Shoptalk: Warming to an Idea

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By: Bud Ward

Throughout 2007, newspaper editors, faced with a certain “inconvenient truth,” will need to probe bedrock journalistic principles. Does the emerging global warming crisis pit the two hallmarks of accuracy and balance against each other?

Starting in early February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ? a joint effort of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization ? will release its much-awaited Fourth Assessment Report, based on the findings of thousands of the world’s most respected climate scientists. As the most authoritative reference on global warming, our influence on it, and what it means for our future, these reports are at the core of our understanding of climate change.

Editors will be in a sensitive position. On a science-driven issue with so much at stake, how do they ensure their coverage accurately and fairly represents the state of accepted scientific knowledge?

Major news organizations over the past few years have often acknowledged the growing scientific consensus that excessive emissions of carbon dioxide are directly affecting our climate. Increasingly they are going beyond tired “he said/she said” formulaic coverage of the issue. More and more of them recognize that the professional scientific community overwhelmingly accepts the troubling underlying science on the issue.

IPCC’s reports are widely recognized as the gold standard on climate change, the term many scientists prefer to the more colloquial “global warming.” Following the traditional journalistic approaches made popular in Journalism 101, the media long had sought to “balance” the IPCC findings with the contrarian views of a handful of professional doubting scientists ? or, far worse, political operatives.

That often made for good copy, but not for good science reporting.

Like long-forsaken efforts to “balance” the coverage of health impacts of tobacco, that approach has pretty much fallen by the wayside as editors strive to balance not mere opinion, but scientific evidence. For every Galileo, as they say, there are thousands of wannabes and pretenders. “Balancing” a few paid deniers against the broad consensus of thousands of the world’s climate experts no longer cuts it.

The IPCC “Working Group I” scientific report, scheduled to be released in early February, is the first of several due from the IPCC during the year. They arrive at a time not only of growing international and domestic concern, but also at a moment of broadening corporate and private sector recognition of a need to act on, and not just further study, the challenge.

Changes in the makeup of the congressional leadership in Washington and prospects that climate-change initiatives will be included in both political parties’ strategic planning for the next presidential election further heighten the immediacy of the issue. But in the end, it may be that increased recognition of climate change as a critical local story is even more important.

For that strong scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, coupled with growing pressures from states and localities, is transforming the “global warming” story into one that transcends the science desk or environmental beat.

So pervasive are the projected impacts of climate change that newsrooms across the country are starting to ? or should in the near future ? factor it into stories dealing with local development, tourism, agriculture, education, forestry, construction of housing, and local infrastructure, to name just a few issues.

Editors, however, need to appreciate the subtle but important distinctions the scientific community applies to terms such as uncertainty, evidence, prove and disprove, and correlation and causality. So-called experts speaking in absolutes and “beliefs” ? and not acknowledging legitimate uncertainties ? may well be dabbling more in political science than in the earth and climate sciences. Editors should also establish mentorships with scientists from nearby universities and community colleges ? “breakfasts with eggheads” is the term Canadian scientists and journalists endearingly use ? to complement their own internal science resources.

Along with providing excellent scientific background, that approach also is likely to lead to climate-change impact stories in your own communities.

Most importantly, editors should recognize that the time has come for climate change coverage to evolve from “whether” it is occurring to “what” to do about it. This evolution will present them with fertile fields for outstanding community journalism. And all of this can be accomplished without sacrificing the journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness at the altar of a false balance that serves only to mislead.

Bud Ward, a journalism educator, editor, and writer, was one of the founders of the Society for Environmental Journalism and a former commentator on the environment for National Public Radio. He lives in Virginia.

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