‘False Balance’ in Some Coverage of Carolina Sea-Level Controversy

When lawmakers considered a bill to effectively outlaw sea-level science, some news outlets adopted the ‘he said, she said’ model of reporting on scientific controversy.

North Carolina legislators became a subject of national mockery in June when they considered a bill that would have outlawed preparations for projected — and accelerated — sea-level rise.

Stephen Colbert lampooned the bill in a five-minute segment on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. Bloggers excoriated the proposal in Scientific American and the Huffington Post, and at Grist, Jess Zimmerman called the bill “crazeballs.”

But as commentators snickered at the state’s expense, many local and national news reporters studiously presented “both sides” of the controversial bill. In some cases, their reporting positioned dubious scientific claims alongside the work of career scientists, without providing a clear evidence-based explanation.

In doing so, some reporters may have left readers unsure of whether lawmakers were taking a cautious approach to scientific uncertainties — or putting coastal dwellers at risk.

What Does The Evidence Say?

Tidal records show sea levels along the North Carolina coast rising at a slow pace. A tidal gauge in the port city of Wilmington shows that sea levels increased about two millimeters a year between 1935 and 2002, or about eight inches per century. At the northern Outer Banks town of Duck, where the land is slowly sinking, measurements show that sea levels are rising at a rate of close to 17 inches a century.

But scientists looking into the issue expect sea-level rise to accelerate around the world during the 21st century as land-based ice sheets melt and rising temperatures cause oceans to warm and expand. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that seas could rise by 0.6 to 1.9 feet. Many scientists view this projection as overly conservative, and more recent studies predict a global sea-level rise of two to 6.5 feet by 2100, according to a report by the National Research Council.

In North Carolina, a panel of scientists and engineers drew on those projections and in a 2010 report said the state should plan for 39 inches of sea-level rise by 2100.

Rise of A Sea-Level Controversy

Soon after the science panel issued its projection, the coastal-development group NC-20 denounced the report as faulty science (see related story on the controversy). Imposing regulations to account for rising waters, NC-20 members said, would stymie the coastal economy and send insurance rates soaring.

Writer Kirk Ross, in a story published on the website of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an environmental advocacy group, broke the story this May that the state’s Republican-led General Assembly was considering the idea of legislating the sea-level problem away. House Bill 819 would have prohibited coastal cities and towns from taking accelerating sea-level rise into account as they plan new development.

Instead, the bill said, state and local regulations would be based only on projections from historical sea-level data — so regulators would plan for as little as eight inches of rise over the next century.

After the measure attracted national ridicule, the state House unanimously rejected the bill. In early July, both chambers of the General Assembly passed a watered-down version imposing a four-year moratorium on sea-level regulations and ordering a new scientific study of the issue.

On the One-Hand-This, The-Other-Hand-That Studies …

By mid-July, reporters for two North Carolina papers and several national papers and wire services had produced at least 22 stories about the sea-level bill. The Yale Forum reviewed stories about the bill that appeared in two of North Carolina’s metro dailies, The (Raleigh) News & Observer (where this correspondent interned in 2008) and Wilmington’s Star-News. The Yale Forum also analyzed stories distributed nationwide by North Carolina-based reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times, and one story for U.S. News & World Report by a D.C.-based intern.

In writing the news stories, reporters largely played it straight, taking a pass on making jokes while delivering solid information about the status of the bill as it worked its way through the legislature. Yet reporters took a variety of approaches to handling competing claims about how much sea levels might rise by 2100.

In eight of those 22 stories, reporters positioned the scientific claims of sea-level skeptics alongside the work of career scientists, with no clear explanation of who might be right.

In a story for the Los Angeles Times, for example, David Zucchino framed the controversy as a “he said, she said” debate. (Zucchino, like this correspondent, has taught at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Zucchino wrote that “Stanley R. Riggs, an East Carolina University geologist and one of 19 scientists who made the 39-inch projection, said the bill represents ‘a criminally serious disregard for science.’”

Zucchino also listed the sources the state’s science panel had relied on to obtain its 39-inch projection: tide gauges, satellite altimetry, storm records, and geologic data.

But readers also learned that others had developed their own estimate of how much seas will rise: only eight inches. The bill’s supporters derived this prediction from “tide gauges and carbon dioxide levels,” and also from “studies that project no or minimal sea-level rise.”

