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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Climate Change and the Media


Although the North American mainstream media has recently jumped on the green bandwagon, its coverage of climate change has been lambasted for contributing to a culture of doubt and debate by covering an issue of fact as one of opinion.

Journalists often covered climate change stories using a traditional notion of objectivity – by giving equal weight to the views of the contrarians and the believers. But this practice meant that journalists continued to tell both sides of the story, even when there was no legitimate scientific “other side” to tell.

During UBC’s Celebrate Research week, the UBC School of Journalism and the DeSmogBlog.com hosted a panel discussion on media treatment of the climate-change issue entitled “The State of the Media on Climate Change.”

The panel was comprised of some of the best-known journalists, editors, academics and activists following the issue.

Panelists included Hadi Dowlatabadi, UBC Professor Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability; Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and author of The New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science; Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize winning editor and author of the groundbreaking book The Heat is On; Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun; and Jim Hoggan, president of James Hoggan & Associates and founder of DeSmogBlog.com

Throughout the presenters’ five-minute presentations and the discussion afterward, a consensus emerged – that journalists have contributed, willingly or unwillingly, to fogging and fueling the debate on climate change.

Jim Hoggan, a self-proclaimed “PR guy” explained to the audience the function of PR and spin. He told the story of S. Fred Singer, who some might remember from his previous efforts to allay public fears about the dangers of secondhand smoke, who became a spokesperson for big oil and climate change contrarians. Singer’s ability to get his views published and cast doubt on climate change, he said, is a perfect example of how the journalistic commitment to balance can be manipulated by spinsters, despite their pursuit of balance. 

Ross Gelbspan highlighted the differences in the climate change coverage between the mainstream media and scientific journals. “Why is it that in a study of over 1,000 peer reviewed articles on climate change, not one refuted its occurrence or that humans contributed to it, yet the mainstream media still presents the issue as if it is contested,” he asked.

Hadi Dowlatabadi founded offsetters.ca to provide travelers with a way to pay to offset their carbon emissions. Dowlatabadi, like many of the other panelists, highlighted the sensationalist nature of the mainstream media by referencing the exorbitant amount of coverage of Britney Spears shaving her head and the controversy over Anna Nicole Smith’s death.

“What are the media’s priorities? Like scientists, it is to turn a profit, meaning that neither the scientists nor the media are completely objective in their self-interested pursuits,” he said.

Chris Moonely elaborated on the sensationalist drive in the media.

“During the week the IPCC report was released, it was one of the top issues in the media, according to Pew’s statistics. However, the week after it had fallen off the agenda, replaced with coverage of the Super Bowl and Anna Nicole Smith’s death,” he said.

This sensationalist drive produces a drive in journalism toward covering conflict and controversy because they get ratings and coverage of more long-term issues suffers as a result.

Kirk LaPointe anticipated being the “human piñata,” because he was the only representative of mainstream media in the panel group. And that is exactly how the audience treated him. Although he acknowledged that the media had done the issue a disservice in its previous coverage, he expressed his hope that the media have a renewed opportunity to earn respect for its coverage over the coming decades.

“I think mainstream news organizations are finally starting to get it, thanks to a tipping point in 2006 fueled by coverage of extreme weather, Al Gore’s movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and the nomination of Stephane Dion,” he said.

While the panelists and the audience disagreed about certain aspects of the media’s role in the climate change debate, they agreed on one front – that the media’s commitment to balance has obfuscated their climate change coverage, and that the mainstream media need to play a more responsible role in covering climate change by asking tough questions and verifying the answers instead of clinging to the journalistic standard of balance.

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