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Post Watch: Balance and Absence aren’t top-flight journalism …

December 1st, 2011 · 2 Comments

As a native Washingtonian, weaned on morning and evening newspapers, The Washington Post is my hometown journal and has been (for too many decades) a key part of my window on the world.  Over the decades, however, that window has dirtied and darkened to distortion on critical issues to the point that I (and, well, many others) have to evaluate constantly whether maintaining a WashPost subscription is an intelligent and, well, even ethical thing to do.   There are several driving factors that have skewed the balance toward a continued subscription.

  • My children often struggle with each other for access to Sports (to read about the local teams, even with frustration over inadequate coverage of soccer and women’s sports) and Metro (to check the weather to see whether they can argue for shorts in winter).  To see one’s children impassioned over reading news is something that any parent would welcome.
  • This is the ‘hometown’ paper and thus provides a window on life that reliance on the web or substitute an alternative paper simply wouldn’t provide.
  • And, there are stars at the Post who merit reading.  For example, Tom Toles’ political cartoons are wonderful windows on American politics and represent some of the best cartooning related to energy and environmental (especially climate change) issues.

Among those ’stars’ are reporters  Juliet Eilperin and Andrew FreedmanEilperin has a long history related to reporting on environmental issues, ability to put real knowledge and expertise developed over time to work in support of informing readers about complex environmental issues.  Freedman is a rising star in the Capital Weather Gang who brings an understanding of climate science to the table amid meteorological discussions.

Even stars, however, have dark spots and two traditional journalistic dark spots when it comes to climate science reporting appeared in Eilperin and Freedman articles 28 November.

He said, She said …

That day, Eilperin reported on a Carnegie Institution appearance by Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Birol spoke in quite serious terms about the climate implications of the global community’s energy usage patterns and the risks of ‘business as usual’.

Unless there is a shift away from some of the fossil fuel energy now used for electricity generation and transportation, Birol said, “the world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature.

“Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,”

Several dark spots marred reporting on the presentation, timed to occur on the opening day of the international climate meeting in Durban, South Africa.

First off, there is a too-standard Post dark spot outside Eilperin’s control: this stark message appeared on page “A2″ as the ‘ho-hum’ news that, yet again, serious analytical work by experts highlights the global community’s accelerating headlong rush off the cliff toward catastrophe.  This is a significantly important story since the IEA is a multi-national organization that has generally been conservative when it comes to energy issues and has never before made such stark statements about climate issues.  As per the article, quoting David Burwell, who directs the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment,

They’re definitely raising the red flag, because the numbers speak for themselves. This is the first year they’ve started stamping their foot and saying, ‘Lookit, listen to us.’

The Post’s editors relegated another Eilperin climate-change related story to page A2 today, this one on a multi-organizational call on Congress to address climate change as an ethical and moral imperative.

The second item rests, it would seem, with Eilperin and the journalistic drive to have “balance” when it comes to climate (science) reporting.

Birol spoke in unusually blunt terms about the climate implications of the global energy mix, implications that are disputed by many conservatives in the United States who don’t believe in the connection between human activity and climate change.

Yet again, a variation on ‘he says, she says’. Yes, this is ‘factual’.  “Many conservatives” suffer from anti-science syndrome and put ideology over science in their deference to Hannity / Beck / Limbaugh above knowledge.  Yet, does this “factual” reporting truly contribute to greater public understanding?  Does such ‘he said, she said’ faux balancing provide an accurate reporting for the Post’s readers to understand Birol’s discussion of expert analysis by one of the world’s leading institutions about what is likely the most critical issue facing humanity?

