Politico’s Blunders on Climate Story: Science AND Journalism Principles Violated

It wasn’t so long ago that a number of leading climate scientists felt they needed a “rapid response mechanism” to forestall flawed climate reporting before it took off like a wildfire across the nation’s and world’s news sections. The result was realclimate.org, spearheaded largely by scientists Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt.

Times have changed sufficiently that reporters now have their own brand of rapid response mechanism, throwing cold water on blistering hot, and blisteringly flawed, climate change reporting before it gets much out of the starting gate.

The example du jour is a Thanksgiving week story by the politically well-connected and well-regarded (and Washington-influential) politico.com.

The online news organization, known for its political coverage, ventured into a quagmire of its own making with a seriously flawed report on “a growing accumulation of global cooling science” and the supposed momentum behind it on Capitol Hill. Politico reporter Erika Lovley’s lead sentence suggested that “the science behind global warming may still be too shaky to warrant cap-and-trade legislation.”

News Analysis

Journalism listserves and bloggers were quick to pounce, word-by-word dissecting and disemboweling one reporting gaffe after another. Many of the criticisms from fellow journalists were biting, perhaps vicious even: “Politico Reporter Erika Lovley Embarrasses Politico, Profession of Journalism, Humanity,” headlined the left-leaning Huffingtonpost.com. The Huffington Post piece was actually a pick-up from a Grist story by David Roberts headlined “‘Reporter’ Erika Lovley pens two of the dumbest stories of the decade on climate science.” (Roberts and Grist editor Russ Walker later backed off some of their personal assault on Lovley, saying their rhetoric, in the heat of the moment common to the 24/7 blogsphere news cycle, went too far.)

“New media same as the old media, Politico pimps global cooling for Hill deniers,” headlined liberal climate change blogger Joe Romm on his climateprogress.org site.

Rising above that particular fray, Nature.com’s “The Great Beyond” blog headlined its story “Lovley’s day for a climate bunfight.” The blog’s characterization of Politico as “right-leaning” likely would be rejected by many, but not so its reporting that the Lovley stories* “are being torn to shreds as we speak.”

CJR/The Observatory’s Thoughtful Dissection

Far more thoughtful in its assessment, but no less critical, was Curtis Brainard, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review‘s online “The Observatory.”

Brainard opened his critique characterizing the Lovley piece as “an anachronistically bad article.” He wrote that the Politico story virtually ignored the sizeable body of scientific evidence countering any notion of global cooling. He faulted the coverage also for over-relying on one source – climate skeptic Josef D’Aleo – and for D’Aleo’s having published his perspective in the 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac. Brainard called that outlet “that bastion of peer-reviewed science!” He cautioned reporters covering climate science to base their coverage not so much on meteorologists, but rather on climatologists. “That is an important distinction that all climate reporters should be aware of when choosing sources for their reporting,” he counseled.

Brainard’s November 26 posting – well worth reading – proceeded to dissect the Politico piece limb by limb. He dismissed the “Gore Effect” sidebar as “even more asinine than the main article …. The vacuity is almost too much to bear.”

Yulsman Points to 3 Journalism ‘Cardinal Sins’

Amidst the various commentaries laying into the Politico plundering, observations by Tom Yulsman, of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, deserve special mention.

Yulsman had a big “Thank you” for the Politico writer, albeit somewhat tongue in cheek: Describing the piece as a “gift,” Yulsman wrote that the article “will help make one of my class preps so much easier, because now I have a new and terrific example for my science writing class of how not to write about science (or politics, for that matter).”

Yulsman pointed to “three journalistic cardinal sins” in the Politico piece:

  • “It seems that she did reporting to support a predetermined outcome – namely the ludicrous assertion that there is ‘growing’ evidence casting doubt on anthropogenic climate change.” He said Lovely “spoke only with political sources who would support her unsupportable thesis.”
  • “She confused science with politics,” Yulsman wrote, failing to consult scientists “who actually conduct peer-reviewed research on the subject.”
  • “She evidently failed to do even rudimentary checking about” the reputed 31,000-signature “Global Warming Petition Project” orchestrated by the Oregon Institute on Science and Medicine.

