Today the Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations, Huffington Post! Now you’re in the club. I’m sure the execs at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal who failed to take home any wins this year are teeth-gnashingly jealous.
But that’s not what this post is about. What it takes to win Pulitzers, most of the time, is big budgets, smart reporters, and weighty topics of national import. But most of the stories that shape our national debates, and thereby our future, are nothing like this sort of award bait. Most of those stories are more like “NASA Global Warming Stance Blasted By 49 Astronauts, Scientists Who Once Worked At Agency,” a short piece in The Huffington Post last week.
This article recycled a press release announcing that a bunch of former NASA employees, including some astronauts and scientists but no climate experts, had taken issue with the agency over its work on global warming. Findings that “man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated,” the retirees charged. The article — written not by one of HuffPo’s famously uncompensated bloggers, but by its science editor, David Freeman — didn’t offer a single fact in rebuttal of the letter. But at the end, it asked: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”
It was a ludicrous postscript, one that abdicated the very purpose of science coverage. Journalists who specialize in science are our proxies to help us figure out what’s trustworthy in realms where we lack detailed expertise ourselves and don’t have time to acquire it. Asking for opinions online can be entertaining — but the climate debate isn’t the same thing as, say, weighing in on whether The Hunger Games movie did justice to the book.
Recognizing the boneheadedness of its move, and responding to searing criticism from folks like Grist’s David Roberts, HuffPo soon withdrew its query. It turned out that, in fact, the editors already had their own answer. They disagreed with the letter-signers! They do have a “reality meter” on this subject; it must’ve just been switched off during the preparation of the original post.
We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.
This was the right thing to do, and it placated the critics. “Let’s all move on,” Roberts wrote.
I’m afraid I’m not quite ready to do that — because this little dustup offers precious insight into a much more significant and widespread phenomenon in climate coverage. The NASA letter is a perfect case study in what press critic Jay Rosen has called “verification in reverse.”
Here’s Rosen, with whom I chatted about this issue on Friday (here’s a full transcript):
Verification is taking something that might be true, and trying to nail it down with facts. In reverse verification you take something that’s been nailed down and try to introduce doubt about it. “Was Obama born in the United States?” is the clearest example. The phenomenon of “verification in reverse” poses a special problem for journalists. On the one hand, they are supposed to report what people are saying. They are supposed to bring us the news of controversies, protests, disagreements. “Conflict makes news,” and all that. On the other hand, verification is their business. If they cannot support that, they cannot support themselves or their users. They are socially useless, in fact, if they cannot stand up for verification.
Rosen’s “verification in reverse” helps us understand the game that’s being played by climate-change denialists. They are manufacturing events that seem to play by the rules of reported journalism, yet are essentially fraudulent.
In this case, for instance, the letter from ex-NASA-ites undoubtedly exists. Yes, there apparently is (or was) a faction at NASA that’s unhappy with the NASA-funded research that has helped us understand and benchmark the human role in CO2-driven climate change. That’s all real.
But it’s not the story. Unless you’re willing to report in the same piece the scientific consensus that — in HuffPo’s words — “climate change is real,” caused by carbon dioxide, and propelled by human activity, then you’re not reporting responsibly. You are, in fact, just playing into the hands of the verification-in-reverse gang. You’re like the reporter who quotes a Tea Partier ranting that President Obama is a Muslim without also noting that, um, he’s not.
Here’s an illuminating parallel case: Let’s say a couple dozen former Immigration and Naturalization Service officials signed a letter saying they believe Obama was not born in the U.S. You’ve got to write the story up. You might research the penetration of “birther” propaganda among INS alumni; you might poke merciless fun at their gullibility or partisan venom; you might dig around to figure out who was behind the PR gambit. You almost certainly would not simply report their claim without comment — and then ask readers whether they agree.
Sadly, one of Huffington Post’s own contributors wrote the responsible piece on this story. But Shawn Lawrence Otto’s article came two days after Freeman’s piece. Even the sketchy Business Insider post on the same story, which basically reprinted the original press release, provided more context than Freeman’s, since the press release at least mentioned that the letter had been organized by “H. Leighton Steward, chairman of the non-profit Plants Need CO2.” (Steward turns out to be a retired energy exec; you can read all about him here, here, and here.)
HuffPo’s NASA coverage is a textbook illustration of the inadequacy of a “just the facts” approach in a reverse-verification conflict. Of course we need the facts — but they can only be a starting point. We need context and nuance. We need to be aware of what the game is and who’s playing. Most of all, we need writers we trust to know the facts, understand a story’s evolution, level with us about what they know and how they know it, and not get bamboozled by manipulative stunts. (I reached out to Freeman for a comment or response on some of these points, but he forwarded me to corporate communications, and they said, “No comment.”)
The Huffington Post has long had a troubled relationship with science. For years it lent credence to the most tenuous and tendentious claims of the anti-vaccination crowd (Seth Mnookin has the details). As the publication moved toward the mainstream, it launched a separate science section in a bid to become a more trusted source. But even winning a Pulitzer won’t make much difference as long as stories like Freeman’s NASA misfire get posted.