Reporting without context

Freedman’s article,  Siberian snowfall may help improve U.S. weather forecasts, meteorologist says, appeared in the Post’s weekly Health & Science section. (Kudoes to The Post in maintaining such a weekly section, which often has the most interesting reporting each week, in the face of nation-wide decline in science reporting even though a daily place for such reporting, such as Le Monde’s la Planete page, would provide greater value in enhancing public understanding.)  The article begins

According to new research, Washingtonians shouldn’t blame bad luck for the recent string of high-impact snowstorms, from “Snowmaggedon” two years ago to last January’s “Commuteageddon.” Instead, it may be more justified to cast a suspicious gaze toward Siberia, about 6,000 miles away.

Freedman then continues with a long discussion of a new study that correlates the formation of Siberia’s snowpack with shifts in the Arctic Oscillation and therefore the severity of the East Coast’s (and Washington’s) weather. (Note that the study is behind a paid firewall and that I have not been able to read it.) Amid the general efforts to provide more accurate weather reporting, this scientific work provides a potential path for nailing down general winter conditions with more precision.  Freedman’s story provides a good window on understanding how this data-backed hypothesis merits further scientific investigation even as it is not ‘nailed down’.   Reading the article, however, several words are striking in their absence:  “climate change” (or “Global Warming” or …).  Of course, not everything that exists on the planet is “climate change” related nor does “global warming” represent the sole element driving weather conditions. For billions of years to come, for example, we can accurately predict that the geographic area of Washington, DC, will have more snowfall in January than in July.  However, we are well past the time in which we can discuss and analysis long-term weather patterns and conditions absent including climate change as part of the discussion. (As for the DC area, here is a Capital Weather Gang look at DC’s changing (warming) temperatures.)  There are, at least,  two climate change issues that clearly seem relevant for this reporting:

  • How is climate change impacting the formation of Siberia’s snowpack and how might that change the impact (via Arctic Oscillation) on DC’s climate/weather in the years/decades to come?
  • A warming planet means greater moisture in the air and an increasing percentage of rainfall in severe storm events. This is simple science and an impact that we are already recording globally (up about 20 percent in the past century in the United States).  Thus, a rather simple (and truthful) correlation:  all things being equal (same temperatures, winds, such), “Snowmaggedon”-type major (record-breaking) snowfalls are more likely with each passing year since there is (globally) more moisture in the atmosphere.

In an otherwise excellent article, Freedman ill-served the Fourth Estate’s role to provide for a more informed citizenry / electorate and ill-served the Post’s readership in failing to explore (or even raise) the issue of climate change in a discussion of severe weather events and winters.

GESN Items re The Washington Post include

Tags: Post Watch · Washington Post · journalism · research · science

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Andrew Freedman // Dec 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks for your kind words,

    You are welcome. Merited for both you and Juliet (and Tom and …)

    and for your views on the Siberia-DC snowfall connection story.

    The proposed connection between October snowfall is very complex, and global warming - if it’s playing a role at all (let’s just say yes, it is) - is likely a very minor player behind the connection itself. In other words, the Siberia/NAO connection would be operating with or without global warming.

    Agree that the Siberia/NAO connection is something, if it the science solidifies, that is relevant with or without climate change / global warming.

    However, the “let’s just say, yes, it is” is a rather dismissive note.

    Now, warming is likely influencing snowfall in northern Siberia, especially given the loss of sea ice in that area. I just didn’t have room to go into that, since it seemed like a distraction from the main weather story and was not in Cohen’s study.

    I agree that it is almost certainly a highly complex set of issues and that you could not address it robustly within this article. You could, however, had included that Cohen’s study did not address climate change and put in a question or two stating the relationships are very complex and a subject for future/further investigation. E.g., this story didn’t have to sit without a comment re Global Warming (especially, I think, in terms of how it relates to mass precipitation events like Snowmageddon.).

    I think a followup piece would explore how global warming may be influencing the NAO, including through this snowfall mechanism. It was just difficult to integrate all that into one piece.

    Cheers,
    -Andrew

  • 2 Post Watch: An airy (eerie) hole in wind coverage // Dec 4, 2011 at 10:05 am

    [...] Post Watch: Balance and Absence aren’t top-flight journalism … [...]

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