What it means for media to take climate seriously
After I exchanged tweets with journalist and editor Wen Stephenson, now proprietor and writer for The Roost at ThoreauFarm.org, he asked me for an email interview/exchange. I happily agreed and he ran the results on his blog in three parts. I thought I’d re-run them here. For Wen’s original intro, go here.
From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts
I’ve been a regular reader of yours for about two solid years now — in fact, from around the time I left what you call the “Very Serious mainstream media” [most recently I was the senior producer of NPR's On Point, and before that the editor of the Sunday Boston Globe's Ideas section] and got serious — like, seriously serious — about climate.
To begin this exchange for The Roost, I want to pick up where we left off on Twitter the other day, and your series of tweets about climate and the media.
From Twitter, 29 Feb:
The casual fossil-fuel boosterism ubiquitous in mainstream media is possible ONLY as long as everyone politely ignores climate change.
That’s why lack of climate awareness is driven, not by skeptics, but by Very Serious mainstream. Neglect/indifference as bad as denialism.
@drgrist You got it. But not just neglect/indifference. Also fear of appearing as alarmist or an advocate. Believe me. I’ve been there.
@wenstephenson When truth bumps up against peer pressure & social norms, the latter win every time. Sad but true.
@drgrist maybe not *every* time.
If mainstream reporters & columnists really had to take climate seriously, it would explode many of their most cherished assumptions.
For my part, I wish greens wd spend less time obsessing over denialists & more time persuading mainstream to take climate seriously.
Accepting, on an intellectual level, that climate change is “real” is only the 1st step on a long journey…but most stop there.
I’m glad I was watching my twitter feed when this came through, because I was struck by how much our perspectives — though we’re coming from pretty different places in the mediasphere — overlap. I’ve been continually frustrated at the media’s lack of “seriousness” on the climate issue. But at the same time, I understand what they’re up against. This is not an easy nut to crack, and especially in our prevailing media-biz climate.
So, here are a couple questions to get this going:
- First, let’s define our terms. What do you mean by “Very Serious mainstream” media?
- What would it look like, in David Roberts’ ideal world, for the mainstream media “to take climate seriously”?
From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson
> First, let’s define our terms. What do you mean by “Very Serious mainstream” media?
I’m leery of defining Very Serious People (in the use of the term coined by blogger Atrios and popularized by Paul Krugman) too precisely, since it’s as much an attitude or disposition as it is a particular position. It’s a bit like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
It’s helpful to think about the framework, popularized by press critic Jay Rosen, of concentric spheres: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate, and the sphere of deviance. Consensus is what “everyone knows,” which needs no defense or citation. Legitimate debate is issues where there are two sides, both of which must be equally represented. And deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.” (Everyone should really read Rosen’s post.)
Two things are notable about this framework. First, what gets placed in various spheres is not governed by the facts, at least not primarily. It’s a process governed by sociocultural norms and economic power, enforced by peer pressure (or “social proof”) and motivated reasoning. It is no accident that the interests and predilections of the wealthy dominate conventional wisdom. Secondly, it is always safer for a journalist, pundit, or talking head to echo conventional wisdom, even when it is terribly wrong (see: Iraq; 2008 financial meltdown; climate). Career advancement comes to those who stay within the herd.
To be a Very Serious Person is to echo conventional wisdom, safe in the knowledge that even if you’re wrong, so is everyone else — at least everyone else who’s serious! One good indicator of a VSP is that he/she claims to be unbiased and non-partisan, occasionally “centrist.” To VSPs, being on “a side” is a sure path to illegitimacy; one must always be above all that, moderate and reasonable. Again, this has nothing to do with accuracy or facts, only with where the herd is located at the moment.
> What would it look like, in David Roberts’ ideal world, for the mainstream media “to take climate seriously”?
The science of climate change is pretty clear at this point: our current path leads to catastrophe. There’s plenty of uncertainty on the details, particularly in how fast and how much carbon reductions could affect the outcome. But that basic fact — status quo means disaster — is not in serious dispute.
