The Intransigence of the Press on Climate

In a refreshing opinion piece at the Irish Times, John Gibbons examines the bizarre lack of interest that mass media are showing in the climate issue.

I must object to this talk of “area of Australia twice the size of France lay submerged”, which, like comparable statements about Pakistan the previous year, is something of an exaggeration. “Affected by flooding”, presumably, is not the same as “submerged”.

That said, the main point stands:

Whether or not you choose to “believe” in climate change and what is fuelling it, only the most obstinate or delusional persist in denying that it’s real, it’s serious and it’s getting worse.

Of course, none of this is news. But what is news is that it’s not news. At a time of unprecedented weather disasters fuelled by climate change, the media has, both here and abroad, largely walked away from the story. Given what is at stake, this is a truly extraordinary state of affairs.

The piece takes a cogent look at the disastrous failure of journalism on this matter.

Environmental scientist Prof Robert Brulle adds: “people take their cues about what’s important from what shows up in the headline of a newspaper”.

The decline in public understanding of the gravity of climate change is directly attributable, he says, to decisions being made at editorial meetings every day.

+1 Robert Brulle.

Unfortunately Gibbons offers little in the way of alternatives. Planet3.0 hopes to do better, though, so stay tuned.

h/t Peter Adamski via Mike Mann.



  1. "The piece takes a cogent look at the disastrous failure of journalism on this matter."
    It is not journalism that has failed. It is science.

    The scientists seem to be unaware that journalists can only print the information they are given. It is against their code of ethics to make things up. If the scientists refuse to give them news worthy items then they should not be complaining.

    John Gibbons mentions the flooding in Queensland, but which scientists have said that it was caused by global warming, or even might have been caused by global warming? If scientists feel dishonest claiming that, why expect journalists to go out on a limb?

    The scientists should be warning of the worst case scenario, not saying it is certain, but warning of the possibility. Then the journalists would have eye grabbing headlines and copy that the man in the street might read.

    But there is as much chance of the scientists seeing the folly of their ways as there is of the deniers seeing sense. First the confirmation bias has to be overcome. Any criticism of one's established view must be wrong, even if a (fallacious) flaw in the argument is not readily apparent.

    You can see now it's the scientists who are to blame can't you 😕

    Cheers, Alastair.

  2. "Nothing ain't worth nothing, but it's free"

    The reporters are getting all of the blame, but in fact free media have made publishers increasingly reliant on advertisers, and subject to their whims. I think it was Ross Gelbspan who reported a few years back about how CNN had to abandon mention of global warming and climate change in the context of weather reporting when the advertisers clamped down.

    I'm reading a scary and fascinating article about Philip Anschutz of Anschutz Entertainment Group, and his CEO Tim Leiweke, which embodies the Roman Circus nexus that dominates our public life. (New Yorker, "The Man Who Owns LA, 1/16/12)

    '"We've built more arenas and stadiums than anyone in the world, ever - including the Romans!"

    "estimated net worth of seven billion ... made his fortune in oil and gas, real estate, railroads, telecommunications, and sports ... one of the largest landowners in the US, and his empire ... is worldwide."

    "'There has never been an oil well as deep, as risky, and as controversial as this [LA] project.' ...
    [O2 arenas in London, Berlin and Hamburg; also plans to host major religious gatherings in LA etc.]

    "'entertainment palaces where citizens can gather ... taking the American model and exporting it.'"

    The culturally sacred areas of sports and entertainment spectacle appear to be inviolable and invisible, but to my eye they appear to be the cosmetic gloss that blinds our population to facts they need to face before it's too late.

  3. "....I think it was Ross Gelbspan who reported a few years back about how CNN had to abandon mention of global warming and climate change in the context of weather reporting when the advertisers clamped down...."

    Mighty big hole in that particular argument, when anyone takes the effort to look into CNN reports circling around the period of time Gelbspan talks about. I count at least four articles from 8/99 to 3/00 that unabashedly speculate about global warming causing extreme weather.

    Might be a more fruitful exercise to find out why Gelbspan made a claim that appears to be unsupportable.

