When Ross Gelbspan spoke about the aftermath of his recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, his comments provoked deep astonishment. As he put it, his article exploded onto the scene at the end of August, sending shock waves through the U.S. media. Angry letters to the editor poured in to the Globe, while Gelbspan himself went on the talk show circuit.
“Disinformation, Financial Pressures, and Misplaced Balance”
– Ross Gelbspan When Gelbspan told this story to a group of visiting German journalists, I among them, we were perplexed. What on earth had this man written to cause such an uproar? The answer was this: In his op-ed, entitled “Katrina’s Real Name,” Gelbspan, author of “Boiling Point,” had claimed that 1. global warming exists and 2. not only does it exist, it even has definite, tangible effects, such as more powerful hurricanes. When we heard this, confusion gave way to utter bewilderment. For the average German media consumer, this would have been about as shocking as declaring that the world is round.
Cultural differences might well be at play here. After all, Germans are known for obsessively sorting their household waste into plastics, metals, glass, paper and compost and placing it all in separate, different colored plastic bins. The glass—and most Americans think this is a joke—is further sorted by color and tossed into neighborhood containers–but no later than 7 p.m. please, to keep the noise down. Anyone who accidentally tosses regular garbage in with the recycling is asking for serious trouble with the neighbors. And when a hurricane drowns a city like New Orleans, the German environment minister blames the U.S. government for contributing to the catastrophe with its misguided environmental policies.
Anecdotes like these are not the only examples of the depth of concern in Germany about global climate issues. For almost 50 years, conservatives, social democrats, and liberals had shared power in democratic, post-war Germany. The first party to establish itself as a fourth political power in Germany since 1949 was the Green Party, which formed a governing coalition with the social democrats from 1998 to 2005 and pursues an environmental agenda mixed with left-wing and pacifist ideas.
The environmental threat posed by global warming rouses the German public’s emotions far more than the political aspects of climate change. Domestic environmental protection regulations and the Kyoto Protocol have generally bored German readers and will probably continue to do so—that is, unless President George W. Bush tries to use the climate agreement to boost his popularity in Europe.
By contrast, the U.S. media pay far more attention to the domestic and foreign policy implications of climate change than its environmental consequences. This could also have to do with public sentiment. When Roland Emmerich released his disaster blockbuster “The Day After Tomorrow,” conservative commentator Steven Milloy labeled him an eco-extremist. “The movie’s unmistakable purpose is to scare us into submitting to the Greens’ agenda,” Milloy wrote on the Web site for Fox News. And this agenda has but one purpose, “domination of society through control of energy resources.”
Incidentally, Milloy’s primary employer is the neoconservative Cato Institute, which receives much of its funding through corporate contributions. That he is even allowed to write a column on climate policy for mass media distribution under the circumstances—even for Fox News—is interesting in and of itself, but Milloy is not the only vocal skeptic of climate issues that the lobby/institute has managed to slip into the mainstream media. More on that later.
The sheer number and nature of letters to the editor that are sent to mass media publications such as Spiegel Online demonstrates how passionate the discussion of environmental conservation and climate protection is in Germany. This makes it all the more important that we use the most reliable and credible sources for our articles and that we pay attention to the majority opinion in the scientific community.
This is perhaps the key difference between the media in the United States and Germany. This emphasis—not only at Spiegel Online, but in most of the German news media—has led both commentators and the public at large to the conclusion that human-caused climate change is a fact confirmed primarily, but not solely, by an overwhelming majority of scientists. Of course the proponents of the scientific minority have their say, too, but seldom does a German newspaper fail to mention the fact that these scientists do belong to a small minority.
It helps that the German media are less strict about the division between editorials and news than the news media in the United States. In Europe, the various media outlets traditionally hold a position at some specific point along the political spectrum, with conservative and left-wing newspapers publishing true to their political orientations and sharpening their images against the competition. Therefore, when the existence of global warming is largely accepted as fact, it is not just a matter of expressing the majority opinion of the scientific community. Conservative publications like Die Welt and Die Zeit, which are generally more business-friendly, tend to represent climate change as a topic of scientific debate, while liberal papers like the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the very left-leaning Tageszeitung take the side of researchers warning about the dangers of global warming.
