When he set about to reply to a reader’s seemingly clear-cut inquiry criticizing his October 3 climate change news story, Louisville, Ky., reporter James Bruggers had no idea his entire e-mail dialog would end up verbatim in an interest group’s newsletter.
There was really nothing especially notable about the particular Bruggers story in the Courier-Journal that prompted the reader’s inquiry. He reported on two key state legislators’ remarks questioning climate science at a public meeting. It was pretty much a straightforward news story, reporting their perspectives and, from Bruggers’ standpoint, putting them into context.
The context, the veteran environmental reporter decided, was that some other states are moving ahead to curb greenhouse gas emissions while key policy makers in coal-rich Kentucky “are still questioning whether humans are causing the planet to warm.” That doesn’t square with “a growing international scientific consensus,” he reported.
Three commenters on the paper’s web site basically criticized the legislators’ reported positions. But it was Bruggers’s personal e-mail inbox that makes things interesting here.
He received a message from a Theresa Fritz Camoriano, not otherwise identified. “It is clear that you have bought into the idea that our release of carbon dioxide from burying fuels is causing the Earth to heat up and will cause dire results,” she wrote. (Camoriano at no point identified herself as the editor of the “Jefferson Review,” a free-market libertarian online journal.)
Theresa Fritz Camoriano
“Anyone who is serious about science would be very skeptical about getting his scientific information from politicians and political groups, who are prone to seek power, not truth,” she wrote, apparently referring to Bruggers’s siting the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as authorities on the subject. (In a subsequent e-mail to Bruggers, Camoriano referred him to a 1992 paper on the Cato Institute web site to find “many other scientists who are very skeptical as well.”)
“I would hope that, as a journalist, you would be more objective and skeptical, presenting the views of various scientists in an even-handed way,” she wrote. “Instead, you are ridiculing Kentucky elected officials who don’t worship at the global warming church …. the truth is the truth even if nobody believes it!”
Bruggers replied by e-mail, thanking the reader – a customer for his newspaper and for his reporting, after all – for writing. Going beyond the IPCC, Bruggers said, “virtually every major scientific society” concludes that humans “are playing a role in the warming of the Earth. Many warn of potentially serious effects.”
“At this point,” he said, “it’s quite hard” to find credible peer-reviewed scientists who deny the human influence.
Bruggers pointed to areas of real uncertainty, and he said his reporting reflects those uncertainties. He said it also focuses “a lot on the economic implications for Kentucky, which, by all accounts, are potentially quite large.”
“I am doing my best to navigate the issue in a way that is fair to all sides, while also reflecting accurately the best science as I’m able to determine it.”
Referred by Camorianio next to the 1992 paper by MIT scientist Richard Lindzen, Bruggers again took the bait, again responded by e-mail. “I could provide you with links to a large number of reports by very credible scientific bodies” showing that work to be “in the minority.”
“To give them equal weight with the bulk of science would be misleading, don’t you think?,” Bruggers replied. That ending to his second e-mail response virtually assured the dialog would continue.
In her third e-mail to Bruggers, Camorianio pointed to what she sees as shortcomings in computer models. “Even the temperature data that is being used is suspect,” as evidenced by NASA’s having to recently issue a correction of some of its data.
“Real scientists seek the truth, not the popular trend,” she wrote. “People know where their bread is buttered, and the research money and power all support the global warming hysteria.” She said she is concerned that too many “are practicing religion, not science.”
“Obviously, you and I have far different views on this issue,” she told Bruggers. “You believe you are right, and you will continue to use your position to write articles ridiculing people who disagree with you rather than explaining the shaky basis for this theory and the fact that scientists are not speaking with one voice on this issue.”
“You are playing the role of a crusader, not the role of a scientist or an objective reporter,” she concluded, “but I accept it as reality.”
What Bruggers now accepts as reality – a lesson in all this, he says – is that his own e-mails, however intended for a single reader, can end up online and in print.
Commenting on the experience, Bruggers said he is “always careful with e-mails, knowing that they can live forever and come back to bite you. There’s nothing, however, in the e-mail exchange on global warming that I would not have said in public.”
He said he “was surprised to see them posted online, so in that sense, the whole thing served as a reminder of the new media world we all live in now.”
He commented that Camorianio had not posted online his final e-mail to her saying he was ending the dialog and telling her how she could raise specific concerns about his reporting with his editors.
“I still believe it’s important for journalists to communicate with their audiences,” Bruggers said.
Also drawing a lesson from the experience, independent writer Amy Gahran wrote in a Poynter online column that Bruggers’s experience “illustrates why it’s useful for news organizations to allow public comments on all stories. There should always be a prominent public option for discussing journalism that has been published. This, then, thwarts the need for private back-channels with unclear and possibly unequal expectations of privacy,” she wrote. “Just be transparent, put it all on the record, and let commenters and reporters alike be publicly accountable for their statements.”