Why “balanced coverage” does not always lead to good science journalism

In a previous post, I showed how George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper provided an example of good science reporting, distinguishing the credible from those who indulge in wishful thinking. But unfortunately, he is an exception. And Chris Mooney writing in 2004 in the Columbia Journalism Review describes how the more common journalistic practice of attempting to provide “balanced coverage” of a scientific issue tends to allow the scientific fringe elements to distort reality.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.
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Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change — as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.

In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to “recruit and train” scientists “who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate” to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry.
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In a recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, the scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff analyzed coverage of the issue in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times between 1988 and 2002. During this fourteen-year period, climate scientists successfully forged a powerful consensus on human-caused climate change. But reporting in these four major papers did not at all reflect this consensus.

The Boykoffs analyzed a random sample of 636 articles. They found that a majority — 52.7 percent — gave “roughly equal attention” to the scientific consensus view that humans contribute to climate change and to the energy-industry-supported view that natural fluctuations suffice to explain the observed warming. By comparison, just 35.3 percent of articles emphasized the scientific consensus view while still presenting the other side in a subordinate fashion. Finally, 6.2 percent emphasized the industry-supported view, and a mere 5.9 percent focused on the consensus view without bothering to provide the industry/skeptic counterpoint.

Most intriguing, the Boykoffs’ study found a shift in coverage between 1988 — when climate change first garnered wide media coverage — and 1990. During that period, journalists broadly moved from focusing on scientists’ views of climate change to providing “balanced” accounts. During this same period, the Boykoffs noted, climate change became highly politicized and a “small group of influential spokespeople and scientists emerged in the news” to question the mainstream view that industrial emissions are warming the planet. The authors conclude that the U.S. “prestige-press” has produced “informationally biased coverage of global warming . . . hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance.”
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Some major op-ed pages also appear to think that to fulfill their duty of providing a range of views, they should publish dubious contrarian opinion pieces on climate change even when those pieces are written by nonscientists. For instance, on July 7, 2003, The Washington Post published a revisionist op-ed on climate science by James Schlesinger, a former secretary of both energy and defense, and a former director of Central Intelligence. “In recent years the inclination has been to attribute the warming we have lately experienced to a single dominant cause — the increase in greenhouse gases,” wrote Schlesinger. “Yet climate has always been changing — and sometimes the swings have been rapid.” The clear implication was that scientists don’t know enough about the causes of climate change to justify strong pollution controls.

That’s not how most climatologists feel, but then Schlesinger is an economist by training, not a climatologist. Moreover, his Washington Post byline failed to note that he sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, and has since 2001.

Eldan Goldenberg, who has long been concerned with the way science is reported, kindly sent to me a report put out by the Stratfor group about a conference of journalists and scientists convened last month to discuss this very issue. Some excerpts:

Panels of journalists and scientists gathered July 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington to discuss the mainstream media’s reporting on climate change. The consensus was that the media have not covered the issue well.

According to both panels, the greatest shortcoming has been in persistent portrayals of the issue as one of contentious scientific debate: In reality, the assembled scientists said, man-made climate change is generally accepted throughout the scientific community as a reality.

Most of the time at the conference was dedicated to examining the media’s portrayal of the issue and explaining how it came into being. The root of the problem, most participants agreed, is that climate change has been covered primarily as a political rather than a scientific issue — and thus, the media have focused on the political debate rather than the science behind it.

In the background of this discussion loomed a larger issue: The mainstream media, recognizing that there is more to the story, now are struggling with ways to change their portrayal of the climate change issue. Arguments are emerging that the scientific debate ha now been concluded, “industry” has lost and the new debate is about policy options. Though this line of thinking is nearer to the truth, it does not entirely close the gap. The fact is that industry all but stopped contesting the premise of man-made climate change two years ago, but the media’s preoccupation with the traditional battle lines — industry versus environmentalists — continues to obscure the complexity of the issue and the positions of various players.
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Because the media continue to write about these matters as political issues — debates between two interested parties – the scientific questions at the center of campaigns on climate change, the relative risk of various chemicals and substances and the risks posed by genetically modified organisms have been relegated to the backburner. Rather than being the focus in the policy debates, the science is used as a tactic in a communications and public relations battle.

The proposed solution to this problem is that journalists should eschew the goal of “balanced coverage” when it comes to science. This, I believe, is unworkable in practice because it would be singling out science for different kind of treatment than other topics. Journalists are generalists, sometimes doing science, sometimes shifted to other beats. It is unreasonable to expect them to radically shift their mode of operation depending on the topic.

In fact, I believe that this problem is not limited to global warming or to scientific issues generally. Instead, I feel that this idea of “balanced coverage,” that has become the journalistic ideal in the US, produces lower quality of journalism in general.

But that is a topic for another day.