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Does "Objectivity" Belong in Newscasts About Climate Change?

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Sensationalism, drama, visuals, breaking news, and ratings are just a few factors that drive the television news world. Although climate change seems to be insidiously disrupting our social fabric, it makes the newscast only when there's a dramatic natural disaster. Journalists for their part adhere to some of the basic rules in an attempt to provide objectivity and balance to the story.

But does this sporadic coverage and journalistic norm work for climate change?

In an interview for my master's thesis on media coverage of climate change, Bill Hutchison, CTV Toronto's late night news anchor said,

"If you can have both sides given an opportunity to express their opinions, express their arguments in a reasonable manner and you present facts as clearly and concisely as you can -- facts you know to be accurate that are verifiable -- the audience can make their own decision."

However, Joshua Laughren, Climate Change Director at World Wildlife Fund Canada says,

"Balance doesn't mean 50/50. Balance means it needs to be an accurate reflection of the diverging views. So having one climate change scientist and one denier is not actually balanced because that doesn't reflect the 98 per cent of the scientists that believe climate change and one or two per cent don't. That's actually not balanced, that's imbalanced, that's not objectivity -- it doesn't reflect the diverse views of the majority."

To begin with, objectivity fully emerged as a guiding principle in the 1890s, but it was not until the 20th century that it was applied to journalistic work. Journalistic "objectivity" is generally used for fairness, neutrality, factuality, and non-partisanship, but some argue, it excuses lazy reporting. In his book The Sociology of News Michael Schudson says, "The belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation."

However, it gets worse when it comes to climate change coverage, and in fact objectivity is nurturing climate denial among those who continue to reject the credible climate science, which is clearly explained in this Climate-Change-101 creative video by the famous scientist Bill Nye.

To put things into proper perspective it's important to understand how the television news production works. Media professionals work in contexts structured by institutional, economic, political, and technological demands to produce stories from source materials that will define the day's news. Of particular importance is the fact that producers have a fairly good sense of their putative audience, and how the story should be told, (Cultural Circuits of Climate Change in U.K. Broadsheet, 2005). Authors Anabela Carvalho and Jacquelin Burgess suggest, the narratives and visual communication in climate change stories generally tend to reflect the producers/ journalists worldviews, as the reporters have an undue advantage of selecting an angle of their choice and packaging the story, regardless of whether the content captures the key points of the research or not. This leaves the audience disengaged with the issue and they tune out.

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Maxwell and Jules Boykoff of the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, did a case study on journalistic norms, which focused on objectivity and balanced reporting (2007), and concluded, "paradoxically, such professional, well-intentioned behavior can actually decrease the possibility of precise, proper and pressing climate-change coverage." The authors claim, by confining themselves to widely accepted journalistic norms the influential mass-media have misrepresented the top climate scientific perspective, which has perpetrated an informational bias regarding anthropogenic (human caused) climate change, and in turn has resulted in public disengagement of the issue.

Here in Canada, Shane Gunster of Simon Fraser University (B.C., Canada) takes aim at the B.C. Media coverage of the 2009 Copenhagen summit in a study entitled, "Covering Copenhagen: Climate Change in BC Media". He says "the vulnerability of journalists might be better directed toward the role that columnists and pundits (and the editors who approve and select them) are playing in keeping doubts about climate change alive and well."

And Discovery Channel Canada General Manager Paul Lewis, whom I also interviewed for my MA thesis concurs,

"Without a doubt the naysayers probably get more attention than they are worth just because they tend to be quite smart about being able to get their view out there because reporters are starving for some sort of balance and most often they go to the same cast of characters over and over again." Brent Cunningham, the managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review, says "Objectivity makes us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it."

Which is exactly what James Hoggan argues in his book Climate Cover-up -- crusade to deny global warming. He says, the media need to recognize that the goal of every propaganda campaign is to confuse people and sow seeds of doubt. So rather than passively accept deniers views journalists need to challenge them and corroborate their claims through proper investigation, and the media will discover that the deniers are "dedicated to undermining public confidence in the majority view about the risks of global warming."

Richard McIlveen, CTV Toronto's late night news producer, another one of my thesis participants, bluntly acknowledges that objectivity is not working for climate change,

"It's in the DNA of television news to try to get two points of view to try to make it even controversial or give it some heat around opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately it's a bad model for climate change because any serious researcher will tell you that 98 per cent of climate scientists say this is happening. So no -- it's not been a good thing because people want to believe that tomorrow is going to be a better day and if there's any iota of 'oh well! Maybe those guys are wrong OK, we can relax. I tend to believe the guy who's telling me this isn't going to happen and that the world's going to go on as we know it.'"

So given the strong consensus between the media and environmental advocates that objectivity doesn't do justice for climate change how can the news media provide effective coverage of climate change?

Discovery Channel Canada's Paul Lewis says,

"Well I think it's providing context. It's saying here's Joe Smith -- he says that global warming is being exaggerated doesn't exist but he represents a very tiny minority of scientists -- it's just going that extra step but I think sometimes in the rush to get stories turned around quickly and on the air it's forgotten. But over time it leaves a very different impression with people that's not really reflective of the reality."

Lewis believes journalists should receive special training:

"Educating the journalists to allow them to understand how science works, how theories get proven and the incredible amount of the overwhelming research studies that are out there that have proven that global warming exists that's where it starts, that gets infused into the story telling. Journalists are generalists and the science can be very difficult. We are lucky enough in Canada to have an organization called the science media centre which is out there to try and help educate journalists on scientific issues."

CTV's Richard Mcilveen echoes similar sentiments, "If this was my newsroom I'd probably have an environmental reporter. I think that would be the easiest solution -- is to have somebody on the beat or someone with a serious focus on that beat that would then have a list of experts that he or she could call upon on any given day, or about any given story."