How the U.S. Media Fumbled "Climategate" and Other Climate Coverage

July 15, 2010

The Beat


Coverage of environmental issues is a common target of conservative commentators' critiques of the U.S. news media.

In a prominent recent case, pundits, joined by other climate-change skeptics, alleged that national media did a poor job in covering two stories related to climate science — especially compared to journalists in some other places, such as the United Kingdom.

One of those stories started last November when scientists' emails were stolen or leaked from Britain's Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) — a subject controversially but successfully dubbed "Climategate."

The second story involved subsequent revelations about a few errors in the voluminous 2007 reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Did the American media fall short on these stories? To gauge expert opinion on that question, SEJournal surveyed four close observers and analysts of the way that climate issues are covered:

  • Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and a former president of SEJ.
  • Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate, a Web publication that aggregates news and publishes its own reports about climate issues.
  • Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media and a co-founder of SEJ. [Disclosure: I am a regular contributor to the Yale Forum.]
  • Tom Yulsman, associate professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism & Mass Communication and co-director of the university's Center for Environmental Journalism.

Responses by Fagin, Fischer and Ward to a list of questions from SEJournal are presented first. Below that are some thoughts shared by Fischer and Yulsman, specifically addressing the performance of local and regional media.

SEJournal: Do you think the U.S. media did fumble the ball in covering these developments, as some critics allege?

Fagin: The coverage was deplorably shallow, though this is hardly surprising in the case of television. What was more disturbing was the failure of many print outlets to get past the shouting and do real analysis of the underlying merit of the respective arguments.

The story of the hacked e-mails was absolutely worth covering; it was a window into deep and interesting questions about why and how we are failing as a society to come to grips with our impacts on climate. Almost all of the coverage, including in print, missed the opportunity and stayed shallow, unfortunately.

Fischer: The U.S. media didn't fumble. It never really touched the ball. This was chiefly a story covered by the British press and the blogosphere, and there were notable gaps, omissions, over-inflation and errors in that coverage. During the height of the frenzy — last fall and winter — the scientists over at had what seemed like a post a week refuting some accusation or another raised by the British tabloids.

Our archives [at The Daily Climate] show almost 3,700 stories this year and last with the words "Climategate," "IPCC," "emails," or "Anglia." At least 600 are from U.K., with the Guardian writing 228 stories alone. In contrast, the AP had 132.

I'm painting with a broad brush here, but to the extent the U.S. media covers climate, it focuses on the politics and the hyper-local — the Senate climate bill, a state's renewable energy portfolio, a local solar installation. This wasn't a story most reporters in the U.S. felt they were comfortable wading into. I think most simply decided — wisely, in my view — to sit it out.

Ward: U.S. news media got off to a predictable start with (weekend) New York Times and Washington Post front-page stories. Pretty straight, the Times piece was a bit more interpretative. But the media fell too early for the "gate" suffix, as if the hacked emails fiasco could ever be on a scale with Watergate. That was an early victory for those wanting to overstate and over-interpret the meaning of the emails. And it stuck.

Newsweeklies for too long were somewhat MIA, but less so on their online posts, where some of their better early coverage was at least adequate if not outstanding. Only the AP's review of the entire email deluge, and the reporters' independent conclusions (matching those of most climatologists), put the mass media seriously on the story in a big way. Not surprisingly, it had the effect of somewhat shutting off the news valve on this issue while Copenhagen talks moved to center stage. As a result of this and other aspects of the story generally (combined, again, with shrinking news hole at many local papers), the story was seldom addressed substantively beyond the national and a few larger regional dailies.

The biggest fumble was to sit back and allow "gate" to take hold and become standard. One other early misstep, in my opinion, involved too much focus on the "who" and "how" of the story — who stole or hacked the e-mails, and how — and not enough focus on the "what" — what the e-mail messages themselves actually did say … and what they meant not only for the appearance and perception of climate change but also, and more important, for the underlying science.

SEJournal: Who did an exemplary job, if you think someone did?

Fagin: The Guardian's "Climate Wars" [a multi-part project], with its emphasis on annotation from qualified commenters, was an excellent if imperfect experiment, I think. The AP also distinguished itself with analytic coverage that separated spin from reality.