What if it were an asteroid heading toward earth? What if it were a foreign power mustering an army to march on our shores? How would the media treat it then? Answer that question and you’ve answered how it would look to take climate seriously.
Just to take a small example: the failure on both the international level and the U.S. level to muster any serious climate policy is inevitably described by mainstream reporters as “a blow to environmentalists,” as though it’s some boutique policy meant to benefit a special interest group. If reporters took climate change seriously, they would say, “the failure to secure serious climate policy makes widespread suffering and destabilization in the latter half of this century far more likely.”
I call this the “and thus we’re f*cked” principle. I keep meaning to write a post on it …
From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts
> deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.
I’d suggest that a position like this — “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable” — gets mentioned, maybe even discussed at some length (in the pages of the better newspapers and magazines), but is framed as, yes, deviant. The mainstream enjoys a little deviance — letting it into the discussion can be an amusing parlor game, and of course helps define the boundaries of what’s Serious (i.e. legitimate) and what’s not. Or are you saying there are truths and/or serious arguments about climate that really are unmentionable?
> Secondly, it is always safer for a journalist, pundit, or talking head to echo conventional wisdom, even when it is terribly wrong (see: Iraq; 2008 financial meltdown; climate). Career advancement comes to those who stay within the herd.
Pundits and talking heads, sure, but I’d be careful with the sweeping statement about journalists. Career advancement (indeed the highest prestige and respect of peers, at least in newsrooms) still goes to those (very, very few) who succeed in overturning the conventional wisdom by means of actual reporting. The thing is, when it comes to climate, what more reporting is needed to overturn conventional wisdom? Isn’t it fair to say we know what we need to know in order to make a persuasive case for urgent action?
> One good indicator of a VSP is that he/she claims to be unbiased and non-partisan, occasionally “centrist.” To VSPs, being on “a side” is a sure path to illegitimacy; one must always be above all that, moderate and reasonable.
I knew it. I’m no longer Very Serious. Oh well, so be it.
> I call this the “and thus we’re f*ckd” principle. I keep meaning to write a post on it …
You already did write that post, more or less. It was actually your series of posts on what you called “the brutal logic of climate change.” I think we’ll know that the major media are taking climate seriously when we start seeing cover stories like, maybe not in so many words, “WE’RE F*CKD. NOW WHAT?” When the conversation — and the reporting — begin from the realization of what we’re actually up against.
But “brutal logic” runs up against media logic. There are (at least) two great cardinal sins in (serious) newsrooms and magazine offices: first, the sin of rehashing old news, of failing to advance the story/conversation. And a bitter irony here is that for sophisticated news editors/reporters, who think that they already “get it,” climate is nothing if not old news and a stale conversation. They feel like they’ve heard the same thing a million times. And so, from somewhere deep in their journalistic bones they resist covering it unless they can be seen to “advance the story” or reshape the narrative in a big way. The other cardinal sin, as you know, is to be seen as an advocate. And then, of course, there’s the fear of being labeled an alarmist.
So, given this kind of media logic, what’s the pitch? How do you convince them that they are, in fact, missing the opportunity to reshape the narrative in a huge way? Is this what you’re trying to do in your role at Grist?
And then there’s this: most newsrooms have been decimated in the past five years or so. They don’t have the resources they once had. They’re stretched impossibly thin. Given that, it’s impressive that climate is as well covered, at least from a science and environment perspective, as it is. There is some good reporting out there (and sometimes it even makes the front pages!).
Given these conditions, maybe blaming the media gets it backwards. Maybe it’s up to the climate movement to reshape the narrative, create new facts on the ground — as in, a political movement with leaders who take climate seriously and can win elections — and the media will be forced to follow. We’ve seen this in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, which have brought neglected issues to the fore. We’ve seen it with Keystone.
(Nah, let’s blame the media. They’re too fat a target.)
