Critical Essay #5: “False Objectivity” in Climate Change Media Coverage

Climate change, specifically in reference to C02 Emissions released by human use of fossil fuels and their consequential effects on the environment, is perhaps one of the most pressing issues we, not just as Americans, but as human beings face in our lifetimes. Though it may sound like a sensationalist statement the facts are hard to deny. In May of 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million (ESRL Global Monitoring Division News Items). Experts in this field estimate that a “safe level” of atmospheric C02 concentration is around 350 million parts per million (400 Ppm CO2: What It Means). It should also be noted that the last time the Earth had this level of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere was 3 million years ago when it is estimated that sea levels were around 80 feet higher (Prinn).Yet despite these circumstances climate change represents just 1% of all media headlines (Project for Improved Environmental Coverage). Entertainment, which makes for 3% of headlines, received three times the coverage of environmental issues (Project for Improved Environmental Coverage). When the environment does in fact receive such scarce coverage, the issue of climate change is often times covered under a guise of false objectivity. A valid argument can be made that the media has failed the public on the issue of climate change by framing its legitimacy as subject to a balanced 50/50 debate in order to uphold a mutated standard of fairness and balance- when the reality is much different. 97% of climate scientists agree that such increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration are man-made (Global Climate Change: Consensus). Why then is it that the news media treats such widely held views by experts as debate rather than consensus? The answer may lie in the media’s current and skewed standards of what constitutes “objectivity” and “balance”.

It can be said that the mainstream American news media holds objective reporting in a high regard, and rightfully so. Such a journalistic culture finds its roots in the Fairness Doctrine, a policy implemented by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949(Boliek) in response to muckraking and irresponsible journalistic practices of prior times. The Fairness Doctrine mandated that news organizations provide contrasting views of controversial issues in an equal manner. Though the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, and its official language removed in 2011, the effects of this policy still seem to play a significant role in the mainstream media (Boliek). It can be argued that the residual effects of this policy have mutated into a heavy emphasis on fairness and balance (in some cases, and in other cases not as much) that has made many journalists lose their focus on what objectivity actually means.

In a publication Objectivity & Balance: Today’s Best Practices in American Journalism by Joel Kaplan, the associate Dean for Professional Graduate Studies at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Kaplan claims while objectivity and balance are important in reporting, that “the notion of objectivity and balance is often misunderstood”(Kaplan). He cites the following quote by Bill Kovcah and Tom Rosentiel from their book The Elements of Journalism to sum up his views on the definition of objectivity based on the journalistic principle’s history:

“Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.” (Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel)

Kaplan further supplements his views in saying that ,” it is this scientific method that informs the work of great journalists” and implies that the scientific method in search of truth is what gives objectivity legitimacy as a journalistic principle (Kaplan).

It is difficult to align Kaplan’s notion of the definition of objectivity with current media practices regarding how the issue of climate change is presented to the public. Many media outlets seem to throw out the notion of reaching truth through the scientific method in their coverage of climate change completely. They portray the debate as a balanced 50/50 issue by representing the opinions of 97% of climate scientists who in fact used the scientific method to come to their conclusions, and the opinions of 3% of climate scientists as equal sparring partners.

Kaplan finds fault with such a characterization. He notes that Mr. Kovach and Mr. Rosentiel, who he initially cited, agree that “this original notion of objectivity has been lost into a formulaic approach that tends to measure ― “balance ”by how many words or minutes are devoted to each side”(Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel).

He uses yet another reference to their book The Elements of Journalism and quotes a particular section that discusses these issues and how they pertain specifically to media coverage of climate change:

“If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create the impression that the scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often journalistic balance is misconstrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides. As journalists know, often there are more than two sides to a story. And sometimes balancing them equally is not a true reflection of reality.

Fairness, in turn, can also be misunderstood if it is seen to be a goal unto itself. Fairness should mean the journalist is being fair to the facts and to a citizen‘s understanding of them. It should not mean, ̳Am I being fair to my sources, so that none of them will be unhappy?‘ Nor should it mean that journalist asking, ―does my story seem fair?‘ These are subjective judgments that may steer the journalists away from the need to do more to verify her work.” (Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel)

Such views seem to sum up the problem of climate change coverage exactly. “Fair” coverage for fairness sake in order to appease all sources is not responsible objective journalism. Such practice is inaccurately portraying a majority consensus among experts on an issue to be questionable. One could go as far as saying that such a practice misleads the public because it hesitates to classify a finding as “fact” based on a standard that for something to be a “fact” relies on unanimous consensus by experts. However, unanimous consensus by experts on any issue is rare, and is likewise another false standard. We accept overwhelming agreement of experts using the scientific method on other issues, such as those in the medical field, often times to be fact yet for some reason the media in the case of climate change seems to diverge from this precedent.

The word fact is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: something that truly exists or happens: something that has actual existence (“Fact”). Research in the area of climate change, based on the scientific method, has provided us with the undeniable and objective conclusion that C02 concentrations within the atmosphere have surpassed 400 parts per million. There is no denying this. This is something that truly exists and is happening. This is something that has actual existence. This is a fact. It is time for the news media to use the same scientific method in their own reporting and abandon false objectivity to appease a perverse sense of fairness, and pursue legitimate objectivity to shed light on what is truth. It is time for the news media to treat climate change, no longer as debate, but for what it is, as a fact.

Works Cited

“400 Ppm CO2: What It Means.” 400 Ppm CO2: What It Means., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

Boliek, Brooks (August 22, 2011). “FCC finally kills off fairness doctrine”. POLITICO.

“ESRL Global Monitoring Division News Items.” ESRL Global Monitoring Division News Items. Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division, 10 May 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

“Fact.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, n.d. Web.

“Global Climate Change: Consensus.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. National Aeronautical Space Association, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Kaplan, Joel. Objectivity & Balance: Today’s Best Practices in American Journalism. Publication. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Crown, 2001. Print.

Prinn, Ron. “400 Ppm CO2? Add Other GHGs, and It’s Equivalent to 478 Ppm.” Oceans at MIT. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 6 June 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

“Project for Improved Environmental Coverage.” Project for Improved Environmental Coverage. Project for Improved Environmental Coverage, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.