Fischer: The AP's Seth Borenstein deserves serious accolades for his sophisticated, reasoned and calm reporting on this and other efforts to undermine the accumulated body of climate science.  

He debunked the cooling-trend brouhaha about a year ago by giving statisticians' blind temperature data and asking them to analyze the numbers for trends. His December analysis of the UEA emails really should have shut the door on the controversy. Alas, even the AP has only so much pull.

Ward: No one in the mass media comes close to doing as good a job as The Economist, particularly with its March "Spin, Science and Climate Change" cover story. Simply the best explanation of the whole climate "controversy" (in wake of CRU emails and the IPCC Himalayan glaciers-disappearing blunder) anywhere.  

Bryan Walsh for Time online and Sharon Begley for Newsweek also performed credibly, though neither was out particularly early on the story and its implications.

SEJournal: What impacts of the emails/IPCC controversy have you seen, if any, on coverage?

Fagin: It has accelerated the pre-existing trend toward treating climate as a partisan/political story instead of a science and policy story. That trend obviously plays into the hands of those who believe that this issue is about ideology and not about measurable, analyzable data.

Fischer: This is where the blogosphere comes into play as a culture-changing force. The story had tremendous legs and was particularly attractive to opponents of any effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. What this did was very effectively re-open science debate to skeptics. That door had been — rightly or wrongly — closed on the policy front. That's certainly not the case anymore.

I tend not to cover politics; I can get a bit isolated out here in Boulder. So I vividly remember being jolted into the political reality of this story when five GOP House members arrived at the Copenhagen talks last December and denounced any effort to craft a climate treaty based on "corrupt science."

Ward: A number of developments in the past few months have had the effect of "chilling" coverage, but none more so than the continuing economic challenges impairing serious journalism overall. Barbs from Joe Romm and from, the departure of [Andrew] Revkin [from his reporting job at The New York Times], Copenhagen shortcomings, the seeming stall on legislation in Washington, and the drawn-out and bloody health care fight, along with much of political Big Media's unquenchable thirst for Sarah Palin and for Tea Party politics, all play into how climate is covered, isn't, and how many column inches and air minutes for something as obscure as a melting planet.

The "tone" of coverage of climate has changed in lots of ways — deservedly or otherwise. Climate scientists, in large part because of impact of the CRU emails, no longer stand on a pedestal, no longer seem untouchable, above it all. They're fair game, and media are granting them fewer passes, rightly becoming more skeptical (in the best sense of that word, not as usually applied in climate change).

Through it all, media awareness that the underlying scientific evidence remains strong. Few — other than on editorial pages or in fringe publications or on bloviating talk shows — see it differently.

SEJournal: Are there lessons for journalists in their future climate coverage?

Fagin: The lessons are all too familiar: Dig deeper, look for evidence in the form of credible data and independent experts, and resist the temptation to reduce every issue to the same tired and misleading partisan dichotomy.

Fischer: This is a tough one. The frenzy in the British press is easy to understand: A bunch of hyper-competitive tabloids chasing after a juicy story, all trying to find scoops and exclusives, gleefully pointing out errors in other coverage while making mistakes in their own. It was fascinating, in a way, to watch.

I think what you saw here was just journalism at work. These scientists had been almost canonized. The IPCC was seen as the gold standard. At the first signs of a crack in that edifice, the media pounced. That's what journalists are supposed to do. We can complain about gaps and omissions and errors, but this is just the first draft of history, after all.

As various panels and inquiries clear the email authors and the IPCC, the storyline is changing. Again, I'm painting broadly here. I do think it'll be interesting to look back in five years or so and see what sort of impact this has had and how it all shakes out.

Ward: Those on a pedestal — particularly those who are largely responsible for putting themselves on that pedestal — are bound to fall at some point. Media should appreciate the need for heightened independence and journalistic skepticism without buying into views of "professional skeptics" — read, contrarians — above all else.

