BY DAVID WHITAKER
Introduction and Ethical Framework
In the wake of the 2016 Russian fake news scandal and its potential effect on the U.S. election, the public has seen a variety of reports referring to extreme instances of fake news and the lengths fake news often goes to deceive its audience.1 Some articles are aimed at political rhetoric regarding fake news.2 Others attempt to help the reader or viewer identify fake news.3 In the midst of this influx of information focused on fake news, the article Yes, The Mainstream Media Does Publish Fake News by Rebecca Leber and Jeremy Schulman addressed the issue of global warming denial in the media over the last several decades. While the title is perhaps somewhat misleading, the data contained within the article paints a fairly bleak picture of media coverage regarding climate change.
The following paper was inspired by the Leber and Schulman article but will address a separate issue concerning the news reports focused on climate change. Specifically, this paper will attempt to examine the ethics involved in reporting on an issue as complex as climate change. The complexity of climate change is widely accepted and certain news organizations have gone as far as creating resources dedicated to understanding the complexities involved.4 Climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe have openly discussed the complexities involved in creating global climate models (GCMs).5 Given the high level of complexity involved (a combination of physics, chemistry, and meteorology6) it would stand to reason that journalists would want to do their due diligence when it comes to researching, understanding, and explaining the scientific realities of climate change. Expertise in a highly scientific field like climate change would naturally deserve to have a qualified expert present the data. And yet, according to research from other authors and research performed for this paper, that is not often the case.
Before beginning the analysis of the research, it would be prudent to approach the issue from an ethical framework that can be referenced later in order to better define the parameters of this investigation. Three ethical frameworks that could work for this investigation are the Judeo-Christian ethic, John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility, and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.
While the Judeo-Christian ethic and Mill’s principle of utility could apply to the ideal media ethics, it seems that a third philosophical application might have even more pragmatic value. When Kant constructed his categorical imperative, he was attempting to design a universal moral imperative that was objectively necessary for all human engagement—to produce, in his words, “an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, that is, as objectively necessary.” The breadth of this principle is famously described with the following statement about the categorical imperative as, “Act only on the maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should be a universal law” (Kant, G 421/39).
My application of this principle to media ethics is specifically targeted at journalists. I am attempting to construct a principle for journalists that, “[they] would create under the guidance of practical reason, . . . a world into which, moreover, [they] would place [themselves] as a member.”7 In other words, both journalists and their audiences alike would desire this ethical principle to be kept. The principle (or maxim in the broadest sense) could be as follows: When engaging in journalism that reports on potentially life-altering information, a journalist ought to accept as a fundamental principle that he or she is responsible to provide important data from a universally regarded expert on the particular topic in question. While this may not be a universal mandate for all intellectual dialogue, it seems appropriate that this ethical mandate could be applied to journalism. There may be multiple opinions on numerous topics that could be debated in a “winner-take-all” approach for the political arena but surely it is best in journalism to investigate the facts by consulting experts in the field and not experts in other fields of study.
Let us briefly indulge in an analogy: In the event of a potential health crisis affecting a vast number of people, the media community is morally obligated to present the news to the best of its ability in order to prevent illness or loss of life. In this not-so-hypothetical scenario, let us say that the illness is an airborne virus affecting the brain that will be potentially lethal to children but only in certain situations that are rather complex. It would not be ethical for a news reporter to interview a dentist (a medical practitioner who does not have a detailed understanding of viruses that damage brain tissue) to determine whether the potential epidemic was truly dangerous. Few reporters or journalists would even consider this as being a viable option. Therefore, if this is the case, it is logical to assume that extremely complex matters which have great potential to affect society warrant expert explanation. Because of this conclusion, this paper will use an ethical framework centering around this more detailed maxim: When journalists present their audience with complex and potentially life-altering information, they should do so by providing the facts via a source who is qualified to explain the facts. Using this maxim as our ethical framework, this paper will attempt to analyze a variety of situations in which this maxim may have been broken.