“If students in my science writing class had turned in something like this, I would have given them an F on the assignment and suggest that they consider another line of work,” Yulsman wrote. “She claimed to be writing about science when in fact she was really doing a political piece – and a miserable hack job at that.”

Much or most, but certainly not all, of the analysis of the Politico piece criticized it strongly on both science and journalism grounds. But blogger Marc Sheppard, in the “American Thinker” blog, differed. He found the Politico/Lovley criticisms evidence that “the choir of green-snobbery has many voices.” To Sheppard, the Politico reporting “attempted to present a rational examination of the impact of recent cooling …. What should have been seen as a moment of MSM [mainstream media] balance was instead seen by the usual suspects as a philosophical punching bag.”

Politico’s Sort-of/Kind-of ‘We Slipped’ Response

Less forgiving than Sheppard was Lovley’s own editor, Jeanne Cummings, though her written response, raises almost as many questions as she attempted to answer.

She initially rationalized the story as the kind of “fraught with peril” journalism familiar to those “giving voice to the losing side of a national debate … littered with grudges, slights, insults, and hard feelings.”

“We slipped,” Cummings nonetheless acknowledged … We hope the next time to be more sure-footed.”

But between the “slipped” and “sure-footed” terms, Cummings said the Politico story “got right” the part about efforts by “the last hold-outs against global warming” on Capitol Hill. “Politico found them still feisty and readying for a fight despite their diminishing odds,” she wrote.

Will ‘Global Warming Advocates’ Please Rise?

She acknowledged that the Politico headline “overstated what was in the story,” but dismissed that as a “chronic problem” in reporting. She said the story should have better played-up views of – are you ready for this? – “global warming advocates.”

That terminology leaves some scratching their heads. Is any sentient being an advocate for global warming? Go, global warming, go!?

A further rationalization from Politico: Cummings wrote that the story reported that the National Academy of Sciences and most scientific bodies reject the “cooling” thinking. And she wrote that Politico’s archives “are brimming with articles written about the seriousness of global warming.” She described as “a bit overheated” the critical assessments of Politico’s “relatively minor nod to their last opponents.”

That followed by the goal of being “more sure footed” in the future. Oh well.

Points made in the Politico piece and reactions/commentary follow.


From Politico Piece
“a growing accumulation of global cooling science …”

Reaction/Commentary
Growing accumulation? Where is it? Is it peer-reviewed? Politico provides no explanation or justification for this unsubstantiated claim.


From Politico Piece
“…and other findings that could signal the science behind global warming may still be too shaky to warrant cap-and-trade legislation.”

Reaction/Commentary
Most experts say the evidence has only gotten stronger in recent years. Politico did not interview or quote established scientists to support the “too shaky” point.


From Politico Piece
“…a small, growing number of scientists, including D’Aleo, are questioning how quickly the warming is happening and whether humans are actually the leading cause.”

Reaction/Commentary
Responsible experts don’t maintain that human actions are the only cause of observed warming, but do say it is the principal cause over the past five or six decades.


From Politico Piece
“D’Aleo reported in the 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac that the U.S. annual mean temperature has fluctuated for decades and has only risen 0.21 degrees since 1930 – which he says is caused by fluctuating solar activity levels and ocean temperatures, not carbon emissions.”

Reaction/Commentary
The almanac has its place, but it’s not the place for publishing peer-reviewed science. It’s not the mean temperature over the U.S. or any other country or continent that matters: It’s global mean temperature that is the key. There’s no evidence provided to support a claim of “fluctuating solar activity levels,” and plenty saying there are no fluctuations over the relevant time period.


From Politico Piece
“…during five of the past seven decades, including this one, average U.S. temperatures have gone down. And the almanac predicted that next year will see a period of cooling.”

Reaction/Commentary
Again, average U.S. temperature are not the key, nor is the relative cooling or warming over a brief period of time. Up or down in the U.S. next year does not a cooling or warming make.


From Politico Piece
“Recent warming has stopped since 1998,” a quote from D’Aleo.

Reaction/Commentary
Data from the government’s National Climate Data Center (NCDC) refutes this frequent claim by climate change deniers.


