Editor and Publisher Columnist Outing: Sack ‘Objectivity’ in Climate Change Reporting

A long-time columnist for Editor and Publisher, a standard in the newspaper industry for those it’s named after, has raised a fuss with a provocative column urging newspapers to “abandon their old way of doing things” – specifically “balance” – when it comes to reporting on global climate change.

Given “overwhelming” scientific evidence that humans are contributing to global warming, columnist Steve Outing accused newspaper editors of “shirking their responsibility to improve our world.”

Their “failed commitment to ‘objectivity’ has been a detriment to efforts to combat global warming,” Outing wrote, labeling climate change “a wholly different issue.”

“Why is it, then, that mainstream coverage of climate change is still mired, too often, in he-said/she-said reporting where both ‘sides’ get their time?”

Scarcely into the Outing column, one could practically feel the temperatures rising among climate “contrarians,” but also among many ink-in-the-veins journalists.

It didn’t take long for their thermometers to pop.

“A nut case,” one letter writer to E&P complained, “a stain on this web site.” The chair of the editorial board of The Hudson Independent, in Tarrytown, N.Y., said the Outing column “had sent a chilling jolt through me” and said he fretted where such “do-good” newspaper crusading might end.

A Port Orange, Fl., reader (one can’t tell from most of the signatures how many or which letters came from journalists) complained that manmade global warming is “bunk.” There is no scientific consensus beyond “those who wish to make the U.S. a third-world country.” (Another letter writer appeared most bothered by what seemed a sentence fragment.)

“Stop printing papers … go all electronic!” one letter writer urged. “Encourage your readers to read your publication, and others, on their computer and the world would be a cooler place!”

Others complained of Outing’s “call for organized bias” and objected, for instance, that “Last time I checked, journalism is supposed to always to be objective.” A Toronto reader said Outing’s call “just further reduces the credibility of the faltering industry.” Yet another reader labeled the column “both shameful and disgraceful” and said “the global warming hysteria is a hoax and a swindle. It’s a desperate grab for power by the far left.”

Objectivity, Subjectivity the Only Options?

Arguing his case in his “Climate Change: Get Over Objectivity, Newspapers” online column, Outing leaned in part on respected New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. He quoted Rosen:

Part of the problem is that journalists don’t realize what objectivity was in the first place. From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it’s hard to figure out who’s right and what’s really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was to “de-voice” or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product. But the costs of that system have built up over time.

One of the most insidious and deceptive things about the system of objectivity is how it persuades journalists that the alternative to it is “subjectivity.” From this angle, to relinquish objectivity means to surrender to partisanship, opinion, bias.

So “in the name of objectivity, reporters must give equal time to the tiny minority of skeptics and not go too far out on a limb to declare that climate change indeed is caused by humankind,” Outing wrote.

He would have none of it.

For newspapers that “buy into the argument that climate change is different than other issue controversies,” he prescribed “calls for action ñ an advocacy component …. be pro-active in encouraging behavior change.”

At least one commenter found Outing’s suggestions little more than “the most hackneyed clichés in the news business”: soliciting and rating readers’ ideas on combating climate change; holding contests to see “who in your community is doing the best job of cutting their personal ‘carbon footprint’”; creating an online “tracker” so people can record their mileage and collecting readers’ ideas on how automakers can make more fuel-efficient cars; and putting the paper’s climate change campaign “on the front page and on the homepage.”

Editor and Publisher Editor Greg Mitchell, responding to an inquiry, told Yale Forum there was “a very strong e-mail response to the Outing column, and the vast majority was negative. But he said he thinks most of the mail came not from journalists but “from readers who saw the link on conservative web sites.” He said there was “a lot of cursing and swearing. People would give us a paragraph on objectivity and then go on and on about the global warming issue.”

“This always produces possibly misleading results,” Mitchell said, adding that “most of the letters were diatribes against global warming.” But he acknowledged that “not a lot of people within the industry jumped to his [Outing's] defense.”

Mitchell noted that many letter writers mistook the views of one online columnist to represent the overall E&P editorial position.

Reached by phone in Boulder, Co., Outing said his column had been widely debated on a variety of blogs, and he said he had several critical e-mails from Senator Jim Inhofe’s staff. (The Oklahoma Republican is the ranking minority member of the Senate Environment Committee and a vocal critic of the “consensus” perspective on climate change.)

He said he regrets that what to him is his most important message ñ “Climate change is too important of an issue [to] squander the power of the news media.” That message got lost amidst a focus on the objectivity angle emphasized in the headline, Outing said.

No obvious signs of any major newspaper conversions to Outing’s perspective on all this. We’ll keep an eye out and let you know if that happens.

But don’t hold your breath.

Also see: Giving Objectivity
a Bad Name
By Philip Meyer

‘Objectivity’ As a Goal? No: Accuracy and Fairness By Boyce Rensberger

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