In the United States, journalists want to be objective and take the political middle road—or so it seems from the European perspective. There are exceptions like Fox News. But it is interesting that, in this case, a TV broadcasting station that often violates political balance claims to do just the opposite, that is, to provide “fair and balanced” reporting. Another consequence of the “objectivity principle” is that news media in the United States are so intent on hearing both sides in a debate that they often are virtually incapable of showing where the majority opinion lies. In the climate debate, this means the same old skeptics can take up their position and receive equal time against an overwhelming majority of scientists.
This sometimes leads to interesting combinations. For example, on October 18th The Washington Post published an article by Juliet Eilperin on a study conducted at Purdue University that claims the number of extreme weather incidents will rise due to global warming. In this article, Patrick J. Michaels was quoted with an opposing view. Incidentally, Michaels also works for the Cato Institute. The Washington Post noted this and the fact that Michaels had received financial contributions from representatives of the coal, gas and mining industries. Nevertheless, they gave him a soap box from which to claim that the Purdue team’s assumptions that carbon dioxide concentrations would double was wrong and “not borne out by reality.“ It is hardly surprising that readers emerge from this “he said, she said“ conflict not knowing any more about how or whether the Purdue researchers made any mistakes in their assumptions. All Michaels’ words do is cast doubt, and that is what is left in the readers’ minds.
For most German media, Spiegel Online included, something like this would be unthinkable. Michaels’ obvious conflict of interest would have disqualified him from the debate. To cite this conflict openly and then quote Michaels anyway would be viewed as a contradiction in terms or as kowtowing to industry. German reporters tend to call upon independent scientists as much as possible when seeking authorities to classify scientific studies and critically analyze the authors’ methods and findings. In the end, whether these scientists agree with the study findings or dispute them is not as important as the fact that a number of independent voices are heard. In other words, German media seek to hear numerous qualified opinions rather than doggedly searching for an opposing voice regardless of that voice’s qualifications.
One salient example of how the German journalists let climate experts be heard is an article published in the February 16, 2005, issue of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest and most highly respected newspapers. Hartmut Grassl, a climate researcher who is recognized throughout the world, rebutted the common arguments of climate change skeptics. The newspaper did not invite a researcher to debate with Grassl. Instead they had an anonymous party present 13 arguments commonly brought by climate-change skeptics. Those arguments comprised a total of 209 words of the article, while Grassl’s responses totaled 903 words. The title of the article was “Why climate- change skeptics are wrong.”
If a similar article had appeared in The New York Times, which holds a similar position in the daily newspaper market to that of the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, it likely would have elicited a fierce reaction. But in Germany this approach can easily be reconciled with journalistic ethics. The newspaper presented the views of climate-change skeptics, but gave them a relatively small amount of space to account for the fact that theirs is a minority position. At the same time, the paper avoided offering a personal forum to an individual who might be compromised by a conflict of interest. In the United States, this approach would probably have been considered a flagrant violation of the fairness principle.
However, there are clear indications that this and the resulting flood of “he said, she said” articles is coming to an end. At the beginning of October, Time magazine stressed that time is running out for political head games. Time writer Jeffrey Kluger wrote: “In Washington, successive administrations have ignored greenhouse warnings, piling up environmental debt the way we have been piling up fiscal debt. The problem is, when it comes to the atmosphere, there’s no such thing as creative accounting. If we don’t bring our climate ledgers back into balance, the climate will surely do it for us.”
Markus Becker heads the science department at Spiegel Online, the news Web site of Der Spiegel magazine. Becker participated in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Summer U.S. Academy for Science Journalism, which brought 15 young journalists from Germany to New York and Boston/Cambridge in September 2005.