  4. I had a dig a bit; here it is (dated 2010 in this version, the original conversation cited is probably earlier)
    "A few years ago I asked a top editor at CNN why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to extreme weather, they did not make this connection. He told me, "We did. Once." But it triggered a barrage of complaints from oil companies and automakers who threatened to withdraw all their ads from CNN if the network continued to connect weather extremes to global warming. Basically the industry intimidated CNN into dropping the one connection to which the average viewer could most easily relate."

    Here's more from the same headliner article which says it so well I will not attempt to paraphrase or repeat what is common knowledge to those of us who have been following this:
    "There is one more phenomenon that has severely undermined press coverage of the climate crisis – and that’s the conglomeratization of the news media. Until about 15 years ago, most newspapers were owned by companies that were truly committed to the mission of providing news – and were content to reap a seven or eight percent profit margin. But as huge media corporations began gobbling up many of the country’s newspapers, investors became major drivers of press policy. In short, Wall Street became the tail that wagged the dog. To increase circulation, many papers have substituted more celebrity coverage, more self-help articles and more trivial medical news for investigative reporting of complex topics.
    "At the same time, again to meet Wall Street’s demands for cost-cutting, many newspapers have cut reporting staffs – so that there are very few papers that have the luxury of retaining full-time environmental reporters who actually know the detailed backgrounds of their beat. In far too many cases, marketing strategy has replaced news judgment.
    "But I think there's a deeper betrayal of trust here by the media. By now most reporters and editors have heard enough from environmentalists to know that global warming could, at least, have potentially catastrophic consequences. Given that reality, I think it is profoundly irresponsible for an editor or reporter to pass along the story with some counterposing quotes without doing enough digging to satisfy herself or himself as to the bottom line gravity of the situation. Their assessment needn't be the same as mine. But simply to treat the story like any other -- without taking the time to reach an informed judgment about its potential gravity -- is a fundamental violation of the trust of readers and viewers who assume a modicum of informed interpretation from their news providers.
    "One result of the negligence of the mainstream press is that the public is totally unaware that a growing number of scientific findings are focusing on the increased likelihood of abrupt and catastrophic changes. The press is, by omission, putting the general public at increasing risk of being blindsided by some very serious hits.
    "Finally, over and above the campaign of manufactured denial by the fossil fuel public relations specialists, there is a natural human tendency toward denial of this issue. When one is confronted by a truly overwhelming problem – and one does not see an apparent solution – the most natural human reaction is not to want to know about it. And that applies to editors and reporters just as much as readers."

    Lots more if you follow the link.

  5. @Michael Tobis "That would depend on when said “clamping” occurred, wouldn’t it?"

    What, you don't know when Gelbspan made that specific claim about CNN? Afraid to try to look it up? It's right there in "Boiling Point", pg 79-80. Surely you have a copy, all you have to do to place the time frame is look in his Notes section about when the event took place.

    Regarding commenter "frankswifthack"'s question, yes, I’m FOIA™.

    [ Why would someone assume that I have a copy of Gelbspan's book?

    Can you endeavor to be polite? "Afraid to look it up" does not qualify.

    Tell us what is on pp 79-80 without snark, please. Or go away. -mt ]

  6. My original point is not corrupted by this argument, but since I brought in the quote from Gelbspan (borrowed from his website), and it turns out I do have a copy, the notes to that page show the conversation with CNN happened in 1999. That does not change the fact that advertisers/owners explicitly or implicitly suppress honest discussion and the situation has gotten worse. The quote is cogent and valid.

    Michael Tobis is right about the snark and misdirection. Why dissemble rather than stating the fact? It feels smug and meant to score points. Those who would defend the truth are expected to be "perfect" according to some arcane rule of what is acceptable, but tearing it down is easy.

    It is distressing that we are still going around in the same circles, only slight lower, as in hell, as the years go by and the dangers increase. Money buys a lot of influence, and a lot of silly people are all too ready to indulge in wishful thinking rather than facing facts.