NC-20 chairman Tom Thompson, economic development director for coastal Beaufort County, told Zucchino that the 39-inch prediction is “dishonest statistically” and that climate change is “‘a phobia’ pushed by environmentalists.” Zucchino’s story did not offer an explanation of how Thompson justified those characterizations.

Nor did the story elaborate on or contest Thompson’s claim that seas would only rise eight inches, even though there is a scientific consensus that sea-level rise will accelerate during the 21st century.

Some Stories Point to Scientific Consensus

Among those 22 stories reviewed, 12 contained at least a kernel of information to help readers understand the scientific context of the controversy. Like the Los Angeles Times story described above, many of the stories described dueling studies and pitted scientists against less-credible sources making scientific claims. But 12 of those stories included one or more sentences on where the balance of scientific evidence lies.

A story for The News & Observer, for example, included a scientifically dubious claim by NC-20 chairman Tom Thompson: “To say 39 inches in 88 years is just so far outside the historical realm, it’s just impossible,” Thompson told the paper.

But reporter Bruce Siceloff noted that an acceleration in sea-level rise had “been predicted by several national scientific societies and other scientists.”

Similarly, a passage from a story in the Star-News described two opposing claims about sea-level rise. Reporter Patrick Gannon wrote that the state’s science panel “recommended that a sea level rise of 39 inches, or 1 meter, be adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by the year 2100 for policy development and planning purposes.”

The story then quoted state Senator David Rouzer, who said that other, unnamed scientists dispute the 39-inch projection and that “state policies shouldn’t be based on the ‘thinking of massive global warming’ by one group of scientists.”

In this story, the reporter did provide some context for the two claims, acknowledging the state science panel’s view that “there is consensus among scientists that the rate of rise will increase this century and beyond at least in part because of global warming and the melting of polar ice caps.”

Reporting Controversy in Context

In a handful of stories, reporters provided details about the scientific context of the sea- level controversy.

In a News & Observer story reporting on a USGS study that found that sea level rise has accelerated along the East Coast, for instance, reporters Bruce Siceloff and J.N. Miller wrote that “Global sea level is projected to rise 2 to 3 feet or more by the end of the 21st century, but will not climb at the same rate everywhere. Differences in land movements, strength of ocean currents, water temperatures and salinity can affect sea-level highs and lows.” Their story did not include any information or quotes contesting such claims.

In another News & Observer story, headlined “Numbers in sea-level debate not so simple,” reporter Kerstin Nordstrom described the origins of two numbers that figured prominently in the sea level controversy: eight inches and 39 inches.

Nordstrom explained that the eight-inch figure was based on historical data from the southern part of the coast. “Since the ocean rose eight inches during the last century, legislators would require that governments assume a rise of eight inches during the next century, at least in that part of the state,” she wrote. “The future will look like the past.”

She went on to explain that the science panel had opted for an estimate of more than eight inches because of “the widely held idea that a warming atmosphere will accelerate the rise in sea level over the next century.”

Readers learned from that story what causes sea-level rise: sinking land, melting glaciers, and expansion of ocean waters in a warmer atmosphere. The story also explained, through quotes from geologist Stanley Riggs, that the science panel at first had predicted a range for how much the sea could rise by 2100, between 20 and 55 inches. But, Nordstrom wrote that “the state requested a single number, so the panel somewhat begrudgingly chose 39 inches.”

Nordstrom’s article clearly and accurately described the scientific context for the sea-level debate. But her story was a rarity in a sea of “balanced” stories about the controversy.

News Balance as Bias?

Some scientists and media researchers have criticized American journalists for taking a “balanced” approach to coverage of science, giving equal weight to each side of a controversy without sufficient regard for the preponderance of evidence.

Amid such criticisms, most journalists at major U.S. newspapers in recent years have moved away from “balanced” coverage in stories about climate change science, as University of Colorado media researcher Maxwell T. Boykoff has documented. His research shows that by 2006, the proportion of climate news stories with a “false balance” had dropped to about 3 percent of coverage (see related story).

More recently, Boykoff and colleagues have demonstrated that between 1989 and 2009, most journalists at major newspapers have accurately reported scientific predictions about sea-level rise.

