For about the last ten years, and peaking a few years back, many of us in the climate and science reporting biz met with and got a little bit tired of getting upbraided by a certain stripe of climate change activist, science or otherwise. Some of them said, again and again, that mainstream media's misrepresentation of the science and policy debates on global warming are a big reason the public and many politicians, especially in the US, haven't done much of anything that might cost more than a nickel in GNP to slow or stop the rate of greenhouse emissions we make. Namely, we gave the doubters equal footing in the quote department with actual climate authorities. That made for false balance and a lot of bad journalism. So they said.
I always denied that false media balance much existed, not in the big outlets anyway, and that to think it would matter much in any case is to way overestimate the power of the press. Oh, sure, some contrarians get a bit of ink with some regularity. Richard Lindzen comes to mind. But who among writers on the climate beat at established outlets makes, or in the recent past made, a habit of calling such people as Robert Balling, Fred Singer, the Idsos, Patrick Michaels or Benny Peiser when reporting a new scientific development on the theory or observation of a warming climate driven largely by greenhouse forcing? Those guys don't do the research, never say anything new, and don't get their opinions much if ever in respected journals. One might as well call Al Gore for his take on some paper in Science on the Arctic Oscillation. Good guy, but the wrong category of expertise. False balance, the critics said, is the squaring of reputable members of pertinent academic disciplines with others who have a conclusion of their own but are not from the same tribe of intellectual distinction. You show me a James Hansen, I'll see you with a Lord Monckton!
But nobody ever supposed false balance was entirely fiction. Just this week, Exhibit A:
- AP - David Pitt: Iowa scientists: Drought a sign of climate change ;
The news is that a report on the recent run of wild weather in the Corn belt, bearing the signatures of 138 scientists from 27 Iowa universities and colleges, concludes that the weather is doing just about the sort of thing one would expect as global-scale warming starts to bite.
The statement does not seem terribly newsy. It's a bit general. Perhaps that is because it is hard to get 138 scientists to agree on anything smelling of a policy statement. But of interest is that reporter Pitt, who appears to be a prolific general assignment man with a lot of political reporting under his belt, chose to ask one of the better known climate contrarians to share his thoughts. Pat Michaels is not quite identified as a man whose opinion one could guess ahead of time as that of a scoffer. He does i.d. him correctly as being a designated climatologist for the conservative Cato Institute. Some readers would recognize that as a flag. Many would not. But other than that oblique identifier, Michaels pops up in a train of reasonable if somewhat flabby remarks from academics without other description of him as a stalwart of the denialist side. This is a perfect example of false balance. We get a lot of Iowa's researchers saying one thing relevant to recent research and experience, and one additional voice from a man from DC and Virginia who hasn't had a kind word in years to say about climate change worry warts. Those are not equivalent sources. (One might add: This is not quite a case of balance, false or otherwise. Michaels is outnumbered.)
The overall thrust of the AP report is true. Virginia scientists say the recent drought reinforces warnings about what climate change will bring. The statement got little other coverage, but some.
- Reuters - Kay Henderson: Iowa scientists warn of need for climate change action. No one from outside the circle of the statement's signatories is quoted at all.
- CBS - Iowa scientists: Climate change caused the drought ; Ooh, oversimple hence bad hed. Story doesn't say it so plainly, neither did the original climate statement from the scientists. Tagline says AP contributed to the report. It may be that rewrite and copy editing took the fuzz off the AP's version.
- Iowa City Press-Citizen - Tara Bannow: Scientists: Drought a sign of climate change ; Local paper does the local angle: more than 40 Univ of Iowa scientists are among the 138 who signed the statement. The reporter gives the story more than that - a list of tips from the signatories on the many ways that climate change touches the average Iowan's daily life. This looks like the best balanced, in terms of shifting from the abstract to the specific, story of the lot.
- Louisville Courier-Journal - James Bruggers : Scientists in Iowa take a stand on climate change ; A shorty.
- Charlie Petit