Two weeks ago I attended a conference for environmental journalists. Throughout the week, a topic kept surfacing, both during official sessions and casual conversation: In environmental journalism is objectivity–that old notion that you have to present two, equal sides to every issue–an outdated and perhaps dangerous practice?
Opinions varied widely, and those with a background in traditional print journalism seemed to have the hardest time with the idea. After all, a reporter’s job isn’t to cloud the issue with opinion, but to simply deliver the facts. How can you do that if you don’t cover both sides?
I understand this instinct; it was drilled into us in journalism classes. However, like many others, I feel that its time has past when dealing with stories about environmental destruction at the hands of corporate polluters and especially climate change.
Interestingly, just a week after I returned home from the conference, the Los Angeles Times made history (and headlines) when it took an unprecedented stance on this exact issue.
Here’s the statement, made in a column called Postscript (the topic was fictional Obamacare exemptions):
Regular readers of The Times’ Opinion pages will know that, among the few letters published over the last week that have blamed the Democrats for the government shutdown (a preponderance faulted House Republicans), none made the argument about Congress exempting itself from Obamacare.
Why? Simply put, this objection to the president’s healthcare law is based on a falsehood, and letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there‘s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.
Many were aghast at this perceived bias coming from a newspaper. In fact, there were so many concerns that editor Paul Thornton was obliged to clarify its meaning in a subsequent editorial:
As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they “deny” it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom…
Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.
Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there‘s no sign humans have caused climate change“ is not stating an opinion, it‘s asserting a factual inaccuracy.
What Thornton so bravely asserts is that to write articles about climate change in which equal weight is given to the conclusions of the global scientific community and the fringe opinion that it’s an unproven theory is dangerous and a disservice to the public.
Yes, when it comes to reporting a crime, informing citizens about a zoning dispute or covering corruption in local government (it’s old news on the federal level, right?), both sides should be represented. In no way should reporters simply become mouthpieces for industry, regurgitating press releases without investigation.
However, when it comes to climate change, an issue that affects our very existence on this planet, to imply that there’s a fifty-fifty split or that it’s a controversy rather than a fact, is just plain old “inaccurate,” like Thornton said.
Since the LA Times took its stand on climate change, a grassroots campaign has been launched, targeting other major newspapers. Led by Forecast the Facts, the campaign asks editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal to adopt similar policies.
“Newspapers like the Times and the Post wouldn’t print letters from people who deny links between smoking and cancer,” said Forecast the Facts campaign director Daniel Souweine. “It’s high time they start applying the same standard to the human role in causing climate change, which has the exact same level of scientific certainty.”
The campaign gathered over 22,000 supporters in the first 24 hours, according to a press release.
Image via NASA