Publish a climate change-related news story, and be ready for pointed attacks, long knives, and brutal dismissals. And expect accusations of political bias and conspiracy.
That’s still the rule for the nation’s veteran environmental and science reporters, despite changing attitudes on climate change from the public at large.
Like many other communicators, reporters often find that when they think they’ve thrown a boulder in to a pond, it generates nary a ripple of response, a near-deafening silence. That isn’t the case, however, when their reporting, even routine straight-news reporting, involves climate change or “global warming.”
Lots of response, lots of ripples.
Take for example an article by Perry Beeman, environmental reporter for The Des Moines Register in Iowa. His recent straight news story on Ames city hall and its attempts to reduce carbon emissions seemed innocuous enough. It didn’t even focus on climate science; it just catalogued a growing trend among municipal officials in Iowa and beyond who are trying to curb their carbon footprints.
The response, at least in his Web comments section, was overwhelming. One person writes, “Someone finds out the Ames city manager drives an electric car and the Register extrapolates it into global movement.” Another reader says, “This paper believes Iowans will believe whatever they write … It’s been going on for millions of years.”
And then, by yet another respondent, the standard charge: “The scientists who have not been bought out by the Democrats and liberals agree it has nothing to do with humans.”
In an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum, Beeman, a former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), allowed that the reactions usually aren’t very pretty.
“Whenever I cover the climate change issue, the reader comments attached to my Web story tend to be mostly from people who do not believe climate change is happening,” he wrote. “I have yet to see any cite a peer-reviewed, objective scientific study to support the contrarian view.” (Also see Yale Forum article, Plain Dealer Reporter Michael Scott Explores Cleveland’s Broadcast Met Attitudes, for another example of a story’s generating extensive and highly vocal reader response.
Among beat reporters, hard-hitting denial from often anonymous readers is a common point of frustration that’s vented the way waiters might complain about bad-tipping tourists. It’s an emotional dimension that doesn’t always factor its way – with some exceptions – into those specialty climate change blogs and sites that attract mostly science junkies and enviro insiders.
The denial rhetoric continues even as belief in man-made climate change is growing over time in the U.S. The rate of belief that global warming is already happening went from 48 percent of citizens in 1997, to 51 percent in 2004, to 61 percent in April 2008, according to Gallup.
James Bruggers, also a former SEJ president and a veteran environmental and climate change reporter with the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, says he finds there’s often a difference between the comments directed at his blog posts and those for his general-audience articles.
“The blog has a more dedicated readership of people who seem to have greater environmental literacy,” he wrote in a Yale Forum e-mail interview.
There are exceptions to the rule for him. A general-interest story that he wrote about renewable energy and hydropower received what Bruggers called a “sympathetic” response.
But he acknowledges that he sometimes gets some big waves of pushback, like those familiar to the Des Moines Register‘s Beeman. “Generally, the comments run the gamut: some thoughtful, others knee-jerk opposition and scientifically illiterate, and even some over the top enviro perspective,” he said.
National Public Radio’s science reporter Richard Harris says his audience might tend to deliver “more sophisticated responses” than perhaps consumers of other general distribution media do. (Comments are attached to his stories at npr.org.) He sometimes hears from the environmental crowd that he’s “not being panicky enough.”
But Harris too still sees his share of sharp denial and criticism. “There are some people who have read a Michael Crichton novel or listened to Rush Limbaugh or gotten it into their head that there’s some type of conspiracy,” he said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum.
Harris said climate “skeptics” reacting to his on-air reporting often portray uncertainty as going only one way: that scientific doubt about the pace of climate change inevitably means it’s not going to happen, as opposed to its also leaving open the prospect that things may get worse than currently projected.
“I haven’t pointed out people’s logical fallacies,” he said, “… though I’m sorely tempted to do that.”
The pattern of response to climate change stories generally is hard to quantify. And it’s tough to know exactly how much of the hard-core denial in the Web traffic is the same old set of people, perhaps making sport of hectoring the resident environmental journalist and keeping him or her “honest,” as it were.
Yet, ongoing climate change reporting may increasingly force skeptical readers to talk right past the point of articles – reader feedback on Beeman’s city hall article being a classic example – as the sometimes arcane and dense climate science debate becomes secondary and reporters focus increasingly on actions by public officials, the private sector, and citizens.
Indeed, coverage increasingly is focusing on response, “adaptation and mitigation,” as it’s known in the field, and that trend is likely to accelerate.
Asked about the prospects for climate change reporting under the coming Obama administration, NPR’s Harris said: “I think it will probably be less about science and more about what we’re going to do about it. It will be more about energy policy.”
It’s a perspective many of his science and environmental journalism counterparts, in both print and broadcast media, most likely share.