There are some concerns in journalism circles that all that could change as communities begin to make controversial decisions about whether to retreat from the coasts or to continue investing in shoreline infrastructure …. and as metropolitan news outlets continue shrinking their news and editorial staffs and rely more and more on general assignment reporters. As communities make their sea-level decisions, more lawmakers and interest groups are likely to invoke the imprimatur of science, as they have in North Carolina, to claim “the science” supports this or that view of future sea-level rise.

An unknown involves whether there will be a vigilant and watchful news media to provide the public an independent arbiter concerning the future of their coastal resources.

Additional Reading

Not surprisingly in these days of deep staff cuts at metro dailies, much of the in-depth reporting about the North Carolina sea-level controversy emerged outside of daily newspapers.

  • The Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham, N.C.-based independent media organization founded by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, dug into campaign finance reports to show that the real estate industry has been generous to lawmakers who supported the bill to stop sea-level regulations.
  • The Independent Weekly, an alt-weekly headquartered in Durham, examined the people and organizations behind NC-20, the interest group supporting the bill.
  • WRAL.com, the online affiliate of the Raleigh-based television news station, took a look at the scientific credentials of John Droz, a leading critic of the prediction that seas could rise by 39 inches. WRAL.com reported that Droz “has yet to publish a single peer-reviewed article in any credible journal.”
  • In a Q&A format, New Scientist discusses the basic evidence for sea-level rise, explaining why some studies show a deceleration in sea-level rise.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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12 Responses to ‘False Balance’ in Some Coverage of Carolina Sea-Level Controversy

  1. Legislators should not miss the opportunity to outlaw sea level rise.
    Only when rising seas are illegal and forbidden by law, then something will change.

    Nice article. Thanks.

  2. Nullius in Verba says:

    I’m not sure what it is you’re proposing. Are you arguing science journalists should determine the majority scientific opinion? In which case, we need to see survey results – how many scientists, how were they selected for sampling, what proportion for each alternative.

    We’re given the IPCC’s view of 0.6-1.9 ft, and the IPCC is often taken as the ‘consensus’ position. But here we’re told “many” scientists think that’s conservative and “several” societies and scientists have predicted an acceleration. But you don’t say how many and you don’t say by how much they outnumber or outrank the IPCC and you don’t say why we should accept their view over the IPCC’s.

    Or are you arguing that simply reporting the range of opinions is not enough, and the science journalist ought to be taking sides? If so, how do they decide which side to take?

    The best answer it seems to me would be to decide on the basis of the evidence, but that would mean digging in to the science, understanding the basis of the predictions, analysing the areas of and reasons for disagreement, and summarising these in an easily understandable form. Then readers will be educated, will be able to judge for themselves what is credible and known, and the guided towards an attitude of making decisions based on evidence rather than authority.

    But perhaps you disagree, or don’t think it’s an easy thing to do? I see various assertions that positions are “scientifically dubious” but no explanations as to why, or in what way. I see it stated that sea level rise is projected to accelerate, but you don’t explain why this must be so. That there are a wide range of views and wide uncertainty bands is noted, but you don’t explain why.

    What is the argument about? Is it disagreement over the transient climate sensitivity, or the validity of the models of ice sheet dynamics, or the balance between snow build-up from increased precipitation in a moister atmosphere and ice loss, or the changing circulation of warm sea currents, or the way river deltas and alluvial plains are formed, or how quickly a 2 C temperature change can conduct through a 3 km thick ice sheet at an average temperature of -40 C, and how much melting this will induce?

    Reading your article, I still wouldn’t know. Instead of he-said-she-said with the reader left confused as to who to believe, we seem to have simply moved to he-said-she-said where the reader is told who to believe.

    The result, I would predict, is that readers will feel confirmed if they agree with your choices, and will dismiss it entirely if either the authorities or conclusions cited are not to their taste.

    And because the detailed science itself has not been invoked, it will be done based on politics and tribal loyalties – which is where consensus and authority arguments live.

    False balance is easy to do when quoting opinions backed only by authority, but much harder to make convincing when you have to explain the evidence on both sides so it can be understood.

    • Phil Mattheis says:

      “Stupidity” describes the words or actions of ‘smart’ people who should know better, but act or speak out of misdirected self interest, to prevent adaptation to new data or existing circumstances (short version of wikipedia on that topic).

      In posts related to climate change (particularly in comments sections), longish answers by people who won’t use their names tend to be distracting “stupidity” – thanks for the example.

