Media Watch
Climate change... them's fightin' words

By James Luidl
RMC Communications Team

media watch

One reason I left mainstream journalism was due to a media strategy I saw as “focusing on the controversy.” Too often I developed stories, only to have my boss ask, “What about the other side?” While my stories did a good job laying out issues and solutions, the insinuation was that they lacked conflict to make them more... infotaining.
Modern media specializes in conflict. They try cramming a big issue into a decreasing news space... or in the case of cable television, they create a shouting match to push ratings. Unfortunately, all too often the truth gets lost in a manufactured crap-slinging match with little or no resulting good.
This virus of conflict can even affect news outlets who devote proper time and expertise to a subject. The latest example was a story aired last month on Colorado Public Radio (CPR) Colorado Matters entitled “Experts explore whether climate change is causing extreme weather.” 
I encourage you to read and/or listen to the story. CPR did an okay job balancing the issue; they didn't indulge in an antagonistic shouting match. On the contrary, both guests agreed climate change is a problem. They only differed in how it affects weather. But that begs the question—are we even asking the right questions?
Beware the headline
A news story occurs after the headline. I understand the marketing significance of a headline, but it can frame the issue in a false light. “Does climate change cause extreme weather?” is not necessarily the correct question to ask. It's creating a fight where one doesn't exist. However, “Does climate change have an effect on extreme weather events?” is more accurate, but it doesn't really sizzle. But sizzle isn't the point of news-making. Education and truth are.
Headlines create expectations and run the risk of making someone dig in their heels before they read word one. If the goal of journalism is to educate and seek the truth, why posture in big bold print?
Who are we interviewing?
CPR represented both guests as scientists (listen to the audio), which they are not.  Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is a climatologist and atmospheric scientist, with degrees in meteorology from MIT.  Roger Peilke Jr. is a professor at the University of Colorado in the Environmental Studies Program.  His educational background is in mathematics (B.A) , public policy (M.A.) and political science (Ph.D.)  In essence Trenberth studies the climate, while Peilke talks about it's political impact.  There is a difference and it should have been pointed out from the get go.
Both men agree climate change is a problem, but they disagree on how quickly and to what degree the affects of climate change are impacting us. Otherwise they agree about 95% of the time.  But because both guests are put on an equal footing, their opinions on the science of climate change get equal footing.  Science is about what is, politics is what you do about it and they are not the same thing.
I'm not writing this to argue the veracity of either guest's point of view, you can do that for yourself... but I do take issue with the method. News doesn't have to be an either/or proposition, and while presenting opposing viewpoints may seem to play to the fairness of a news story, news in itself is not about being fair, it's about getting to the truth. A journalists job isn't to simply sit in between two opponents and play referee. Our job is not unlike a scientist. To ask questions and make sense out of complex issues for the general public's consumption.
To be honest, CPR's story is light years away from the hogwash, lapses of good sense and lack of facts that commercial media is guilty of... and the Internet (Well, let's not make my anger tumor get any larger than it already is...).There are valuable points of view from both guests. Is climate change affecting weather?  Of course. By how much? That may not be quantifiable right now, but it certainly doesn't mean you or I should ignore the writing on the wall, if not for us, then for those who come after.

Return to the March e-newsletter...

Home | Contact Us | En Español | Terms and Conditions of Use | Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Website Help

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © Sierra Club 2015.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.