Thursday, November 1, 2012

Responsible Journalism and Climate Change

Over the past few weeks, I have engaged in a number of debates on Twitter relating to the views of Ivo Vegter, an author and columnist for the Daily Maverick online newspaper. Mr Vegter, author of Extreme Environment, is a self-proclaimed sceptic of the environmental movement and a denier of anthropogenic climate change in particular.

I must disclose at this point that I have not yet read Extreme Environment, and I am increasingly ill-disposed to contribute financially to Mr Vegter's pockets, but I will endeavour to get my hands on a copy at some stage. I am, however, familiar with a host of the enviro-sceptic arguments, and from his interactions it would appear Mr Vegter shares the majority of his opinions with this community.

My engagement on Twitter, which has included a range of writers, editors and opinionistas (including Leonie Joubert and Jacque Rousseau among others), has focused on two things:

- Firstly, the basis for the challenge on climate science; and
- Secondly, on the journalistic/editorial ethics of not balancing these opinion pieces with a description of the scientific consensus.

While I am neither a journalist nor a climate scientist, I am technically trained and have read widely on the topic. My wife completed her peace studies masters thesis on climate change as portrayed by the media, and for her insight into these matters I thank her (a summary of her dissertation, based on Australian media but relevant to SA, can be found here). In my professional life as an engineering consultant considering climate mitigation and adaptation, I also have a broad understanding of many of the issues.

I take it as fact that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human activity and that by substantially reducing our greenhouse gas emissions we can avoid some of the direst consequences of a rapidly changing climate. This position is supported by the global scientific community, where there is now broad consensus of these core issues. 

This post is not a detailed defence of the climate science. Wikipedia notes that thirty four leading science academies globally have publicly endorsed the findings of the UN Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their endorsement counts far more than my opinion (or that of Mr Vegter for that matter). The G8+5 Academies’ joint statement can be viewed here. For more analysis and research I can recommend NASA, NOAA and Nature Geoscience.

And so for better or worse, we must accept that the scientific community are unequivocal in their assessment of anthropogenic climate change.

This means that any opinion piece taking a sceptical/denialist approach must tackle the science to be legitimate. And yet none appear to.

To seriously contest this space, a climate denialist must provide peer reviewed research which is accepted on a scale to sway global scientific consensus. The appropriate places to contend the science are journals like Nature, not the opinion sections of the mainstream media (online or print).

Which brings me to the second issue - the representation of these views in the mainstream media.

Let's start by acknowledging the role of columnists and opinion pieces in media. As pointed out to me by Jacques Rousseau, opinion pieces are not journalism, but opinion (clearly). As such, they are not subject to editorial control, nor are they bound by consensus. I do not contest this, nor do I advocate editorial censorship of opinion pieces.

However, I do advocate contextual framing of opinion pieces by editors where the external balance of scientific consensus is clearly in conflict with the expressed opinion. And this is especially so where the topic content is of a sufficiently specialist nature that the majority of readers would be ill-equipped to contextualise the opinion themselves.

Mr Rousseau noted the role of rebuttals and comments in challenging opinion pieces in the absence of editorial control. I take note of that, but it is flawed.  An opinion-rebuttal frame puts the two arguments on the same footing, implying the differences are just a matter of opinion rather than one being grounded in scientific consensus and the other backed primarily by vested interests and largely discredited in the scientific community (thanks Leonie Joubert). By virtue of the original being an opinion piece, it draws all further discussion on the topic down to that level. It also opens the door for substantial trolling, which makes reasoned discussion difficult to fathom for readers (a topic discussed at some length my Mr Rousseau in other posts of his).

Mail and Guardian editor, Nic Dawes, brought up the role of reputational damage in providing this motivation to editors.  I'm afraid I do not buy the line that the reputation of publications will be called into question due to a discerning public. On issues as technical as climate science, few members of the public are equipped to make a call. I believe it is very unlikely for the public to provide these checks and balances on topics requiring relatively detailed scientific understanding. Mr Dawes also brought up the topic of AIDS denialism as a point of comparison, and I think it is a good example (except perhaps that the impacts of climate change have the potential to far outstrip the human cost of AIDS denialism).

Equally, I do not buy the implied assertion that editors do not have control over opinion contributors. It may be a journalistic norm not to, but ultimately editors have the authority to provide comment on opinion expressed on their platforms. A number of the M&G editors (including Mr Dawes) did this with recently over the 'Spear' cartoons by cartoonist Zapiro (a commentator of a different sort). There was extensive comment over whether or not to publish, and the degree to which the views of the cartoonist were consistent with the views of the publication. As editor, you have control, therefore you have responsibility.

Finally, I was questioned by Mr Rousseau on whether I would react like this to other opinions I felt were not founded on scientific consensus. Well, my track record would show not... However, climate change is the first where I feel sufficiently angry over the mis-representation and sufficiently informed to make my case. That being said, there is a trend by opinionistas of Mr Vegter's ilk to dismiss the science on many issues perceived to be environmental: nutrition and hydraulic fracturing among others. This is a worrying trend as it breeds a culture of picking and choosing the bits of science that support your view - confirmation bias if ever I encountered it.

In essence, climate change (and in particular climate denialism) is an issue of sufficient import to the public good that editors have a responsibility to balance sceptical content on their platforms with some reference to the scientific consensus. And in this case, there is no serious debate within the scientific community on whether anthropogenic climate change is happening, consensus has been reached. The only debate is how to mitigate it as far as possible and then how to adapt.

Denialist views are deliberately contrarian, in the face of evidence and scientific consensus, and if not framed as such, can have damaging consequences. I am disappointed that our editors appear not to agree.

I have represented the arguments here as I understood them, which is not to say how they were intended. I would welcome debate and engagement on these issues; or correction if I have misrepresented any of the people mentioned above.

* At the time of the discussion, I did not know who the editor of the Daily Maverick was and could not find their details on the website, hence my engagement of other local editors. I have subsequently been informed that Branko Brkic is the man in question. Apologies to Mr Brkic for subtweeting him (I had to look that up, so thanks Mr Dawes for the lesson on Twitter etiquette). I hope the Daily Maverick editorial team feel free to engage...

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