If you want to swat global warming, reach for a newspaper

Photo by Hattie Chamberlin

“The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but the facts are sacred.”

C.P. Scott

Full disclosure: In my other life I am employed by a newspaper publishing company.

However, I am not a reporter and no one is paying me to write this. I began working in the industry almost 17 years ago because I believe in newspapers and the essential role they play in a healthy democracy. And because I needed a better job to support my growing family. But my concern for the environment preceded the start of my newspaper career by many years, even if you count the time I spent writing for my high school newspapers (I wrote mostly about the environment).

I am among the first to acknowledge that newspapers, on the whole, have been far from perfect when it comes to reporting on the global climate crisis.

Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate, a Web site that aggregates climate stories and publishes reports of its own says the U.S. media “hardly touched the ball” (SE Journal, summer 2010) when the so-called “Climategate” scandal broke last year. The controversial term is used to refer to two climate-related stories that appeared in the press last year. One was about thousands of emails stolen from scientists at Britain’s Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that purported to show a conspiracy to hide data contrary to the prevailing scientific view of global warming; the other story involved allegations of exaggeration in a 2007 report about the melting of Himalayan glaciers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (At least five independent reviews found no conspiracy amongst the East Anglia scientists; the IPCC did admit to a few factual errors in their report but the U.S. EPA and other bodies found that the science in the report was credible and compelling and that global warming is growing more serious.)

Fischer, who also sits on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists, thinks most U.S. reporters didn’t feel comfortable wading into either story, and the newspapers that did cover the stories relied heavily on wire service reports.

And then there is the problem of “false balance,” framing researcher Matthew Nesbitt’s term for journalists’ practice of devoting equal voice to the views of a tiny minority of dissenters on questions in which a virtual consensus exists among experts. False balance has long been a problem in all forms of journalism, but newspapers seem particularly susceptible to it.

And yet…

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quip about democracy, newspapers are the worst way to disseminate important information — except for all the other ones that have been tried. The Internet may someday steal the least-worst mantle from newspapers, but even that medium is still largely beholden to newspapers for solid, fact-checked news and analysis.

The best aggregators of climate news on the Internet depend on newspapers and traditional newsgathering organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters. A quick glance at the roundup of one day’s (8/13/10) climate news on SolveClimate.com illustrates my point. Out of the sixteen links to climate-related stories, fourteen were from newspapers or old-fashioned (predating the Internet) news organizations. Ten were from sources like AP, Reuters, and AFP, four were from newspapers like the Globe & Mail and the Charleston Gazette. As a blogger I rely heavily on Web sites like SolveClimate and The Daily Climate for up-to-the-minute climate crisis news and analysis.

When I contacted Fischer, he told me that The Daily Climate relies “very much” on local media outlets for its work, but he’s quick to point out that the relationship goes both ways. “Local reporters rely on us to keep track of stories and help sense when a story is ripe.”

A quick scan of the Wisconsin State Journal, one of the papers the company I work for publishes, speaks to the importance of newspapers in spreading the word about the urgency of the climate crisis. In three consecutive days last week, I counted a total of seven climate-related stories, two of them on the front page. And this total doesn’t include stories that are less conspicuously related to climate change, like reports about the cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico or the economic slump we’re in.

So at least in the short term, print journalism will only grow in importance as the crisis plays out and the general public — not just the members of the movement to curb global warming — seeks the bigger picture and answers to questions such as:

  • Will my tax dollars be spent to help alleviate a climate refugee crisis in southeast Asia or Africa?
  • Will my son or daughter in the military be called upon to help evacuate citizens of coastal communities inundated by rising sea levels?
  • Where might the best opportunities for investing in the new green economy lie?

Understandably, few small-town newspapers will print a story about the 100-square-mile chunk of ice that broke off from a Greenland glacier recently, or the fact that Russia is experiencing its hottest and fieriest summer in its history. Most of these small papers focus on local news in their communities—stories the big-city dailies don’t cover very well. But the debate over “Climategate” did play out in the opinion and letters-to-the-editor sections of many of these smaller papers, including a small daily near where I live, The Baraboo News Republic.

It’s only a matter of time before more climate stories begin to appear with regularity in the pages of these smaller papers, because every day global warming becomes a little more local. And as it does, community and community building will become even more important, because we will increasingly need to stay informed, and engage with our neighbors as together we seek ways to adapt to the ravages of a hotter and more volatile world.

For all their problems, newspapers remain essential to preserving open and democratic government — and the world. Due to many wounds, some self-inflicted and some a result of things beyond their control, many newspapers have already become much leaner and meaner. To survive they will also have to become greener, and step up to the challenges presented by global warming. That means increasing climate coverage, “bringing it home” for readers by showing readers how global warming is affecting and will affect their lives, remaining vigilant against false balance, and redoubling their efforts to uphold standards of ethical and journalistic integrity.

And we can do all do our part by subscribing or renewing our subscriptions, or at least reading online. Although advertising long ago replaced subscriptions as the largest source of revenue for newspapers, without readers there would be no newspapers. And without newspapers, I believe we would be living in a world much hotter than it already is.