Four Experts Pass Judgment

Commenting on Journalist Eric Pooley’s Analysis of Press Coverage of Climate Policy

Journalist Eric Pooley’s January 2009 Shorenstein Center critique and analysis of press coverage of climate change policy issues has generated substantial attention and on-going “buzz” in climate journalism circles.

After publishing freelance writer John Wihbey’s February 17 article and analysis of Pooley’s “discussion paper,” The Yale Forum asked four respected university-affiliated environmental and science writers their views on Pooley’s analysis: Their comments and Eric Pooley’s own reaction to those comments follow.

A Call to News Execs:
What Would Joseph Pulitzer Do?

By Bill Allen
Assistant Professor of Science Journalism
University of Missouri-Columbia

Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Journalism is, or ought to be, one of the great and intellectual professions.” One wonders whether Pulitzer even dreamed of the kind of specialized knowledge required today on the climate beat, including the economics of climate policy.

Eric Pooley does a great service by calling the journalism community’s attention to the shift toward an economics debate in addressing climate change, now that the causation science debate is over. However, in Pooley’s plea to get the economics story right and not fall victim to the obfuscators, it’s not clear what method is his priority, nor what is realistic.

He wants economics-savvy journalists to join science and environment writers in covering climate policy. He wants more political reporters to behave like Deirdre Shesgreen, “a tough, even-handed referee” whose story on the modeling wars “didn’t linger over the economics or get lost in the weeds. It simply did the job.” He wants newsrooms to strengthen the specialized beats where climate science reporting has centered, even as economic forces in the news industry conspire to dispose of these beats.

He wants more Times-like teams.

These are all great ideas, although let’s admit, for anyone but The New York Times, such teams are as likely as forming an Arizona Project for climate. (That project, a response to the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, consisted of 38 journalists from around the nation who converged on Phoenix to find his murderers and to finish the corruption story Bolles had been working on when he was killed.)

Even if such large, collaborative teams are unrealistic in today’s news industry environment, the climate policy story ought to provide more opportunity for intelligent, creative journalists of all kinds to “out” the obfuscators and put the debate in proper weight-of-evidence and risk-analysis context. There ought to be more opportunity for investigative and computer-assisted reporting. We also need to keep in mind that to truly engage the American people, not just the political and business elites, we’ll need journalists who are great story-tellers.

Pooley’s paper is a call to reporters who haven’t “gotten it” yet that climate change is the great story of the century. But it’s especially a call to editors, publishers, and perhaps even shareholders. Let’s hope all who are considering disposal of the beat will read this paper, and think carefully. Joe Pulitzer would.

Conclusions Valid, but Unclear
Methodology Clouds Assessment

By Mark Neuzil, Ph.D.
Department of Communication and Journalism
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

I have no doubt that many of Eric Pooley’s conclusions are valid, based on research I have read or published myself.* But a problem arises when an author does not clearly describe the methodology used, making it difficult to assess the validity and reliability of Pooley’s research.

For example, how was his 40-story sample selected? Which newspapers were included in the potential pool? How was an article analyzed and assigned into one of his three categories? Was the article itself the unit of analysis? The headline? Were paragraphs counted? Sources counted? Were any statistical tests run on the results? We don’t know.

Pooley’s appendix lists three categories of results that can be summarized as Bad, (7 stories), Not Good (24 stories), and Good (9 stories). Among the difficulties in reporting data in this fashion is that a story in The New York Times is given exactly the same weight as a story in the Duluth News-Tribune. To paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen: I know the News-Tribune, and it is no New York Times.

In addition, Pooley discusses three case studies. The first is critical of national reporting from Washington, but nearly the entire critique is based on one story (from the Washington Post); that’s a problem because that Post article actually landed in his Good category. If you are using one of your Good journalism data points as one of your Bad discussion examples, you’ve got methodological problems.

In case No. 2, a Bad and a Good story are analyzed, but the Bad one is an awful TV news piece and his research is focused on print; no television journalism was included in the 40-story data set.

This research clearly was not conducted in a form standard to academic journals. If that were the case, the peer review would have been “revise and resubmit.”

*See, for example, Mark Neuzil, The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy (Northwestern University Press, 2008).

Reporting the Truth about the Facts

By Tom Yulsman
Co-Director
Center for Environmental Journalism
University of Colorado

Way back in 1947, the landmark Hutchins Commission, a panel of scholars convened to consider the future of journalism, reached this conclusion: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

In “How Much Would You pay to Save the Planet,” Eric Pooley argues that the American press must start living up to that responsibility – it must start reporting the truth about the facts of climate policy, not just the facts themselves – if society is to avoid a climatic “cataclysm.”

Pooley masterfully synthesizes the complexities of economic policy, politics, and press coverage to make that case. He argues persuasively that coverage of climate science by the press “has begun to mature.” It has done this by moving beyond “balance as bias” coverage typical of what he calls the “stenographer” role (reporting just the facts) and moving more into “referee” reporting (helping readers decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong by reporting the truth about the fact). By contrast, coverage of proposed cap-and-trade legislation in the United States shows that reporting on climate policy is firmly stuck in the stenographer role. As a result, journalists have allowed the terms of the policy debate to be “defined by opponents of climate action.”

