Journalism and global warming

Here’s an excerpt from a chapter I wrote in How the West Was Warmed, edited by Beth Conover and published last year by Fulcrum Press. The title of the Chapter is, “Journalists and the Scientific Consensus on Global Warming.”

You’d expect a newspaper like The Denver Post to give major play to the story about mountain pine beetles devouring Colorado’s lodgepole pines, and it is. It’s no Jon Benét Ramsey…•style media frenzy, but the pine-beetle infestation was the focus of fourteen staff-written news articles from January 2008 through May 2009 in The Post, covering everything from its potential impact on tourism to legislative efforts to fund beetle-related battles. But The Post’s coverage of the possible connection between the dying forests and global warming has been skimpy at most-.

The Post’s news coverage about the pine beetles raises the question of whether journalists should discuss the possible role of global warming when reporting on an event that may…-or may not…-be caused by it. And if they do mention global warming in this context, are journalists obligated to quote skeptics who may not think global warming is occurring at all?

Addressing the first question, Christy George, special projects producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, told me that when it comes to covering events like forest fires or hurricanes, reporters should explain the possible role of climate change in their stories. (George is the current president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, but spoke to me as an individual reporter, not on behalf of that organization.)

“It’s not that we want bad science, where people say [a hurricane] is caused by climate change,” she says. “But the good science that says you can’t say this is climate change, but this is what we’d expect with climate change.”

The pine-beetle story also deserves this type of journalistic treatment, with different views on the possible role of climate change in the infestation.

And should global-warming skeptics be quoted? George observes that the most hard-core global-warming skeptics have made a shift, previously asserting that there was no such thing as climate change at all but now saying the climate is changing, but humans are not responsible. She thinks the views of these skeptics need not be included in stories. “There’s no value to me as a reporter to continue to throw in that person who says humans aren’t causing climate change at all, because we’re just past that, in terms of the scientific evidence,” she says. “There are tremendous disagreements about the impacts [of climate change] and what to do. We don’t have to look hard to find conflict in the story,” she said.

Here’s an op-ed based on the book chapter.

Learn more about the book here.


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