  7. pg 79-80 "A few years ago, a top editor at a major TV network was asked why, given the increasing proportion of news budgets dedicated to weather disasters, the network news broadcasts did not make this connection. The editor said, "We did that. Once. But it triggered a barrage of complaints from the Global Climate Coalition to our top executives at the network." Notes (pg 223): 80 'The editor agreed...' Author's private conversation with a news network executive, October 1999"

    Ummm. Are the guys here now going to ask you WHY you don't have a copy of "Boiling Point"? I thought everybody had it..... Susan at the third comment went one better, since she knew it was specifically CNN, and that is not in his book.

  8. "....The quote is cogent and valid...." I don't see how it is at all. Gelbspan offered the specific example of an alleged singular story at CNN generated pressure from the GCC to CNN to knock it off - hence Gelbspan saying CNN 'tried to tell the story. Once." But it is incredibly easy to rummage through CNN's own archive articles and find similar stories to the Mozambique flood one he cites, where they equate extreme weather to being potentially caused by global warming. Thus the 'pressure' he talks about would have happened earlier in the year to stop the Mozambique one and subsequent ones. But if anyone does the search as I suggest, it is easily found that the 'pressure' did not actually exist.

    Well, now what? Is in not worthwhile to ask why he undermines his own narrative about 'pressured' news outlets when there is a danger that people will check to see if actually suppressed such stories, and discover his narrative does not hold up?

  9. RC:

    Regarding commenter "frankswifthack"'s question, yes, I'm FOIA™.

    Interesting claim. Speaking of which, what's your relationship with whoever is running the Russian server (You can e-mail me instead of cluttering up this thread, if you prefer.)

    * * *

    Anyway, a Google search for articles about "global warming" on yielded headlines such as these:

    "Sizzling summer not hot proof of global warming, scientists say"

    "Global warming unpredictable, scientists say"

    "Scientists see if global warming causes hurricanes"

    "Warm Arctic may enhance global warming"

    Saying that the articles "unabashedly speculate about global warming causing extreme weather" is a bit of a stretch, isn't it?

    (Meanwhile, CNN Europe may have better coverage, with articles such as "Global warming may increase ozone hole"...)

    -- frank

  10. "Regarding commenter “frankswifthack”‘s question, yes, I’m FOIA™."

    Hmm. Oh good. I'm curious, since you seem so interested in "what now" if 'evidence' "undermines his own narrative" for Gelbspan -- In your 2nd release of emails, you allowed everyone a window into your reasoning - it has to do with money resources and the poor, "Nations must invest $37 trillion in energy technologies by 2030 to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at sustainable levels." This is following some information on global inequality.

    Now this number (37 trillion) likely comes from a Scientific American article. When diving into this article, it turns out that the actual number is less than 2 trillion, and this is without pricing in all the positive impacts of low carbon economies across the globe. Now, assuming the article you took the information from is correct (I guess I can't really expect you to be honest with yourself or anyone else - so, if you desire, we can go through it), 'what now' if the 'evidence' "undermines" your "own narrative".

    Additional investment needed to meet the lower-carbon scenario would be offset by $8.6 trillion in health, security and energy savings benefits, the report says.

    IEA warns that delaying emission curbs will be disastrous -- and would add far more to the already considerable costs needed to adopt lower-carbon alternatives.

    "We calculate that each year of delay before moving onto the emissions path consistent with a 2°C temperature increase would add approximately $500 billion to the global incremental investment cost of $10.5 trillion for the period 2010-2030," the report states.

    The report predicts $26 trillion in 2008 U.S. dollars through 2030 is needed for energy projects to meet growing energy demand, if the world continues on its current energy-use trajectory and remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

    "A delay of just a few years would probably render that goal completely out of reach."

    Any regrets?

  11. "But it is incredibly easy to rummage through CNN’s own archive articles and find similar stories to the Mozambique flood one he cites, where they equate extreme weather to being potentially caused by global warming."

    For example...?