      Sara Peach provides a review of recent news literature, with specific citations to support her investigation, into apparent false balance in much of the journalistic treatment of climate change. Of 22 published articles, 8 provided no distinctions regarding credibility of the competing viewpoints, 12 made some attempt to explain at least some of the very complicated science, and 2 went into great detail to explain that science.

      Her summary is much the same as yours: “False balance is easy to do when quoting opinions backed only by authority, but much harder to make convincing when you have to explain the evidence on both sides so it can be understood.” However, you seem upset that she didn’t choose your preferred authorities, who would allow or insist that we wait to act until some undefined standard is met at some later date.

      Here’s an example of journalism about the active impact of climate change, which requires no complicated science to interpret, with many real world examples:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/us/rise-in-weather-extremes-threatens-infrastructure.html?_r=1&smid=tw-nytimes&seid=auto

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        The “ad hominem abusive” has been known since ancient times. Thanks for the example.

        I’m not upset. I’m simply asking what she proposes journalists do about it. If the idea is to use argument ad populam and count opinions, then you need surveys with all the usual background data. And if the idea is for the journalist to decide themselves which side to back, how do they do that? And how do they present it?

        Do you offer the alternative conclusions with no guidance, do you tell the reader what to believe, or do you explain the science behind each conclusion?

        The citations demonstrate that many journalists do pick neutrality over partisanship, and don’t explain what the scientific argument is about. I’d accept that’s probably true. They likely don’t themselves understand the science sufficiently to explain it, and they are weak in faith.

        But is faith enough? Are articles that simply assert which side is right really an improvement?

  3. Bill Price says:

    NC CRC Science Panel SLR planning would take property rights from hundreds of thousands of local, farmers, fishermen, retired people and workers of all sorts.
    The US Bill of Rights prohibits government from taking citizens property without just compensation. 
    Certainly, if Sea Level Rise is going to accelerate, we need to know it and plan for it, but the Science Panel said they only did a simple Literature Search, ( not science) and they have declined to answer simple questions. Why?
    NC Lawmakers have an obligation to make sure the scientific theories are the best valid science available, not science based on Comedy or Political objectives, before they allow unelected State Agencies to take peoples’ property. 
    Do you know what the impact of 39″ SLR Planing would be on Local People?
    Do you know why the CRC Science Panel as refused to answer simple questions?
    Do you know why an Educational Institution would decline to do a 150 year Comparative Survey of the NC Coast , and then invite Ramsdorff to a secret SLR planning Strategy meeting?
    Do you Care?

    Bill Price  Pine Knoll Shores

  4. Bill Price says:

    Ms. Peach,
    Have you noticed the extreme level of hostile comment from environmentalists from all over the world to the NC SLR Law?
    What motivates such vituperation?
    Bill Price

    • Zach Broughe says:

      Bill Price:

      “What motivates such vituperation?”

      Zach Broughe:

      “Ignorance,Intolerance, and of course your boys,
      the Koch Brothers.”

  5. Windy says:

    “Some scientists and media researchers have criticized American journalists for taking a “balanced” approach to coverage of science, giving equal weight to each side of a controversy without sufficient regard for the preponderance of evidence.”

    I have great concerns that journalists who may approach a story with the intent of objectivity, are being subjected to pressure by pressure groups from either side of an issue. I am not a journalist but I imagine that journalists constantly struggle to be objective when they are under fire from pressure groups political or otherwise. I’ve already seen cases were Andy Revkin was pressured by a climate scientist for offering (not advocating) a perspective that differed from that of the climate scientist.

    I’ve also read examples in the Climategate emails of how climate scientists find journalists who are sympathetic to their views and use them to push the scientists views in the public arena. So in some cases there are journalists who provide no balance let alone false balance in which case false balance would be an improvement. I imagine that the scientist that makes a statement that those who disregard his research are thus “criminal” in their disregard, would try to pressure a journalist into only presenting his version of the issue, and trying to convince the journalist that any other view would not only be false balance but also “criminal”.
    I can understand where a journalist would cave to authority for fear of printing something that may lead to inaction and consequences of death and destruction. What a guilt trip to have to deal with.

