What's a Good Journalist to Do?

03/26/2015 06:51 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

There is some welcome introspection going on in the journalism profession about how to deal with political candidates who deny that human-induced global climate change is real. How for example should reporters and news outlets deal with candidates who want to be President of the United States but take ridiculous or irrational positions on "the biggest story in the world," as The Guardian calls it?


Print and broadcast reporters, as well as editorial writers and editors, should take a look at the recent posts by Jay Rosen of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and Grist blogger David Roberts.

Rosen points out that political candidates who deny anthropogenic global warming are saying in effect "the evidence doesn't matter." That's saying a lot, because the scientific examination of global warming has been underway since the 19th century. In the last 20 years, climate change has been the subject of the biggest scientific exercise in human history -- the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It has involved thousands of experts and reviewers from as many as 130 countries. They have reached very straightforward conclusions, including these in the IPCC's latest findings:

  • "Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems."
  • "In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans."
  • "Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability."
So, what's should a journalist to do when he or she is trying to be respectful of the candidates for the world's most powerful job in the world's most advanced nation, even when they dismiss all this evidence as a hoax, or refuse to talk about it at all?

The question has taken on greater urgency now that Sen. Ted Cruz has kicked off the 2016 presidential race as the first to announce he'll compete to be the Republican Party's nominee. Cruz is a card-carrying climate denier, as are all but one of the GOP's several other prospective candidates.

Within days of making that announcement, Cruz tried to turn the tables on those who want the government to do something about climate change, telling an audience that "Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers... who don't like to look at the actual facts and the data." Cruz went on to compare himself with Galileo. As far as I can tell from the news reports, he said this with a straight face.

In the 2012 presidential election, the candidates all remained mum about climate change. Neither the reporters who followed them nor the moderators of the official presidential debates called them out on the issue. Responsible journalists simply cannot let that be the case this time.

So what are they to do? It is nearly impossible to appear nonpartisan when virtually all the Republican hopefuls are members of the denial industry, the likely Democrat nominee is not, and public opinion research shows the American people agree with the science? Summing up his two decades of research on the American public's attitudes, Stanford University political science professor Jon Krosnick reported this week that:

On this particular issue, America is remarkably one-sided. What we've found is between two thirds and three quarters of Americans have endorsed the idea that the planet has been warming over the last hundred years, that it's due at least partly to human activity, that it poses a threat to future generations, and that the federal government in particular should take actions to reduce the amount of warming that occurs in the future and to support preparation for the effects.

In addition to the presidential contest, most members of Congress will be running for reelection next year. An analysis by ThinkProgress found that 56 percent of incumbent Republicans in Congress deny or question the conclusion of the 97 percent of climate scientists that greenhouse gases are causing big changes in the biosphere and very unpleasant changes for us humans.

Reporters and editors have been grappling with irrational climate denial for some time. First came the controversy about how to define balanced news coverage - in other words, whether "balance" means giving equal time and column inches to both sides of the climate debate, even though 97 percent of scientist agree that climate change is real. Giving 50 percent of airtime and column inches to the dissenting three percent not only does not seem to reflect reality; it also gives audiences the impression that there is much more disagreement about the science than there really is.

In 2013, the letters editor at the Los Angeles Times decided he would no longer print missives from people who argue that there is no credible evidence of climate change. The editor, Paul Thornton, explained, "When deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts - in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review. And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change... Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy."

It must be hard for reporters to remain objective, too, about politicians who boast about their fealty to the Constitution, but try to suppress free speech when it comes to global warming. That has been the case in Florida where public employees under the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott say have been instructed not to use the words "climate change", "global warming", or even "sustainable development".

Then there are those who not only reject climate science, which is their right I guess, but also want to suppress it, which isn't. Earlier this month, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a budget resolution that accuses the Department of Defense and the CIA for wasting, abusing and misusing taxpayer dollars by studying the national security impacts of global warming. The same document concludes with unintentional irony that "Washington has been unable or unwilling to tackle big challenges with positive solutions" and notes that "When politicians focus on short-term political considerations, they let rhetoric take the place of real results."

A few weeks ago, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from coal country introduced an amendment to forbid the Science Advisory Board at the Environmental Protection Agency from taking several climate-related reports into consideration, including the work of the IPCC and the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment.

But back to Jay Rosen. He offers several optional questions that journalists could ask during the upcoming presidential race. In my view, this one is the best:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 1990, 'Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases,' leading to global warming. They said it again in 1995. They said it again, but more strongly in 2001. They were even more emphatic in 2007. And in 2014 they said they were 95 percent certain that human action was the primary cause of global warming. The World Bank has come to similar conclusions. The position you have taken on this seems to suggest that you have better evidence than they do. Will you be making that evidence public? And may we have the names of your science advisors so we can ask them where they are getting their information?

On follow-up, reporters might also ask the candidates this question:

Whether or not you agree that climate change is real, can a responsible public leader ignore the risk that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are correct in concluding that global warming is not only real but also dangerous and already underway? Do you believe that part of the job of the President and Congress is to help protect the American people from risks this large? If so, what is your risk management plan?

The point is, calling the candidates out on climate change while remaining objective will be a challenge these next 20 months, but that is a good journalist's job. For the rest of us, the results are likely to be very entertaining.

Bill Becker is a former print journalist who served as a combat correspondent in Vietnam, a staff reporter for the Associated Press, and the editor of his own weekly newspaper. His next post will address how some media today are contributing to political polarity in the United States.