  12. Our friend "frankswifthack" leaves out critical points of the CNN stories he selected. From the "Sizzling summer not hot...": "Indeed, while there is a consensus among most scientists that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, is having an effect on our climate, none of them is willing to say that the current heat wave, or any other, can serve as evidence of global warming."
    From the "Global warming unpredictable..." "Climate scientists are changing their theory about greenhouse gas emissions... The unknown factor that allows predictions to be good and bad is how technology to reduce emissions will be developed."
    From the "Scientists see if global warming causes..." Most climate scientists say that Earth does seem to be heating up. They think carbon dioxide and other socalled greenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that is warming the Earth."
    From the ""Warm Arctic may enhance..." "We know there will be more snow accumulation with increasing winter temperatures, said Jones. If the snow takes longer to melt, that shortens the growing season, and that may influence how much carbon dioxide is released."

    Yes, no extreme weather within those, but if it was the GCC's overall intention put pressure on CNN to NOT imply anything about human activity causing global warming, or that the situation is worthy of any concern, then we have a problem there don't we. I doubt that the GCC, an association of big oil & CO2 emitting industries, would restrict itself to only complaining about AGW = extreme weather.

    Meanwhile, here are the CNN articles Frank seemed to miss: - "Droughts come and go, but growing demand for water remains" "...if predictions of climate change prove true, more erratic weather will bring more frequent droughts, with changing weather patterns" - "The Coming Global Superstorm" "You would hear that more northern places Toronto, Stockholm, Beijing were receiving extremely heavy weather extraordinary rain in the summer, unprecedented blizzards in the winter." - "Panel to world powers: Pay the price of global warming" "You cannot link one specific disaster to climate change," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Climate Campaign. "But we will see more extreme weather events in a warmer world." - Global warming serves notice for public health, March 28, 2000: "Climate change is expected to alter the frequency, timing, intensity and duration of extreme weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and extremely heavy rainfall, the researchers note."

    So if Gelbspan's point was that CNN was pressured not to do any more stories after that August one (assuming it was the one the CNN guy was referring to; it could have been an earlier one), what explains the ones afterward appearing in such short order?

    (Aside: regarding Frank's question about the Russian server, let me borrow a phrase from the DeNiro "Ronin" movie: "We went to high school together.")

  13. Let me state this once more, clearly and without caveat. Regardless of the particular recent and more distant history of each petty argument, we are currently in a situation where suppression of factual stories about the connection between weather and climate, and the science related to same, with expanding reportage of the dishonest campaign to discredit real research, is connected to money and influence.

    The fact that the example from 1999 can be quibbled about is a convenient distraction meant to waste the time and energy of a lot of people who could be getting on with doing something real instead of holding the dikes against a tidal wave of bias.

    I will not be returning to this particular discussion, as it is fully out of date and I think it unlikely that anyone else is paying much attention which is a good thing.

  14. It is difficult to know where to draw the line in moderating. Our objective is to keep the conversation interesting and productive. It is clear that the soi-disant "skeptics" are interested in nit-picking, and this is a case in point.

    However, if someone asks for evidence behind a certain point, that seems legitimate enough. It would seem unfair to edit those out if asked reasonably politely. (If a flood of bad faith quibbles appears, we'll have to reconsider, of course.)

    I, for one, didn't find RC's examples remotely convincing. Climate has effectively been placed off limits in meteorology reports, and relegated to a minor news slot. That's blazingly obvious. The fact that a few climate items make it into the news has absolutely no relevance to the fact that broadcast meteorologists are systematically prevented from discussing climate.

    That said, it appears that they aren't taught climate either. So, many of them, in America at least, are every bit as confused as the average Anthony Watts follower. (c.f. John Coleman)

    It isn't obvious to me that the tradition of keeping the weather report just to the topic of weather is such a bad idea.

    But once a weather event rises to the level of news, a climate tie-in is appropriate. The news, being lazy and cowardly above all else, would rather shut up altogether than try to do the delicate balance needed to put individual events into context. It is money, in the end, that drives this behavior, but I think that pressure from fossil fuel interests is secondary to the pressures from the business of mass media. Of course, if the public hadn't already been so thoroughly hornswoggled, the pressures in this particular arena would be different.

