In his opening essay, Dan Fagin, associate director of New York University’s Science and Environmental Reporting Program, plows the common ground beneath the coverage of intelligent design and global warming. Science, he observes, is not “adept at feeding the media’s craving for novelty, since the credibility of science depends on meticulous process in which each hypothesis builds incrementally on all the work that has come before. In science, nothing ever really comes out of left field. In journalism, it’s our favorite position.” Then we move on from his words to articles examining reporting about these two issues.
In Ohio, where the state board of education ruled that 10th graders must be taught about the “evolution debate,” including ideas such as intelligent design, Jeff Bruce, editor of the Dayton Daily News, explains the approaches to coverage of this issue on the paper’s news and opinion pages and raises a key question about efforts to balance news coverage: “At what point in our efforts to be neutral in our news coverage do we risk becoming misleading?” Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, speaks to the vital voice this page of the newspaper brings to the debate about this issue in Georgia. “We take credit for helping to turn the tide last year when Georgia’s State Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, proposed striking the word ‘evolution’ from the state’s science curriculum because it is a ‘controversial buzzword.’” Diane Carroll, a reporter for The Kansas City Star, started covering this topic in 1999, on the day when the Kansas Board of Education voted to downplay evolution in the state’s public school science standards. Years of experience have taught her that “I.D. proponents tend to be very particular about how their views are presented in news reporting … the Discovery Institute even set up a Weblog to ‘educate’ reporters by critiquing their stories.”
Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, explores the consequences of reporters’ tendency to use the conflict narrative in covering this issue. “If I were an editor,” she writes, “I’d ask my reporters to step back and consider how they, as purveyors of this narrative frame, might be embedded in the ‘conflict’ and its outcome.” Paul R. Gross, University Professor of Life Sciences, Emeritus, at the University of Virginia, laments journalists’ lost opportunities in coverage of a recent Pennsylvania court case in which parents challenged the Dover school board’s decision about changing the school’s ninth grade biology curriculum. “… it is vital,” Gross argues, “that journalists make certain that readers, listeners and viewers understand exactly what did and did not happen in the course of the trial, as opposed to relying on ‘he said, she said’ commentators who know precisely the words to use to skirt some of these key points.” Gailon Totheroh, science and medical reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, suggests that “it might help if reporters started to think about the Dover case as Scopes turned upside down … [and] explore the ways in which institutional power can now be found in the evolution establishment opposing freedom of thought and speech in the academy.” Martin Redfern, senior producer of the BBC Radio Science Unit in London, explains that British people regard intelligent design as a religious issue, not a scientific one. With British schools recently given “more freedom to innovate,” if efforts are made to bring “religious dogma into the classroom through the back door,” Redfern says reporters “will be waiting … to lift this largely untold story into headline news.”
David Michaels, a research professor in environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, describes how public-information campaigns, funded by the fossil fuel industry, insert skeptical views into journalists’ reporting on global warming. “… the skeptic’s assertions are often reported without identifying their corporate sponsors or letting readers know the person’s credentials for raising such doubts,” Michael writes. Ross Gelbspan, author of “Boiling Point,” criticizes reporters for their misplaced use of “balance” in the telling of the global warming story and writes that “it seems profoundly irresponsible for them to pass along a story that is ‘balanced’ with opposing quotes without doing the necessary digging to reach an informed judgment about the gravity of the situation.” In reporting on science and the environment for radio, print and the Web, Daniel Grossman travels with scientists to research sites as they study impacts of climate change. In a photo essay from his trips, many of which have taken him near the earth’s poles “since the Arctic and Antarctic are heating up faster than anywhere else,” Grossman shows and describes what he has observed.
Max Boykoff, a doctoral student in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, reports findings from a study he coauthored about “balanced reporting” in newspaper coverage of global warming. The conclusion: “… the reporting was found to be strikingly out of alignment with the top climate science.” University of Utah doctoral student Jessica Durfee and associate professor Julia Corbett examined how context and controversy in stories about global warming affect readers’ perceptions of the issue. One finding: “It is heartening to know that the simple inclusion of scientific context might help mitigate the readers’ level of uncertainty.” Sharon Dunwoody, who teaches science and environmental journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wants journalists to use “weight-of-evidence” reporting in covering this issue. It is not up to journalists “to determine what’s true but, instead, to find out where the bulk of evidence and expert thought lies on the truth continuum and then communicate that to audiences.” University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Sandy Tolan and graduate student Alexandra Berzon provide an overview of coverage of this topic, and Tolan describes a class he designed, “Early Signs: How Global Warming Affects Commerce, Culture and Community,” in which journalism students learn how to document “the social, cultural, political and economic impact of climate change around the world.”
In excerpts from a speech television journalist Bill Moyers delivered to the Society of Environmental Journalists, he offers ways to connect storytelling about global warming to evangelical concerns about preserving the earth. Markus Becker, who heads the science department at Spiegel Online, contrasts U.S. and German approaches and notes that American news media “are so intent on hearing both sides in a debate that they often are virtually incapable of showing where the majority opinion lies.” Hans von Storch, who directs the Institute for Coastal Research in Germany and Werner Krauss, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, explain how cultural orientations in the U.S. and Germany affect public perceptions about climate change and reporting about it. And former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Jacques A. Rivard describes why his editors rarely requested that he include “opposing views about global warming.”