From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson
1. I wouldn’t say unmentionable so much as unmentioned. For instance, when, say, John Broder at the NYT covers the failure of international climate talks, he doesn’t say, “the failure to develop serious global climate policy raises the already-high probability that humanity will experience widespread disruption, suffering, and die-off later this century.” He might know that it’s true, on some level — I don’t know. But he doesn’t say it, because it sounds extreme. Saying that the status quo guarantees mass suffering makes you sound “partisan,” like an “alarmist” (and guarantees that right-wingers will hassle you and your editor). Again, this has nothing to do with the truth of it, only with the norms of Very Serious writing. Saying stuff like that is like farting at a cocktail party.
It’s quite instructive to compare coverage of climate with coverage of the deficit. I would argue that, on the factual merits, climate is a much bigger, more severe, and more urgent problem. The deficit isn’t a short-term problem at all, as most professional economists agree. Quite a few economists argue that it’s not a mid-term or long-term problem either! (That’s one of those deviant perspectives you never, ever see represented in mainstream media.)
Yet everyone in elite media, punditry, think tank, and political circles “just knows” that the deficit is a looming, awful threat that will crush our grandchildren and their puppies. An “objective” reporter can say that without fear of being accused of bias. Indeed, the deficit is mentioned not just in stories about the deficit but in almost every story about economics or government, period! You can recommend economic austerity measures that are absurd to professional economists and never, ever get your reputation dinged. There is no social risk to over-worrying or talking too much about the deficit; there’s only upside, reputation- and career-wise. It is the paradigmatic Very Serious issue, divorced from the facts but reinforced by herd behavior.
Climate is the mirror image. The facts support a far more alarmist case, but not only can objective journalists not take that for granted — they’re barely allowed to take the existence of climate change for granted. Even the mildest of carbon-pricing schemes is deemed radical, unrealistic, bad politics. “Everybody knows” we’re going to keep accelerating through oil, gas, and coal until they’re gone. To say otherwise is to be un-savvy, the cardinal sin for VSP.
Like I said, a media that reported honestly and factually about climate change would sound hopelessly “extreme” and “biased” to our current ears. That’s got nothing to do with the facts on climate and everything to do with the interests of America’s wealthy elites and the way they dominate media narratives.
2. Yes, one of the glories of my freedom here at Grist is that I am not tied to “new facts.” You’re right that there are rarely new facts on climate, especially when it’s not on the political agenda. Science moves slowly and incrementally; there are rarely big stories, and the ones that are big are usually half hype.
But facts on climate are not what’s lacking. What’s lacking on climate is understanding. What kind of problem is it? Whose interests are at risk and who stands to gain? How much will it cost to address? What assumptions are embedded in those economic projections? What are the prospects of getting through it? What does it mean for our institutions and our way of life? For global justice? For who we are as a species? For me, in my own personal life and behavior?
Americans might know the bare facts about climate — it’s getting warmer, more storms, polar bears something something — but they don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know how to internalize it, to fit it alongside their other values, beliefs, and aspirations. And so they “know” it in a very shallow way. It has no motive force; it’s never top of mind. It’s in a little silo. The only ones who associate it with any kind of passion are the right-wingers who have lumped it in the with the Grand Socialist Conspiracy!
That’s one of the things I try to do, in my obscure little way: talk through what climate means for us, what it means for economics and land use and agriculture and morality and politics — how it fits with the rest of what we know.
How to pitch that to a traditional editor at a traditional paper in charge of traditional reporters? I have no idea. But that’s a problem with traditional media, not with climate. If you’ve chosen a model that is incapable of helping your readers understand the world, change your model.
3. Yes, it’s certainly true that a large, vigorous, powerful grassroots movement would draw coverage. But I’m not sure I really buy the resource-constraint argument. There are reams and reams of facts about climate change that most people don’t know. Assign someone to get those facts and write about them in an accessible way! All it would take is a person sitting at a desk. The pretense that the only stories that matter are hugely expensive stories where someone is sent to the Arctic is dumb. Read the science and the economics; digest it; explain it. Voi la.
