“The AP writer couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” — Terry Tamminen

“The fact is, we live in a glass house today, folks, and sometimes we become part of the story whether we want to be or not.” — Lex Alexander

What a difference vision makes.

Last week, CJR Observatory’s Cristine Russell wrote about the Climate Change Media Partnership venture, which is enabling journalists like Brazil’s Gustavo Figueiredo Faleiros to cover the Poland climate talks for their home countries. Michael Staples of New Brunswick’s Daily Gleaner reported that local high school student Taryn McKenzie-Mohr was Poland-bound, to meet and discuss climate change with other youth delegates.

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The Associated Press? To judge from their stories on other climate conferences, the news isn’t people like McKenzie-Mohr and Faleiros meeting from across the world at the center of a global fight — it’s emissions from the flights to get them there.

Why this miss-the-forest mindset? Where did it come from, what needs does it meet, why has it persisted? Does it naturally emerge from the reporting, or is it imposed, and by whom?

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And what will looking into such episodes reveal about AP culture?

Let’s find out!

In the past year, three AP stories, related to two climate conferences — Bali in December 2007 and Schwarzenegger’s Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles last month — have stuck out like a trio of sore thumbs. They are Samantha Young’s “Schwarzenegger summit: A sizable carbon footprint” from last month, and two stories from last December, Jakarta Bureau Chief Robin McDowell’s “Climate Change Meeting Adds to Emissions” and Stockholm Bureau Chief Karl Ritter’s “Climate skeptics say debate stifled” (though the latter isn’t a “conference footprint” story, it has the same miss-the-forest mindset.)

Young’s “footprint” story from last month entailed considerable effort, including a public records request and help from three other Sacramento political reporters. The resulting story’s focus dismayed essentially everyone in it. According to Terry Tamminen, who co-wrote a rebuttal (“The measure of environmental leadership“) with CalEPA secretary Linda Adams, “The Governor’s office worked with the AP writer to give her background about the entire Summit and everyone was stunned that her focus turned out to be the carbon footprint.” The three nongovernmental sources in the story — who report they weren’t contacted until the day before it appeared — say the reporter was vague about its direction: “she just asked me to comment on the conference,” said one; “I don’t know what prompted it to take the form that it did,” reported another.

The strongest criticism came from Carnegie Institution climate scientist Ken Caldeira, whose comments on carbon offsets had been used in service of the story’s anti-conference message. “I think this whole line of argument about how much greenhouse gas emissions come from conferences about greenhouse gas emissions reduction is pernicious,” he said. “This is reminiscent of the attacks on Gore. The success of the summit is far more important than any CO2 that might be emitted traveling to or from the summit.”

Why would Young force the story in a direction everyone involved considers a pointless distraction? Particularly when, as one California climate journalist informs me, “she’s a very good reporter”? How — and by whom — was this story deemed to merit the efforts of four political reporters?

I tried to find out from AP, to no avail. The Sacramento reporter who answered my call immediately passed me to the group’s overseer, who said neither he nor the others could discuss the story without prior permission from AP San Francisco Bureau Chief John Raess. Mr. Raess himself isn’t talking. “As a general rule I don’t comment publicly on the internal editorial process behind an individual story,” he said. “Nothing about this story … would seem to merit an exception.” He didn’t grant me permission to speak with the reporters. For transparency, the Associated Press is no Wired.

From footprints to fingerprints

The witnesses aren’t talking, but we can deduce the Sacramento story’s heritage. It is strongly reminiscent of AP Jakarta Bureau Chief Robin McDowell’s Bali conference “footprint” story, “Climate Change Meeting Adds to Emissions” (Dec. 5 2007) — which is itself a rewrite of a London Sunday Times story, “UN climate circus rolls in on CO2 cloud” (Nov. 25 2007) — which is itself a close descendent of a Sunday Times story scolding Prince Charles for his carbon footprint (“Green prince leaves a giant CO2“; June 24, 2007). These three stories all feature carbon analyses by Chris Goodall, author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individuals Guide to Stopping Climate Change.

A close look at the Sunday Times “Bali conference footprint” story and its AP rewrite yields interesting patterns. The Sunday Times story is inconsistent: emissions from the conference, deemed “a major contributor to global warming” at the outset, by the end fades to roughly 1/66,000th of the annual estimated emissions of Britain. (“The emissions from Bali, although huge for such an event, remain small on a global scale. Britain, for example, emits the equivalent of 660m tonnes of CO2 a year.”)

In the subsequent AP rewrite, the comparison with Britain’s annual emissions for context is gone, and the story’s final, key quote is much weaker. Where the Sunday Times story closed with a strong justification for the conference:

Achim Steiner, director of the UN Environment Programme, said such conferences could never be small. “If you want to tackle an unprecedented global challenge like climate change then people have to meet and talk. Bali remains the world’s best hope to minimise the effect of global warming.

… the McDowell AP article closes with a weak one:

It may sound like a lot of people, [b]ut you have to look at the issues, the number of countries involved, the number of people affected. Global warming is literally everyone’s business.

Since the AP story employs the standard “view from nowhere” in place of the opinionated British voice, judgment gets outsourced to “critics”: “But critics say [the conference-goers] are contributing to the very problem they aim to solve”. These critics turn out to be one Chris Goodall, the gentleman commissioned to perform the original story’s carbon analysis.

You might wonder why Ms. McDowell chose to reshape the story to increase its outrage factor.

The third AP “small thinking” climate story is Stockholm Bureau Chief Karl Ritter’s “Climate skeptics say debate stifled.” Appearing the week after McDowell’s “Bali footprint” piece, it gave voice to the dismay of Danish political scientist/statistician Bjorn Lomborg and other climate contrarians at being shut out and disparaged by the climate science and climate action communities. The story made no serious attempt to determine whether past and present circumstances justify such treatment.

You might wonder why Mr. Ritter didn’t address that rather important issue.

And you might wonder if it’s significant that both of these stories were authored by AP Bureau Chiefs.
(According to this Daily Kos comment, Bureau Chiefs decide which stories go out “on the wire” — it seems more likely that a story written by a Bureau Chief would go out exactly as written, without editing or filtering, which could be a boon to public relations firms.)

I’d like to be able to put these questions to those who could answer them, and share with you their answers. But the AP’s Director of Media Relations hasn’t been willing to answer questions himself or to pass me on to others who would.

Journalist Lex Alexander of the pioneering Greensboro News and Record weighed in on the media’s bunker mindset back in 2005:

The fact is, we live in a glass house today, folks, and sometimes we become part of the story whether we want to be or not. … We can take the kind of absolutely silent approach that comes across as defensive and arrogant. Or we can acknowledge in fact what we always say whenever we’re pushing for more liberal open-records laws: We’re a public trust. We work for the people. And if we’re smart, we’re going to work with the people as well, and talk to the people about how we can best do that.

He’s right.