When Credulous Journalists Report

Covering the global warming beat is a tough job. Despite Al Gore's best efforts, the general public remains hazy on the details, confused by propagandists and the sheer size of the issue. Journalists reporting on climate change have to explain a global phenomenon that has long-term, far-reaching, and varied consequences for different parts of the world, and their editors aren't necessarily giving them extra words to do it. Throw in the bureaucratic complexities of an international treaty like the Kyoto Protocol or the recent G8 Summit, and the issue gets even murkier.

As Andy Revkin, an environmental reporter for The New York Times, told me last year, "You're competing with stories on subjects that everyone knows the ground rules to, like another bombing in Iraq or who won the World Cup. You don't have to lay out what soccer is every time you write about soccer. But unfortunately, every time you write about climate, you still have to include all the boilerplate because most people don't have a clue what it's really about."

But despite the difficulties involved, Revkin and other smart, environmental journalists know that people still need to understand the basics of climate change. Just as importantly, they need to be aware of what steps—if any—their leaders have taken to deal with the issue. Ideally, this means newspaper editors and TV producers would devote more resources to covering the fundamentals of climate by interviewing scientists and making sure their reporters have a thorough understanding of the beat before they ever file a story.

But until that magical day comes, it would be nice to see the network news shows avoid what ABC's Charles Gibson did recently in covering George W. Bush's announcement on global warming. Despite the vagueness of President Bush's proposal, Gibson hailed it as "a major change for the White House," and presented the story as if the administration had made sweeping policy concessions. This was not at all the case, as Democratic leaders, the EU's environment commissioner, and many environmentalists were quick to point out.

NBC and CBS were far less credulous in their reporting (you can see the contrast in this video from Media Matters). Even Fox News—not exactly the standard-bearer for green journalism—acknowledged the criticisms. But ABC News bought into this little bit of political theater put on by the administration so that Bush would have an initiative to point to when he went to the G8 Summit.

It's a familiar story. When journalists don't take the time to parse the details of climate change, people stay uninformed, and the problem just keeps on growing.

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