THE UNKNOWN SKEPTIC – Journalism, awaiting to be freed
AN ESSAY ON JAMES PAINTER’S “Poles Apart”
If I choose a side, It won’t take me for a ride – paraphrasing Peter Gabriel, 1975
Table of Contents
- The Quasi-Discovery Of the Natures of Skepticism
- Silent Sorrows In Dubious Sources
- In The Cage
- The Unconnected Dots
“This is a wide-ranging comparative study about the prevalence of climate skeptic voices in the print media in six countries: Brazil, China, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.”
That is the opening line of “Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” a report written by a team of researchers headed by James Painter for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) and the British Council; and a great example of all that is strange with contemporary (climate-mainstream) journalism: a mix of the sublime and of the much-less-than-sublime, where great insights and surprisingly clear expositions have to coexist with stunning simplifications, abysmal naïvetés and incredibly one-sided analyses fed by an almost existential neglect of a large chunk of reality.
Hosted by the British Council in London on November 10, 2011 (live microblogging here), the launch event for “Poles Apart” saw Mr Painter accompanied by a panel composed by Rebecca Nadin, author of the China section of the report; Yves Sciama, French science/environment journalist and author; and (via internet videoconference) Andy Revkin, former environment journalist at the New York Times where he still manages the “Dot Earth” blog. The panel chair was John Lloyd, well-known journalist and Director of Journalism at the RISJ.
As described in its Executive Summary, the aims of the study were:
“to track any increase in the amount of space given to skeptical voices over the two periods and to map significant differences both between countries and within the print media of the same country”
The two periods were Feb-Ap 2007 and mid-Nov 2009 to mid-Feb 2010. The former was chosen to cover the after-effects of the publication of the latest assessment of climate change science by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latter included the aftermath of both ‘Climategate‘ (the unauthorised 17 Nov 2009 release of 1,000 emails and other documents taken by as-yet-unspecified individuals from the archives of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA)) and the giant 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen (7-18 Dec).
The effort behind “Poles Apart” has been truly remarkable, with an analysis of almost 5,000 newspaper articles, taken “in most countries” from “ an example of a left-leaning and a right-leaning newspaper”. This is because the authors:
“were also interested in exploring whether there was a correspondence between the prevalence of skeptical voices and the political leaning of a newspaper”
Results roughly followed along the same line, at least in some countries. According to the press release accompanying “Poles Apart”:
“the researchers discovered a link between the amount of coverage given to climate skeptics and the political viewpoint of newspaper titles in the UK and the US”
“this link did not appear in the other study countries – Brazil, France and India”
Mr Painter summarised in the press release the report conclusions about what is behind the differences:
“There are politicians in the UK and the US who espouse some variation of climate skepticism. Both countries also have organisations for ‘climate change skeptics’ that provide a skeptical voice for the media, particularly in those media outlets that are more receptive to this message. This is why we see more skeptical coverage in the Anglo-Saxon countries than we do in the other countries in the study where one or more of those factors appear to be absent”
Remarkably, “Poles Apart” recognizes there are several forms of climate skepticism. It even contains a varied definition of “skeptic”, as somebody holding one or more of the following views (see Appendix 2, item 8, page 121 in the report)
- global temperatures are not warming
- global temperatures are warming but a) the anthropogenic contribution (burning fossil fuels) to global warming or climate change is over-stated, negligible, or non-existent compared to other factors like natural variations or sun spots or b) it is not known with any or enough certainty what the main causes are
- anthropogenic global warming is happening but a) it is not known with enough certainty what the impacts will be, due to inadequacies of climate modelling or other doubts; b) urgent action by governments and/or substantial government spending (on all or some aspects of mitigation or adaptation) to counter AGW is not necessary
However, for reasons that are never made clear, the six categories are often conflated throughout the report, and skepticism in one or more aspects of climate change is short-handed into a meaningless phrasing, “climate skepticism”. And rather strangely, “Poles apart” closes with a quote by “veteran British environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean”, somehow throwing in the air the whole idea of the relevance of a focus on “skeptical voices”:
“We should be debating not scientific certainty, but risk – or more precisely, what levels of risk we are prepared to take with the futures of our children and grandchildren”
That’s one of several instances where “Poles Apart” comes close to undermining its own raison d’être.