The only weak spot in Pooley’s excellent paper is that he doesn’t quite make sufficiently clear that cap and trade is not the only, let alone the best, policy for preventing the climatic cataclysm he believes is coming unless societies act strongly. But his paper is not really about the merits of the policy per se, so this is a very minor flaw. In the end, the Hutchins Commission’s injunction of long ago resonates in Pooley’s conclusion: the press, he says, should be “an honest broker in this debate – sympathetic to the idea that change must come, yet rigorous in its analysis of competing claims.”

Pooley Makes Case for
Maintaining Journalism Excellence

By Dave Poulson
Associate Director
Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
Michigan State University

Most journalists have finally come to grips with balance as bias when reporting climate change science. But now Eric Pooley says that we’re blowing climate change economics much as we had climate change science.

The only thing more depressing is New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s assertion that he’d have to return to school to better understand the economic models.

There’s no shame in that. But think: The journalist likely with the most experience and knowledge of the climate change beat needs more education to report that angle. Even the Times‘ eight-person environmental reporting unit falls short of resources needed to adequately report climate change, says Pooley. He rightly wants to add a crack political reporter.

And what about those other organizations where most of the world gets its news?

In the midst of journalistic upheaval, we need an intensely focused research and development effort – the reporting equivalent of the race to the moon.

Universities must not only teach environmental journalists, they need to support their reporting – drawing upon academic values of outreach, independence, research, scholarship, experimentation.

Nonprofit foundations must support environmental news services that give journalists the time to get the story right and the venues to tell it.

Most important, self-sustaining journalism institutions must emerge. Pooley points the way: Making complex issues understandable and compelling is a recipe for relevance.

That takes faith by those who believe in quality journalism. In some ways it is like investing in windmills in hopes of creating green energy jobs.

Yet there is an enormous difference: In a free society there is no cap and trade on lousy journalism. You can’t tax a biased or poorly researched news story.

All you can do is build strong institutions that flood the market with credible, accurate and compelling information. Then it’s up to the readers.

But let’s give them quality of choice.


My Thanks to all Four Commenters

By Eric Pooley

Professor Neuzil raises questions about methodology; let me try to answer them.

My article is what the Shorenstein Center calls a discussion paper, meant to explore an issue and encourage debate, not a research paper destined for a peer-reviewed academic journal. My own experience as a consumer of climate policy reporting during the Lieberman-Warner debate told me that the coverage suffered from balance bias. I wanted to know if a sample of stories would reflect what I had noticed in real time. In other words, the content analysis was meant not simply to test a hypothesis, but also to complement my own reporting. As a result, my discussion goes well beyond the data set. This is why, for example, I write about a television news report that wasn’t in the data set.

To gather the data, my research assistant searched the standard news databases – Lexis-Nexis, Factiva, Ebscohost, Google News Archives – using the following search terms: 1. “lieberman and warner and economic.” 2. “lieberman and warner and study.” 3. “2191 and climate and economic.” 4. “lieberman and warner economic OR cost OR study.” From the resulting pool of stories, we identified 40 mainstream newspaper and newsmagazine articles that discussed the climate cost debate, and we included all of them. We excluded blog posts, editorials, opinion columns, and those news stories that made only passing mention of cost. Every news article that met our criteria was included. There were no arbitrary omissions.

Each of the 40 articles was then analyzed by both my assistant and me, based on a complete reading of the story. We assessed whether each piece was One-Sided, Nominally Balanced, or Balanced With Context and Analysis, and we assigned them to the corresponding categories. We did this independently and then compared our findings; they matched in most cases. In the few instances where we disagreed, we talked it over and re-assessed the evidence, and I made the final call.

Professor Neuzil writes, “If you are using one of your Good journalism data points as one of your Bad discussion examples, you’ve got methodological problems.” I disagree with this premise, which is based on a misapplication of my categories. The piece in question was not a “Bad discussion example,” to use his term. To use mine, it was not One-Sided. As my paper describes, the article begins with a classic example of unresolved “he said, she said” reporting (Nominally Balanced) then goes on to become a strong piece of news analysis (“Balanced with Context and Analysis”). To borrow Professor Neuzil’s typology, it began as Not Good and became Good, and that’s how I presented it in my discussion. Ultimately, it was “Balanced with Context and Analysis,” so that’s where it appeared in the data set.

While I agree with Bill Allen that few news organizations have the resources of
The New York Times, I can think of a half-dozen that could and should deploy climate-reporting teams; one of them is already doing so. (The Times, by the way, recently added a political reporter, John Broder, to its environmental unit.) But the strong work of individual reporters such as Deirdre Shesgreen, formerly of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, proves that one needn’t be part of a team to do right by this crucially important story.

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3 Responses to Commenting on Journalist Eric Pooley’s Analysis of Press Coverage of Climate Policy

  1. Beth Parke says:

    Thanks for links and in-depth treatment of some very important issues.

  2. Mac says:

    So many, many, meaningless words being used to re-inforce group-think on climate change.

    The language is clear – the orthodoxy of man-made global warming must be upheld in the real world even though it is only the virtual world, a place invented by scientists, that creates doom-laden headlines specifically for the media.

    Science is now no friend of the truth.

  3. Medvision says:

    Climate is always above from science and technologies which cannot predicted by science with accuracy, Some times these become true.