bill, when it comes to covering global warming?

ALLEN: What we try and do is give a balance, as it were, of the scientific opinion. It’s one of those things that you don’t have to say, well, let’s see, on the one hand, people are saying that the earth is round, but there are other people, 50 percent of the people, who are saying the earth is flat. This is not quite that clear cut. However, I think what we need to do is just deal with this is the preponderance of the scientific evidence. And when you look at what the other side – the non-global warming, or the non-human influence side would be – it’s very hard to find scientific evidence to support that. So we just report what the scientific evidence is.

CURWOOD: Now, Bill, your in-depth article talks a lot about how -- the word you use, metrics – how if you look at how things are changing on the planet, it’s really pretty clear that we are having an impact. But I don’t find really much in the way of solutions here in your coverage. Why is that?

ALLEN: Because we tried as much as possible to stay away from policy issues and prescriptions. What we wanted to do was just say: here is the evidence, here is the information. This is the time when policy-makers need to have this information out, and you as a consumer of information need to have this information, as well. You know, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and everybody else – we’re all going to get warm.

CURWOOD: Now, how have newspaper editors and folks that you’ve worked for responded to this story-- Andy, how have things changed?

REVKIN: Well, a few things have happened. I think the biggest impediment to getting coverage to this hasn’t been related to is it happening or not. It’s been the eye-glazing aspect of it. It’s one of the classic incremental stories. In my newsroom at The New York Times, if there’s one word that’s death to a story’s prospects of getting significant play or space in the paper, it’s the word “incremental.” And I don’t know about you guys, but global warming really is the ultimate incremental story. It’s a century-scale story, and newspapers are dealing with a day or an hour kind of scale, and sometimes a year scale or the four-year electoral cycle. But to get them to think about something important that may happen three generations from now, in terms of its full flowering, is almost impossible. So that’s there constantly.

CURWOOD: Andy, at newspapers, of course, the typical gatekeeper is the editor that’s just above the reporter, and then that editor’s editor. What difficulties have you had selling what you think are important aspects of the global climate change story?

REVKIN: Well, you know, one of the biggest is what a journalism professor of mine used to call the “MEGO factor,” the “my-eyes-glaze-over” factor. Plus, the other aspect of the MEGO factor is complexity. Most newspaper editors know very little about science. And that’s been established in surveys over the years in quite a disturbing way. There was one ten years or so ago, a poll – a sort of survey of scientific understanding at the managing editor level of daily newspapers in America. And the numbers are really startling, in terms of how many people think dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, that kind of thing (LAUGHS).

CURWOOD: Among editors?

REVKIN: Among editors. Yeah, not reporters, of course (LAUGHS). Anyway. So that’s a huge impediment. And then there’s all the other constraints, just competition with the news that’s always perceived as more urgent.

CURWOOD: And climate change is what we’ve been talking about, but is there another area of science where the press is, perhaps, engaged in the same kind of, well, really distortion of the subject?

REVKIN: Yeah, I do think so, and not always at the behest of industry. Environmental groups have been very effective over the years, in some cases, of framing an issue and having the press just sort of reflexively framing it the same way. The one that’s most current is mercury in fish. I have yet to see, even in our own pages, a story on mercury contamination in fish that doesn’t immediately become a story on should power plant emissions of mercury be regulated. And if so, how.

CURWOOD: How well do you think the press has done covering global climate change?

REVKIN: Well I would have to say overall – you know, from my biased point of view, I think these global slow issues are very important – really badly. And again, for a thousand reasons that we’ve kind of gone over. It might be interesting to take a look at sort of the inverse. Over in Europe, the press has been much more kind of trumpeting the perils of global warming and pushing ahead in Kyoto, Kyoto, all that stuff. And, frankly, I think they’re doing as poor a job, if not poorer, in doing that.

There’s some kind of conundrum in all of this, which is, if you buy in – and actually, I was a little dismayed to see Time magazine a few years ago take an editorial stance in their news pages on global warming about the solutions. And when you take a stance and say, as Time did-- global warming is happening, it could be disastrous, and greenhouse gasses need to be constrained now – then you’re sort of locked in in doing something that’s different. And it gets to be -- as in Europe, I think – problematic in a different way.

CURWOOD: Bill Allen, the lessons for journalists over how we’ve covered global climate change?

ALLEN: I think it comes down to two things, time and money. Time – read the scientific papers in the original, talk to the scientists. And second, on the money, find out where the support is coming from from the people that you’re talking to. If they’re funded by someone who has a vested interest in it, I think you should keep a very skeptical eye on that.

CURWOOD: Ranking climate change as a story in the pantheon of all the news stories that’s out there today, where would you put it-- Bill Allen?

ALLEN: I would still put it at the top of the stories because this is the kind of story, or kind of effect, that is going to have a long-term impact on the entire planet and all of us are going to have to live with it. We’ve already determined what kind of climate our children and grandchildren are going to be living in. We’re now looking at what the grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are going to be living in.

CURWOOD: Andy, how has the press industry itself changed over time? And how do you think that affects how we cover such stories as global climate change?

REVKIN: Well, I think a very simple measure of that is to look at what happened to CNN’s coverage of the environment after it got sort of morphed into whatever that is -- TimeWarner AOL minus AOL, I can’t keep track. But it all went away. Ted Turner went away and climate change went away. So, that just says right there what it’s about.

CURWOOD: Bill, how important is it for the press to lead the public? Let me put it this way: the public can’t ask for something it doesn’t know about already, so sometimes you have to tell them something that – teach them something.

ALLEN: Well, the history on a lot of these important issues is that there has been one voice, or one small cadre, that goes out and says, this is something that you really should listen to. And, gradually, more and more people may catch on to that. So I think the press can indeed lead this. You know, I still remember a third-rate burglary at a building here in Washington that eventually went on to something far more than that. And I think it’s that kind of digging and dedication that is really going to be necessary if people are going to understand what’s going on with this issue.

CURWOOD: Bill Allen is Editor in Chief of the National Geographic. Andy Revkin is the World Environmental Change reporter for The New York Times. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking this time.

REVKIN: A pleasure.

ALLEN: Thank you.

[MUSIC: “Augie’s Photos” SMOKE SOUNDTRACK (Hollywood – 1995)]



“Our Changing Planet” Report from the U.s. Climate Change Science Program

National Geographic issue on global warming


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