Examples and Research
One of the earliest studies on media coverage of climate change by Maxwell Boykoff examined reports spanning 1997 to 2004.8 His study focused on news reports from ABC, CNN, NBC, and CBS. The study states that, “through the journalistic norm of ‘balance,’ U.S. television news coverage has been deficient in anthropogenic climate science reporting.”9 The article went on to say:
Television news reporting has thus struggled to accurately communicate anthropogenic climate science. While some posit that media representational practices regarding anthropogenic climate change are coming into greater alignment with the science, this study finds that through the end of the study period of 2004 there remained a significant difference between climate science and television press accounts (Boykoff, 9).
It is worth noting that the research period is over a decade old, and that (as Boykoff noted) others believed that mainstream media was beginning to come into greater alignment with climate science.
The question then becomes, did mainstream media end up aligning with climate science consensus over the subsequent years? According to a study published in Nature Communications, when it comes to mainstream media, “The disproportionate visibility of [climate change contrarians], even in mainstream media sources, is reminiscent of early contrarian efforts that leveraged the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Fairness Doctrine to obtain equal press time.”10 The study goes on to say that, “communication scholars have noted that, in the case of CC, such disproportionate visibility—or false balancing—is likely to mislead public perception, suggesting falsely that within the scientific community there is parity in the number of scientists who do and do not agree on the fundamental issues of anthropogenic [climate change].” The rest of their study showed that in non-mainstream media, climate change contrarians were featured in 49% more articles than climate scientists. The conclusion drawn in this study was that “climate scientists should increasingly exert their authority in scientific and public discourse, and ... professional journalists and editors should adjust the disproportionate attention given to contrarians” (Petersen, 1). It is worth asking if this conclusion is warranted. According to Pew Research, only 27 percent of Americans understand the high level of consensus among scientists that burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests is causing climate change.11 So it would seem that with this data in mind, the conclusion is warranted.
Still, despite this data, it is important to give examples of the types of content that may fail to adhere to the ethical standards set forth in this paper. The following will examine four reports from television news channels that are widely considered to be on varying points on the political spectrum. These reports will be from Fox News, MSNBC, and CBS News.
The first report is from a Fox News program named Fox and Friends.12 In this clip, the host asks a non-scientist questions about the recent report from the UN calling the world to eat less meat due to its impact on climate change. The interviewee was Marc Morano, a political correspondent and head of a conservative think tank called CFACT. Morano has no formal scientific training in any discipline.13 The clip concludes with Morano claiming that there is no link between livestock and climate change. The lower third graphic for Marc Morano lists him as the Executive Director of Climatedepot.com.
Is the aforementioned report ethical? In the video, Morano is introduced as the Executive Director of Climatedepot.com and author of the book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change. The video never specifically refers to Morano as an expert, but given the credentials listed, and the questions posed to him, it would arguably be naive to say that expertise wasn’t implied. Another complex situation follows late in the video. Morano states that there is no link between climate change and animal emissions. This, however, is not an accurate statement based on numerous scientific reports.14 15 16 17 But, it is important to note that the host of the program did not directly ask Morano if there was a link. That said, Morano is a Fox correspondent and is contracted by Fox to appear on their broadcasts. So, where does the onus lie? Perhaps it is best to revert again to the initial maxim: When engaging in journalism that reports on potentially life-altering information, a journalist ought to accept as a fundamental principle that he or she is responsible to provide important data from a universally regarded expert on the particular topic in question.
The evidence behind the purported facts presented in the report are, from the scientific community’s perspective, not of the highest quality. Whether or not the station intended to state these purported facts is not clear. The murky waters of “correspondent” are certainly difficult to clarify. However, it seems unlikely that the station was bothered by this misrepresentation of facts given that the video was published to their website after airing and is still publicly available.
The second report is from MSNBC’s Meet the Press Daily.18 In this report, the anchor interviews the former head of FEMA, Craig Fugate. A third of the way through the interview, the anchor asks Fugate whether there is any other explanation for the increase in powerful hurricanes other than “the water is getting warmer.” This is a direct reference to the theory that climate change is causing an increase in the frequency of high-powered hurricanes. Mr. Fugate, while certainly a disaster management expert, does not have any formal meteorological training or climate science education according to his online public presence.19 20 And yet, the anchor asked him a question that is not within the realm of his expertise.