From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts
Couple more things:
- Jay Rosen (and plenty of others, including my old colleague Jim Fallows at The Atlantic) recently wrote about NPR’s new guidelines and the so-called end of “false equivalence” in reporting (giving equal weight to opposing “sides” in a debate, regardless of the evidence supporting one or the other). What did you think of NPR’s new policy, and do you expect it to have any discernible impact on climate coverage beyond NPR? (funny that Rosen didn’t use climate as an example). Have you noticed a shift in the way major news orgs cover climate science — is it my imagination, or do we seem to be seeing less “false equivalence” when it comes to climate science vs. the doubt peddlers?
- MIT’s Kerry Emanuel — who, as you know, is a top climate scientist and an exceedingly rare Republican in the field — recently spoke to a group of us in Wayland. And one of the main points he likes to make is that uncertainty in climate science — especially in projecting impacts — is a “double-edged sword.” He told us: “We’re very uncertain about the future. We cannot state with confidence that the warming is going to be what we project it to be. It could be a lot less. It could also, with equal probability, be a lot more. It’s a double-edged sword. Uncertainty doesn’t translate to ‘no worries, mate.’ It’s the opposite. We have, on the high-end of the probability curve, we have some pretty scary scenarios. … And if we want to act, we have a very narrow window of opportunity.”
Wouldn’t it be nice to see this idea enter the mainstream conversation with a little more frequency? I don’t know what that’ll take, but it seems like an elementary point that almost always goes unmentioned.
- Lastly, doesn’t “brutal logic” suggest that we need to start talking about adaptation and resilience in a major way, even as we keep pounding the message that no amount of adaptation will be enough if we don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere? In other words, the adaptation and mitigation messages need to go hand in hand? (as Mark Hertsgaard, for example, argues in his book “Hot“). That it’s no longer a matter of “preventing” or avoiding the coming storm, but how to survive it?
From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson
1. I don’t think it’s your imagination. The “he-said she-said” approach to climate science coverage has not been common for quite some time (despite the enduring popularity of that critique). Generally speaking, when I see climate science addressed in the mainstream media, there’s some mention that “most scientists believe the climate is warming,” or some such.
To my mind, science reporting isn’t the problem. The problem is dragging the implications of the science into other areas of coverage — coverage of foreign policy, or weather, or politics, or economics. Particularly economics. Generally speaking, press coverage of the economics of climate and climate solutions is abysmal. That’s where you find the really terrible “he-said she-said” stuff these days — crazy conservative projections of economic doom put side-by-side with sober economic projections, as if both were equally credible. Conventional economic wisdom in DC leans right, to say the least, so this problem will be far more difficult to solve than the false-balance problem in science coverage.
2. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a good article on just that, called “Uncertainty is not your friend.”
Economist Martin Weitzman has done great work on this, showing how the presence of potentially huge (even limitless) “fat tail risks” completely scrambles traditional cost-benefit analysis. Here’s a good paper.
Weitzman said that most economic analysis of climate, because economists work with average values that hide fat-tail risks, becomes “a knob-twiddling exercise in optimizing outcomes,” and that certainly rings true to me. The idea that we can spend exactly the right amount to produce the optimal outcome is just an economist’s wet dream.
The right model here is insurance, where you spend as a hedge against future risks that are low-probability but potentially high-impact. The world could easily “insure” itself against climate risk if it spent as much as it does on life and home insurance.
3. Yes, agreed. I said so here.
One thing I don’t think the public gets at all is that climate change is already underway; even if global CO2 emissions stopped on a dime tomorrow, warming would continue well past mid-century. The mitigation efforts we make today will only pay off in the latter half of the century, but if we don’t make them, our grandchildren will face a climate spinning out of control.
Relatedly: I’ve always thought it’s misleading to see mitigation and adaptation as two entirely distinct activities. Nothing is more conducive to resilience than reducing dependence on finite, imported fossil fuels! Distributed energy (energy democracy) increases self-sufficiency. Walkable, tight-knit communities with high social capital are more adaptable. Etc.
So yes, resilience. We would need it even in the absence of climate change; lack of resilience is hurting people even as we speak! It’s all part of finding sustainable ways for large numbers of people to live on earth.
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