  15. I agree with MT here.

    RC's examples are completely beside the point. Not one of them addresses what was actually being discussed by Gelbspan's CNN source, namely the lack of mention of anthropogenic global warming as a possible factor in *reports on specific extreme weather events*.

    Sure, the science of extreme events gets covered from time to time. But not when anyone is actually watching, and its relevance to people's lives is lost.

    It may well be that the extended discussion of RC's "quibbles" was a distraction. But it is also an interesting demonstration of how "skeptics" highjack a discussion and use misleading examples to buttress their arguments.

  16. I said I wouldn't come back to comment, but it was not a promise, and I think there is a case in point that has been missed here. The original comment I made that provoked RC was about the Anschutz Entertainment Group and the insidious effect of mass entertainment and the influence of money, and I thought the point and the reference were important.

    RC grabbed out the evidence I provided from Ross Gelbspan and made the conversation about when he had that conversation, meanwhile implying that it was a lie as well (which was unnecessary and wrong).

    This happens everywhere, and everyone is being pushed to spend all their time and energy on the argument rather than the subject matter, which is what climate change is doing and the way we as a culture are going towards more use of energy to distract ourselves from observing reality all around us. The Roman Circus becomes ever more elaborate, and more and more people have come to believe virtual reality is real. In fact, that increasingly HD and 3D "reality" is burning up more and more fossil fuel. I regret car door handles that turn and locks that push - what happens when the computer breaks down? Mayhem!

    I agree that weather reports should be about weather, too.

    And to go further off topic, some friends and I have been talking about what is happening to birds and insects. Take a hike (it's free and doesn't use fossil fuels), check out the dawn chorus which has gone from a cacophonic chorus to a few nice chirps, notice there are a lot fewer of the good species around these days.

  17. RC:

    (Aside: regarding Frank's question about the Russian server, let me borrow a phrase from the DeNiro "Ronin" movie: "We went to high school together.")

    Interesting non-answer. No, seriously, are you "FOIA"? (Please try to answer that without borrowing a movie quote.)

    * * *

    Anyway, back to the topic: it looks like sort of I misunderstood Gelbspan's point as well. (Also, how does one search specifically for CNN weather reports? That'll be useful to know...)

    -- frank

  18. I did say "appears to be unsupportable". If the GCC clamped down on CNN, I'd think the stories I linked to which associated global warming to extreme weather would not have been written or aired. The plain question remains, was Gelbspan mistaken or what?

    And what about the wording he claims is in the 1991 Western Fuels annual report about it and skeptic scientists "launching a direct attack on mainstream science"? Any of you seen that report to confirm that? I have. Those words aren't in there.

    Regarding the off-topic of hiking, I have gone on hikes. In the southern Colorado Rockies practically every summer since the '80s, to basically the same places every time. Lovely area, and I hear the pikas chirping in the same areas that I always have. Imagine my surprise to see some reports that pikas 'must retreat to higher elevations because of the warming'. Not that I've ever seen, and I've had to actually move my vacations forward toward late July for when the highest passes are clear of snow (Black Bear / Imogene, if you know that area).

    Which species are missing?

  19. 1) None of the articles you refer to places specific events in a context of climate change. The claim is that there has been pressure not to do so and you have not refuted that. (One of your links appears in the entertainment section and refers to a ridiculous piece of pseudoscience by Art Bell which no member of the scientific community would vouch for!)

    2) That the organized attack on the credibility climate science began with fullpage ads by the WFA in glassy magazines is something I personally remember well. As a meteorology grad student, I was shocked and horrified by it. The words "launching a direct attack on oncology" may not appear in the records of tobacco companies, but they turned out to be culpable in the end.

    3) A very modest understanding of ecology is required to note that your anecdote is of little value. The thriving of a particular colony is not evidence against extinction of local populations at lower altitudes nor against establishment of new colonies at higher altitudes. The ecological evidence of northward and upward migration of species is compelling, and I happen to know that the pikas are a well-studied particular case. If you have a gripe, dig up the literature and explain what is wrong with the studies.

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