Let us analyze this in light of our ethical maxim. In this example, the anchor asked a non-expert to make a statement regarding whether the rising sea level temperatures are responsible for the increase in powerful hurricanes. While it may be true that the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing due to warming water,21 the ethics of asking a non-expert a question well outside the realm of his education and work experience are at least suboptimal if not unethical. It is probable that the individual interviewed may not cite the proper sources and would give false information in a quick response format — and this is just as likely to be accidental rather than intentional. Therefore, in this instance, the reporter contradicts the imperative to present the information using a source who is qualified to explain the facts.
The next report comes from Fox News’ show Fox and Friends: First.22 It is a 2019 piece reacting to a statement made by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders regarding the urgency of climate change. In this piece, the anchors interview former Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Director Mandy Gunasekara. It should be noted that while Gunasekara has worked for the EPA, she has never had any formal scientific training or scientific field work experience according to her own online presence.23 Late in the interview, the anchors ask Gunasekara for her position after stating that it seems like there is “science on both sides.” Gunasekara states that climate change is not an existential threat and that humans are adaptable. However, the anchors push for more, mentioning that her stance seems to go against scientific thought. Gunasekara’s response is as follows:
There’s a lot of science on both sides of this issue and I think that you were right to point that out. The truth is—and I talked to a number of scientists at the agency, internationally at various forums—when you get out of a political conversation, they are willing to have a legitimate and constructive conversation. And beyond the fact that people agree that yes the climate is changing—...there is a serious lack of consensus on the issue and desire to figure it out...but trying to say that this is a fact and you have to take these relative actions (which is what the Democrats are trying to do) that’s nothing more than political pandering … (Gunasekara)
The interview concludes with some comments concerning the confusing nature of the situation by the anchors.
The ethics of this video are arguably more starkly opposed to the maxim than any previous example. In this report, anchors ask pointed questions to a non-scientist hoping to get a response that either confirms anthropogenic climate change or denies it. What they received was a veiled denial of anthropogenic climate change. Gunasekara also stated that there is no consensus from the scientific community on this issue. However, according to NASA, this is not the case.24 In actuality, the international community of published climate scientists have a 97% consensus. It would seem then, that there is not a legitimate basis for the claims and that the prodding of a non-scientist for a scientific declaration was indeed unethical.
The final report for review comes from CBS News, a source many feel is more neutral than the previous examples.25 In this report, two anchors interview New York Times reporter, Coral Davenport, regarding her recent article responding to the Trump administration’s rollbacks of Obama-era environmental policies.26 Davenport regularly writes about environmental issues for the Times and has done so since 2006.27 The first question they ask is about the reactions of climate scientists to these rollbacks. Davenport does not give a direct answer to this question. Instead, she summarizes the situation that led to her report. After some further discussion of the political aspects of the administration’s recent actions, Davenport discusses the reactions of climate scientists to this recent change. Davenport does not quote them directly in this interview but does say that they are “alarmed.” In her article for the New York Times, Davenport does quote multiple climate scientists who do cite concerns.28 After her initial response, the anchors ask Davenport about previous climate models and how they were used, citing certain criticisms of climate model accuracy. Davenport gives a historical overview and claims that models over the past few decades have been accurate.
This report is an interesting departure from the others. For the most part, it asks informed individual questions about the scientific conclusions that other experts are drawing. However, it does dip into some questions about the veracity of certain climate data points. While Davenport does answer fairly accurately (at least to the knowledge of this author) it is arguable that the question edges the maxim’s line. Davenport is certainly informed on the issues and has been studying and covering climate science for quite some time, but it is possible that asking a question about the validity of statistical projections could have resulted in some false facts. Her qualifications to answer this kind of question are tenuous. This is, however, a nuanced issue. What constitutes an expert? Davenport has been informally studying these issues for over a decade, and she has significant contact (based on her archived writing) with experts in the field that can help her draw conclusions. But when does it become ethical to trust her as an informed liaison to the scientific community? At what point are correspondents qualified as experts?
Drawing a definite conclusion on this matter is challenging. The ethics of using non-experts as guides to highly scientific questions are not black and white. And while the Kant-inspired principle in this paper does not provide a pragmatic checklist for media ethics, it does present us with a strong foundation for further evaluation.
Some individuals may be qualified to interpret the conclusions of the scientific community, and others may not, but the audience may not know how to discern this. This is another example of how a Kantian principle is more suitable to the issue at hand. A rule-based utilitarian approach would have journalists check off their list of ethical regulations for the good of the people, but the lines become blurred during the rush to publish or go live. If reporters feel they can quickly justify someone as an expert, they can complete their rule-based ethical obligations and move on. However, Kant’s approach always includes intention as summarized by Samuel Stumpf: “It is not enough for the effects or consequences of our behavior to agree with the moral law; the truly moral act is done for the sake of the moral law.” This Kantian principle of “intent” presents journalists with a moral obligation to find true experts for the sake of moral reporting. Kant’s purpose in making this distinction was that people would adhere to the moral law out of “pure respect.” A more utilitarian approach lacks this essential quality. The idea of adhering to journalistic ethics out of respect for the moral law is a concept that deserves further explanation and research. However, the goals of this paper are aimed specifically at the ethical use of expert testimony. That said, Kant’s argument for intentions as a part of adhering to the moral law is something I hope to explore more in a future paper on media ethics in general.
The writers of Discrepancy In Scientific Authority And Media Visibility Of Climate Change Scientists And Contrarians addressed the scientific community and called for action. In their words, “climate scientists should increasingly exert their authority in scientific and public discourse, and ... professional journalists and editors should adjust the disproportionate attention given to contrarians” (Petersen, 2019). Based on the findings of this paper, their call to action seems justified. It can also be reemphasized that now is the time for journalists and news organizations to take greater care when presenting climate science and to seek out whenever possible the most qualified experts to explain climate science data and conclusions. This can be done by actively seeking out competent public speakers within the climate science community. Once found, the media should use these individuals as go-to experts for stories to ensure an accurate representation of the facts as they are known by the experts. A common counter argument to the suggestion that experts should lead the discussion is that finding climate scientists who are effective public speakers is unreasonably difficult. However, not only is this a poor excuse for doing basic journalistic work, it is also false. There are a growing number of climate scientists who are extremely effective public communicators. The aforementioned Katharine Hayhoe is a prime example.29 She has also appeared on television with other climate scientists who are quality public speakers. Jessica Moerman is a fellow climate scientist who has appeared with Hayhoe in a variety of capacities.30 Other scientists have also appeared in public to address the issue on numerous occasions. People like Michael Oppenheimer,31 John Foley,32 and Josh Willis33 have made numerous appearances in the media and are effective public speakers. This suggests that quality sources are out there but are not being utilized.
Though it would seem reductionistic, I would offer the following analogy. It is unlikely that anyone who believes they may have cancer would trust the medical opinion of a hospital administrator who only has degrees in business and finance. So then, why would the media community trust administrative officials who have no formal scientific training to give the public their opinion on ‘the health’ of the planet? This thought may seem like an oversimplification of the issue, but when facing the potential for environmental, public health, and economic crises on a global scale, it is in our own interest to do the best we possibly can. If ever there were a moment when the precautionary principle would apply, now is the moment. If there is even a small chance that this analogy is accurate and that the scientific community has understood the situation, the media are ethically obligated to take action. The stakes are just too high.
1. Stewart, I. (2019, January 16). Real Fake News: Activists Circulate Counterfeit Editions Of 'The Washington Post' . Npr.org. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/16/685857177/real-fake-news-activists-circulate-counterfeit-editions-of-the-washington-post.
2. Stelter, B. (2018, January 17). Trump averages a 'fake' insult every day. Really. We counted. CNNMoney. https://money.cnn.com/2018/01/17/media/president-trump-fake-news-count/index.html.
3. Carson, J. (2019, November 20). Fake News: What Exactly Is It – And How Can You Spot It? The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/fake-news-exactly-has-really-had-influence/
4. Gillis, J. (2019). Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers To Your Questions. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/climate/what-is-climate-change.html
5. Hayhoe, K. (2018, October 31). Global Weirding: Climate Models. PBS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGF4-JyHh_8.
7. Kant, I. (1960) Religion Within the limits of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson. Harper Torchbooks, p. 5.
8. Boykoff, M. (2007). Lost in translation? United States television news coverage of anthropogenic climate change, 1995–2004. Climatic Change, 86(1-2), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-007-9299-3.
9. Ibid, 8.
10. Petersen, A., Vincent, E., & Westerling, A. (2019). Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nature Communications, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09959-4
11. Pew Research Center Science & Society (2016, October 4). The Politics Of Climate Change In The United States. Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/.
12. Fox News. (2019, August 8). Eat less meat to save the planet, a new UN report warns. https://video.foxnews.com/v/6070312085001#sp=show-clips.
13. En.Wikipedia.Org (2019). Marc Morano. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Morano.
14. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2019). FAO - News Article: Key Facts And Findings. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/.
15. US EPA (2019). Sources Of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
16. Grossi, G., Goglio, P., Vitali, A., & Williams, A. (2018). Livestock and climate change: impact of livestock on climate and mitigation strategies. Animal Frontiers, 9(1), 69-76. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfy034.
17. University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. (2019) Carbon Footprint Factsheet. University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet.
18. MSNBC (2019, September 3). Full Fugate: ‘Only Dealing With Past Weather Events’ Not Helping Climate Change Resilience . https://www.msnbc.com/mtp-daily/watch/full-fugate-only-dealing-with-past-weather-events-not-helping-climate-change-resilience-68105797872.
19. Pittman, C., & Allison, W. (2009). Obama nominates Florida's seasoned emergency director Craig Fugate to head FEMA . Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 9 July 2020, from https://web.archive.org/web/20131001084140/http://www.tampabay.com/news/weather/hurricanes/obama-nominates-floridas-seasoned-emergency-director-craig-fugate-to-head/981251.
20. LinkedIn (n.d.) Craig Fugate. https://www.linkedin.com/in/craigfugateconsultingllc/
21. Center For Climate and Energy Solutions (n.d.). Hurricanes and Climate Change. https://www.c2es.org/content/hurricanes-and-climate-change/
22. Fox News. (2019, July 25). Congressional Dems propose carbon tax bill, claim it would cut emissions 100 percent by 2050. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/senate-dems-introduce-carbon-tax-in-order-to-cut-emissions-100-percent-by-2020.
23. LinkedIn (n.d.). Mandy Gunasekara. https://www.linkedin.com/in/mandy-gunasekara-570aa53a/
24. NASA.gov (2019). Scientific Consensus: Earth's Climate Is Warming. https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/.
25. E. Relman (2018, June 21). These Are The Most And Least Biased News Outlets In The US, According To Americans. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/most-and-least-biased-news-outlets-in-america-2018-6.
26. CBS News (2019, May 30). NYT: Trump Administration's “New Assault” On Climate Science. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwHPXngX35Y.
27. Nytimes.Com. (2019) Coral Davenport. https://www.nytimes.com/by/coral-davenport
28. Davenport, C., (2019, May 27). Trump Administration Hardens Its Attack On Climate Science. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/us/politics/trump-climate-science.html
30. Hayhoe, K. (2018, December 20). Talking Faith and Science on the Today Show. http://www.katharinehayhoe.com/wp2016/2018/12/20/talking-faith-and-science-on-the-today-show/
31. Goldman Sachs (2019, April 22). Michael Oppenheimer, Nobel Prize-winning Climate Scientist. https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/talks-at-gs/michael-oppenheimer.html
32. Project Drawdown (n.d.) Jonathan Foley, Executive Director https://www.drawdown.org/staff/jonathan-foley
33. NASA.gov (n.d.) Sea Level and Ice: People, Josh Willis. https://science.jpl.nasa.gov/people/Willis/
- David Whitaker is assistant professor of media communication at Asbury University, in Wilmore, Kentucky.