Covering Climate Change Seriously and other short notes

Buried deep in an insight-filled exchange between Grist‘s David Roberts and The Roost‘s Wen Stephenson about media coverage of climate change is this brilliant analogy:

It’s quite instructive to compare coverage of climate with coverage of the deficit.

Both are long-term threats whose short-term symptoms don’t seem that serious. But they’re covered very differently.

Mainstream journalists routinely tell us that a trillion-dollar-a-year deficit will lead to disaster. They don’t worry about sounding like activists or alarmists. When a newsmaker warns about the consequences of the deficit, journalists don’t hunt up some fringe economist to give an opposing view. Further, journalists will bring the deficit into a story even when the sources don’t. If a politician is proposing something related to taxing or spending, a common question is “What would that do to the deficit?”

None of that happens when mainstream journalists cover climate change. Roberts sums up:

the deficit is mentioned not just in stories about the deficit but in almost every story about economics or government, period! You can recommend economic austerity measures that are absurd to professional economists and never, ever get your reputation dinged. There is no social risk to over-worrying or talking too much about the deficit; there’s only upside, reputation- and career-wise. It is the paradigmatic Very Serious issue, divorced from the facts but reinforced by herd behavior.

Climate is the mirror image. The facts support a far more alarmist case, but not only can objective journalists not take that for granted — they’re barely allowed to take the existence of climate change for granted. Even the mildest of carbon-pricing schemes is deemed radical, unrealistic, bad politics. “Everybody knows” we’re going to keep accelerating through oil, gas, and coal until they’re gone. To say otherwise is to be un-savvy

When action on climate change is blocked, it’s typically reported as a defeat for “environmentalists” — a special interest group. But when action to cut the deficit fails, it’s a blow to our grandchildren.

Roberts’ analogy provides a very simple way to explain what we should be demanding from the media: Cover climate change the way you cover the deficit. It’s not impossible or impractical or a violation of journalistic ethics. They’re already doing it on a different issue.

Today’s wishful thinking: Maybe outright lying by politicians will become less acceptable. I’m not talking about the lies everybody tells about their inner process (like “I don’t pay attention to the polls”), I mean checkable black-is-white lies about history and the state of the world. Maybe the media will start calling attention to these lies and make them counterproductive.

This pollyanna-ish thought is motivated by NPR’s new journalistic ethics handbook, which emphasizes truth over balance.

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.

Journalism critic Jay Rosen sees this as a rejection of he-said/she-said coverage, where opposing true and false statements are presented without comment.

AlterNet’s Sarah Jaffe thinks she has found an example of the new policy: On February 27, NPR ran a Mitt Romney quote and then corrected the part of it that was false. Maybe that practice will catch on with other journalists.

Correcting lies is a good first step. Ultimately, I’d like to hear journalists objectively report “That guy just lied to us” as Rachel Maddow does here:

The Romney Etch-a-Sketch gaffe just underlines what I wrote about him last week:

his general-election strategy depends on voters doubting his honesty: Come fall, he’ll need to convince independents that he didn’t mean any of the stuff he’s saying now.

Lauren Zuniga’s poem for the Oklahoma legislators is painful to listen to, but that’s what’s so good about it.

Oklahoma is one of many states passing laws whose main purpose seems to be to humiliate and cause anguish to women who want an abortion. Zuniga strips away all the facades and reacts to the spiteful intention behind the law.

While we’re talking about transvaginal ultrasounds, have you ever wondered how doctors feel about the state using them as tools of humiliation against their patients? This one doesn’t like it, and even thinks some civil disobedience is in order:

When the community has failed a patient by voting an ideologue into office…When the ideologue has failed the patient by writing legislation in his own interest instead of in the patient’s…When the legislative system has failed the patient by allowing the legislation to be considered… When the government has failed the patient by allowing something like this to be signed into law… We as physicians cannot and must not fail our patients by ducking our heads and meekly doing as we’re told.

Zuninga’s poem is an example of the Left getting more aggressive on social issues, a trend I hope catches on. For the longest time we’ve been passive. Unless “family values” types took crystal meth with gay prostitutes, we’ve mostly not challenged their claims to be well-intentioned moral people, motivated by conscience and authentic religious conviction.

It’s time for that to stop. That’s why Fred Clark’s recent article The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal is so important: He points out the suspicious timing of the evangelical revelation that a newly-fertilized ovum has a soul.

They haven’t always believed that. They started believing it after Roe v Wade, and it became undebatable in evangelical circles after abortion became the center of a right-wing political movement.

In other words, this isn’t a political view motivated by theological conviction. The theology was invented to support a political movement already in progress.

Two weeks ago (in the weekly challenge) I proposed that the Left go on offense on women’s issues by pushing the Equal Rights Amendment again. I wasn’t the only one to think of that.

The American public has basically the same view on abortions that it has on guns: There are too many of them, but if my family ever decides that we need one, I don’t want the government telling us we can’t have it.

So whether the public is pro or anti depends on how the question is phrased. This poll bears that out on abortion: In every religious group, large numbers of people who disapprove of abortion still want it to be available.

abortion poll

If you’re not watching Cara Santa Maria’s videos on Huffington Post, you’re not just missing good coverage of science and society, you’re missing a hot chick with glasses whose tag line is “Talk nerdy to me.” I mean, I like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but …

Here she tells us about a new state law to return Tennessee to the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

If you’ve ever wondered about those “Proof Jesus Never Existed” ads that show up in the back of magazines or pop up on the internet, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has a new book out. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler: He concludes Jesus existed.

I don’t expect President Obama to raise the Romney dog-on-the-roof issue explicitly. I just think we’ll see a lot of pictures like this:

If a prospective employer asks you to give them your Facebook password, what other morally dubious demands will they make?

And why would an employer trust applicants who are willing to violate FaceBook’s rules and compromise their friends’ privacy like that?

A week ago Friday, the Daily Show had one of its best episodes ever. The opening monologue was funny as usual, but the next two segments were John Oliver’s amazing take-down of our defunding of UNESCO. It culminates with Oliver in Africa (really — not via green-screen) explaining to cute African children why Israel-Palestine politics means they can’t have an education.

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  • By Transcending Ideology « The Weekly Sift on March 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    […] Covering Climate Change Seriously and other short notes. What if climate change got covered by the same standards as the deficit? Is the media going to start exposing liars? Evangelical theology follows its politics, not the other way around. One of the best Daily Show episodes ever. And more. […]

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