Another lesson (not easy in the current journalistic economic environment): Cover the process of science, and not simply the final peer-reviewed product, the peer-reviewed publication at the end of the scientific process. Again, not easy, or likely, in the current newsroom economic climate.

Local and regional coverage

SEJournal posed a separate set of questions about local and regional coverage to Fischer alone, specifically seeking his appraisal, based on his regular and intensive review of coverage for The Daily Climate's aggregation of climate news.

Yulsman chose to offer reflections on local and regional coverage as general response to the questions listed above with question-by-question responses from Fagin, Fischer and Ward.

SEJournal: How did the emails/IPCC story play in the local/regional media, if at all?

Fischer: Unless an outlet had a scientist involved in the controversy, I'd say they ignored it. Kevin Trenberth is here in Boulder (at the National Center for Atmospheric Research) and was mentioned in many of the purloined/hacked e-mails; the local media here did a few stories on his involvement and his rebuttals.

Penn State's Michael Mann was of course a central "Climategate" player, and the Philly Inquirer had a number of good stories looking at his work and involvement. But it seems most local reporters focused on their local issues and left this story for the national papers and the wires.  

SEJournal: Did non-national outlets cover the issue themselves in any cases? With wire? Both?

Fischer: Barely, and invariably with wire copy. To the extent local media cover climate, it's a local issue: a state debate on imposing a renewable fuel portfolio, a local council's effort to reduce the city's carbon footprint, the installation of new solar on the high school. The e-mail/IPCC story was unfolding far away on many different levels.

SEJournal: What did you see in the way of opinion pieces — editorials, op-eds, blogs — in the non-national media?

Fischer: Oh, local columnists and editors had a field day. Many followed the same storyline: The mighty climate consensus has crumbled and is no more. I saw a few counter-pieces from local environmental groups or the Union of Concerned Scientists. But they really were blowing in the wind.

I'm not sure why local opinion writers and ed-page editors hopped on this story, but local reporters didn't. Maybe the opinion writers sensed the pent-up frustration among those who felt "science" was imposing drastic and draconian lifestyle changes and gave them voice, whereas news reporters saw there wasn't much of a story in those emails or didn't have the time/ energy/expertise/inclination to wade into the issue themselves.

But I'd say the benchmark piece came from Colorado's Grand Junction Sentinel, where an editor posted a video of himself cutting up a store-bought cake frosted "iceberg" blue that he used to represent the "scientific consensus." I told him the piece was a confection of half-truths and distortions, about as healthy for public debate as his store-bought, fat-laden, sugar-infused cake is for the American diet. He sent me a couple of links and told me to go do my homework. Go figure. 

Yulsman: I don't have hard evidence for how Climategate played in local and regional media. But I can make the obvious observation that specialist reporters, including science and environmental reporters, have been among the hardest hit by the layoffs that have decimated the ranks of journalists. As the latest State of the Media report [by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism] showed, one out of three newspaper reporters have lost their jobs. So there are increasingly fewer people with the knowledge and expertise needed to fairly and accurately cover climate science and policy — both at the local/regional level and the national level.

We should also keep in mind that most people still get their news from local television. And the only people in local television who might be inclined to cover these issues, and theoretically, at least, have at least a modicum of knowledge about the issues, are meteorologists. But mostly, they spend their time telling their viewers what temperature it is outside and whether it's raining, snowing or sunny. As if we can't figure that out for ourselves by looking outside and going online.

So I don't believe most Americans actually got much in the way of news about Climategate from local and regional media.

They did hear a lot about it, though. From the blogosphere.

Consider this: From Feb. 15-19 — in the aftermath of Climategate and the failed Copenhagen climate talks — global warming received 34 percent of the week's links on the Internet. Global warming skeptics dominated the discourse, but climate activists became increasingly visible. Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, global warming was not even among the top 10 subjects. And for all of 2009, global warming received less than one percent of the entire national newshole. [Source]

So Climategate and global warming in general have been an issue of major discourse in society. And, in fact, some major national news outlets, such as The New York Times, gave it quite a bit of attention (but generally screwed up the story as badly as can be imagined). But mostly, American news media seem to have all but ignored the issues.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

* From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue.


SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: