Reporters at the UK's Daily Mail every once in a while turn out a good environmental or science story. But when that happens it is a great big and welcome surprise. Their employer's money maker is to exaggerate, sensationalize, and shock. That, and to spotlight celebrities up to nothing good or wearing next to nothing. But most of the time it's hardly worth taking down any of its stories. It's the Mail, for goodness sake, and if it and its amusing ilk didn't exist a lot of us would miss them to tell the truth. It is mostly unserious journalism good for a chuckle. Oh, but wait. It is also, seriously, the place to go for the best selection of photos and other illus on widely-reported science news.
But when one of its cherry picking, context flouting exercises triggers a wider pick-up of its version of events? That is more serious. Today University of Colorado assoc. professor of journalism Tom Yulsman - also he is co-director of the school's Center for Environmental Journalism - shared the gist of a lecture he prepared for his students:
- Discover Blogs - Tom Yulsman: With Climate Journalism Like This, Who Needs Fiction?
The Mail story that got his motors running is:
- Mail Online - David Rose: And now it's global COOLING! Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year. It may have most things wrong, but it fits one journalism maxim: get the news first. The seasonal low for Arctic sea ice is still a week or two away. Why not have waited till that happened? It would have been just as easy to distort and would have had a slight sheen of responsible timeliness.
Yulsman's primary point is iron-clad. The Mail's story cherry picked two years - the most recent two - and infers a massive trend. That immense 60 percent jump in ice-covered Arctic ocean (Note to Mail headline writers - which is an ice pack, not an ice cap) is true. But last year saw a ridiculous plummet under previous records for recorded, summertime low ice up there. This year is merely right in line with the levels of the last five years or so which, in turn, are well more than a standard deviation from how the ice has run for the last few decades.
Yulsman makes another unassailable point on his way to trashing this piece. That is that Mr. Rose reports nothing about the volume of sea ice. Most of it lately has been thin ice, accumulated in one and sometimes two years. Used to be there was scads of old ice many years and many meters thick. And the plunge in volume shows no sign of reversal, even in the so-short-it's-meaningless run.
Other parts of Mr. Rose's story may bear some weight. One wonders whether a call to one of ancillary sources cited in the story, a mathematical physicist and meteorology-trained professor at the University of Wisconsin, would bear fruit. He is quoted this way: "We are already in a cooling trend, which I think will continue for the next 15 years at least. There is no doubt the warming of the 1980s and 1990s has stopped." That'd be good if true, although odds that this one fellow knows the truth better than the general ranks of climatology has to be low. Even contrarians, one adds, generally say we've hit a plateau, not a cooling trend. 2010 was the hottest year EVER recorded, you know. Nonetheless, it's a half quote that may leave important things out. If this fellow thinks, for instance, that the ocean will keep hauling cold water from depth to the surface and soaking up heat from the air for awhile (as La Niña has in the Pacific), that just means that we still have global warming and eventually the atmosphere will catch up. That seems a plausibly respectable hypothesis. But does its author think this means global warming is no problem and drill baby drill, or that it's hiding out, treading water in one place, so it will inevitably roar back and well within our children's lifetime?
Yulsman has done a service taking this story down.
Other pickup, some but notably not all have little further reporting from what the Mail ran:
- Telegraph (UK) Hayley Dixon: Global warming? No, actually we're cooling, claim scientists. Actually, the story only cites a scientist, the fellow at Wisconsin, not "scientists" which when put that way usually means at least a whole school of (peer-reviewed) thought it, not one somebody prefacing his remark with "I think ...)
- Canada Free Press (right-leaning site) - Mike Jensen: OMG: It's Global Cooling! There is a ton of blogposts such as this now floating around, courtesy of the Daily Mail's story and the Telegraph's re-do.
- Fox News: Arctic sea ice up 60 percent in 2013 ;
- RedOrbit - Brett Smith: Politics, The Press And Melting Sea Ice ; A pretty good analysis of the whole stirmash the Mail's story kicked up. This is derived from the more substantial piece, next bullet down.
- Guardian - Dana Nuccitelli: Arctic sea ice delusions strike the Mail on Sunday and Telegraph / Both UK periodicals focus on short-term noise and ignore the rapid long-term Arctic sea ice death spiral. Pretty good, although I doubt that "regression to the mean" is a particularly powerful argument to mount against the Mail's dispatch. The story's kicker delivers: "Based on their history of shoddy reporting, the safest course of action when reading a climate article in the Mail on Sunday or Telegraph is to assume they're misrepresentations or falsehoods until you can verify the facts for yourself." Hmmm. Well, sure, good advice. But old reporters also used to say about everything one hears: "If you're mother says she loves you, check it out."
Grist for the Mill: Nat'l Snow and Ice Data Center