From Politico Piece
Lovley reported that “31,000 scientists across the world have signed the Global Warming Petition Project, a declaration started by a group of American scientists that states man’s impact on climate change can’t be reasonably proven.”

Reaction/Commentary
Most reporters who have spent any time on the climate beat have long since come to recognize the so-called “Oregon petition” as scientifically irresponsible, and the claim of 31,000-plus signatures a canard.


* Adding insult to injury, Lovley accompanied her principal piece with a bizarre sidebar headlined “Tracking ‘The Gore Effect.’”
Perhaps intended to be tongue in cheek, the piece pointed to instances in which an Al Gore climate change presentation coincided with, for instance, cold summer weather or warm winter weather (forsaking the differences between weather and climate). She wrote that climate skeptics “half-seriously argue” their case by pointing to these anomalies.
“While there’s no scientific proof that The Gore Effect is anything more than a humorous coincidence,” she wrote straight-faced, “some climate skeptics say it may offer a snapshot of proof that that planet isn’t warming as quickly as some climate change advocates say.” (That term again, and again unexplained and actually inexplicable: “climate change advocates.” ?)
It’s this sidebar that prompted CRJ/The Observatory writer Curtis Brainard to his “almost too much to bear” frustration. And prompted Grist writer David Roberts to declare the sidebar “my nominee for the single stupidest sentence written by any journalist this year, possibly this century.”

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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5 Responses to Politico’s Blunders on Climate Story: Science AND Journalism Principles Violated

  1. Tom Yulsman says:

    If Lovely had stuck to the politics, and written a well-reported piece showing how some on Capitol Hill are planning to stop cap-and-trade or other climate legislation, it would have been, well, lovely. And even if she had said that these insurgents plan to claim, whether true or not, that climate science is still too uncertain to warrant action, that would have been fine — if her reporting showed such a budding political effort. (I’m not at all sure that it did.)

    But here we see what often happens when a political reporter wades into a scientific issue. In politics, of course, there are almost always two sides to an issue. And that’s clearly the perspective Lovely brought to her story. In science, though, there may be two sides, five sides, or just one side. And at the end of the day, after copious research and attempts at falsification, a particular point of view may becomes the dominant paradigm (even though scientists and science reporters know full well that it may eventually have to be modified or even discarded).

    The distinctions between science and politics, and scientific experts and political actors, were evidently lost on Lovely. To many political reporters today, I guess, rigorous scientific corroboration of ideas matters less than ginning up a fight, which of course makes for good political copy.

    In any case, Bud is right that we now have a very rapid response mechanism that wheeled into action and shot Politico down. It’s just too bad that the editors obviously remain as clueless about the distinctions between science and politics as the writer was. And it’s more alarming still that they fail to see how badly reported the story was.

  2. Bud Ward says:

    Agree that the real fault here lies with the Politico editors, whose response for many is inadequate and unduly defensive. Concerns among many science writers that political writers may botch the climate story seem overstated, but this example lends credence to those worries. All beats need to better understand climate science basics if public is to be well-served.

  3. Anna says:

    A question for those of you who’ve been in the trenches – what’s the probability that this story was *suggested* by Lovley’s editor, and thus that Lovley wasn’t the “prime mover” behind it?
    (which wouldn’t free her from all responsibility, but would shift the weight)

    0? .001? .9?

  4. Bud Ward says:

    Good question, Anna. “The buck stope here” metaphor applies, and the buck really stops with the editor and not with the young and inexperienced, in this case, reporter alone. Don’t know in this case if this story was reporter- or editor-generated, but I suspect the former. Both share responsibility for this poorly reported and poorly edited piece.

  5. Dave R says:

    Every single comment on the Politico article begins with the assumption that the science is settled and therefore the Politico article should be criticized. There are a large number of prominent scientists who simply dispute the assertion that man-made CO2 has a significant impact on the environment. The argument that it does is not based on the effect of CO2 but other “feedback” effects that are disputed. None of you can call yourselves journalists, because none of you are willing to start from a position of neutrality on the science. And none of you has the courage to challenge conventional wisdom by carefully pursuing the disagreements over the science so that the public can understand them, which is supposed to be your job. Journalists? Feh.