    The hardest aspect in assessing the sea level rise issue for me came into clearer focus in June when the AGU released a new study by a world renown polar research team, on glacier melt in Antarctica. It changed my thinking as it was a slap in the face sobering moment of reality for me. The AGU stated:

    “A team of scientists have drilled holes through an Antarctic ice shelf, the Fimbul Ice Shelf, to gather the first direct measurements regarding melting of the shelf’s underside. A group of elephant seals, outfitted with sensors that measure salinity, temperature, and depth sensors added fundamental information to the scientists’ data set, which led the researchers to conclude that parts of eastern Antarctica are melting at significantly lower rates than current models predict.”

    I found this disconcerting. The idea that models were not based on any direct physical evidence (remember this is the first ever direct measurement) of how glaciers in Antarctica actually melt or not, was news to me. I can’t recall an instance were a journalist ever mentioned that melt predictions and sea level rise predictions were based on Antarctic models that were in essence WAGs and ultimately wrong (Colbert would probably say these models were a good example of truthiness). This leads to wonder, isn’t it incumbent upon a journalist to check for facts and if they report on claims of Antarctic ice loss or sea level rise claims based on Antarctic ice loss, shouldn’t they at least have known that it was only based on models that contained no direct evidence? Wouldn’t that have been an important element of the story for readers to know?

    Further research led me to the Zwally and Giovinetto 2011 reanalysis of the 10 year GRACE satellite data, which is a study based more direct measurement (not models), indicating that earlier measurements of mass balance loss were too high and that the Antarctic was losing far less ice than earlier reports. So the AGU study helps me understand how the earlier reports of ice melt were exaggerated and why the models were wrong. Again though why haven’t journalists even mad the distinction between studies based on direct evidence vs. studies based on models when they report? There is a huge difference and I am left to do my own research to learn methodology used in a study cited in the journalists article.

    I raise the above information for the reason of asking why weren’t the journalists questioning the veracity of the models before things like I described above occurred? This brings me back to my initial concern about pressure groups and journalists contending with such pressures. I have to consider that journalists ARE pressured and I have to wonder if the term false balance is being used as a means of “safe harbor” for the journalist who is faced with group pressure to report on something in a preferred way?

    • John says:

      Windy, you might want to broaden your research to something besides WUWT, which has featured both of the scientific contributions you mention. Zwally and Giovinetto’s results, others have found controversial. Admittedly, trying to estimate ice loss at the continental scale is extremely difficult. I think they would both admit they aren’t the last word. You should also check http://www.carbonbrief.org, for example.

      • Windy says:

        WUWT was not how I came upon the information in my post so any flaws in my comment or logic are strictly my own. Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Rob Painting says:

    Windy – the GRACE satellites only ‘observe’ gravity, or mass. The modeling enables science to determine whether this change is due to exchange of water/ice mass, or influenced by changes going on in the Earth’s mantle. One also has to disentangle seasonal, and multi-year, changes related to natural exchanges of water mass between the oceans and land – which are going on at the same time. It’s a complicated business.

    If you ain’t modeling you ain’t doing science. It really is that simple. And it does explain why contrarians object so much to modeling – they’re not really interested in the science.

    Getting back to North Carolina, they are one region of the Earth that can ill-afford to ignore the science on sea level rise. Not only is the US east coast in a region that is currently still subsiding as a result of the loss of the giant Laurentide ice sheet which once sat over Canada, but it will see greater-than-average sea level rise if the majority of land-ice loss comes from the Antarctic ice sheet – as it did in previous interglacials.

  7. Nullius in Verba says:

    Rob,

    There’s no objection to ‘modelling’ per se from sceptics. The problem is *unvalidated* modelling.

    All models are wrong, but some are useful – to a certain accuracy, within a certain limited domain, with a certain confidence. But before you can use it, you have to *know* what the limits are. You use the model to predict the consequence of a range of circumstances, and then you go out and measure the real world to see if the model is right. If you find it almost always is, then you can be confident of its predictions – to the observed accuracy, with a confidence based on the amount of testing you’ve done, for circumstances close to those you’ve tested.

    That’s what sceptics mean when they talk about wanting empirical observations instead of models. The model output, and our confidence in the conclusions, is based on the empirical testing done. It’s that testing we want you to tell us about, so we can judge how far to trust the model.

    I agree that future sea level rise is a *very* serious matter economically, which is precisely why we shouldn’t be using unvalidated, inaccurate models to do it with.