BY COURTNEY PERKINS
Reporting on the environment is a unique specialty, presenting journalistic dilemmas that other subjects don’t. Questions of balance are particularly troubling. Ensuring balanced reporting traditionally is a sacred pact that journalists make with their editors and audiences. The Online News Association1 explains the importance journalists place on balance succinctly, saying, “balance and fairness are classic buzzwords of journalism ethics: In objective journalism, stories must be balanced in the sense of attempting to present all sides of a story.” But in recent decades, the scale of the climate crisis combined with a heightened political sensitivity surrounding environmental matters have made the old “he said, she said” formula for balance unworkable in environmental reporting. Political agendas often drive environmental policy debates, and false arguments must be kept in check. Journalists often choose to leave out one “side” of the debate in order to avoid giving credence to falsehoods. They also must make case-by-case decisions on whether to include an element of advocacy in their reporting. A journalist with a deep understanding of environmental issues may develop strong ideas about what action should be taken, but how far can a reporter take “solutions” journalism without entering the realm of opinion? How can one maintain a stance of advocacy for the good of the planet, yet avoid the perception of bias? Is there a new, better form of objectivity for this type of reporting?
The answers may not be definitive or universally accepted, but this investigation aims to assemble a comprehensive overview of how standards of balance are being adapted in environmental reporting, what’s working, and what still needs to be addressed moving forward. This will be achieved primarily by collecting and analyzing colloquial evidence from journalists in previous studies, recent articles, and original interviews.
Review of Literature
This material surveyed here includes published studies, polling data, scientific findings, and anecdotes from professional journalists. The goal was to identify ethical dilemmas in environmental reporting related to balance, impartiality, objectivity, and fairness, and to discover how journalists have so far been addressing those challenges. Different types of environmental journalism were investigated, including traditional media, blogging, activist journalism, and NGO communications. The impact of advancing climate science on how environmental reporting is conducted was also explored. Although this review does not solely focus on climate change, it is the most frequently discussed topic due to its significant impact on the field.
The new jumping-off point
Many working journalists say there is one factor that has given them the confidence to report some environmental truths with no uncertainty: the science. David Schechter, a reporter at the ABC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, says the scientific documentation that climate change is real and that it is driven by human activity gives a journalist “the armor he or she needs” to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to cover “both sides” of the climate issue.2 Schechter recounts a segment he did on climate deniers; he wanted to connect a skeptic with a climatologist and take them both on a road trip to see melting glaciers up close. In preparing for the shoot, he dove into research and found the subject “so full of noise and passion” that he basically gave up and leaned on the old tool of “he says, she says” reporting. But Schechter says he quickly realized that reporting on climate change as if it’s up for debate gives doubters too much equal footing on a subject that’s been put to bed many times by an international scientific consensus.
The most unwavering statement on global warming to date came in the 2021 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said the Earth’s climate is changing in every corner of the globe, it’s happening everywhere and it’s happening very quickly. The IPCC said some of the changes like ocean level increases are irreversible,3 but if “strong and sustained reductions”4 in carbon dioxide are made quickly, it could limit global warming and temperatures would be expected to stabilize in the next 20-30 years.
A few years before that, the news the IPCC had for the world wasn’t much better. It laid out the consequences of global warming if it was not slowed, including negative impacts on “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.”5 A dire warning, and yet fewer than half of the largest newspapers in the United States covered that report.6 A joint article from Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation warned, “Instead of sleepwalking us toward disaster, the U.S. news media need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities—to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action.”
False balance: where journalists have failed
Even though in scientific circles the facts of climate change are no longer up for debate, the topic continues to be considered controversial, and there’s no shortage of opinion that “false balance” in environmental journalism is largely to blame. Climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf points out that journalists “tend to balance statements with opposing views, which is fine with matters of opinion. But this tendency to ‘quote the other side’ then gives the public the erroneous concept of there being ‘two equal camps’ in science.”7 So over the years, journalists, in an effort to tell every side of each story, have given too much time and recognition to climate deniers.
Rahmstorf says journalism is uniquely impactful on environmental issues. It is an important source of information for policymakers and voters who have to make decisions about what’s best for the environment. People turn to the media to help them understand complex sets of facts in order to make sound decisions. To uphold that responsibility to the public, he says, journalists should handle environmental issues differently from other subjects, giving special consideration to what to include and what to leave out of their reporting.
But good science journalism goes beyond delivering accurate information. Rahmstorf says providing context is imperative; a good environmental story clearly lays out what is already established by the scientific community and what it is still working to confirm. It is also crucial to be transparent about how scientists have come to their conclusions, he says, and to include the potential impact of those conclusions on society.
Rahmstorf’s assessment is that journalists often fail to check those boxes. The reason for the failing grade? He says just look at all of the reporting that has been done on the climate crisis in recent years and ask yourself, “Does the public have a realistic understanding of climate science?” The answer is no.
Despite the scientific certainty that climate change is real, and it’s being driven by human activity, polling shows a large portion of the U.S. is not yet on board. In a 2020 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, only 57 percent of people surveyed answered “yes” when asked whether they thought global warming is caused by human activities.8 The survey indicates nearly half of Americans still have some degree of uncertainty on the matter.
Modernizing the concepts of balance, objectivity, and fairness
As environmental journalists abandon the old “he said, she said” method of balance, they’re focusing on other virtues, one of them being, simply, “knowledge.” Longtime journalist and science journalism researcher Steve McIlwain studied ways to improve the media’s communication of environmental issues and found that what many stories lacked was a full explanation of the concepts they were discussing, like the greenhouse effect or the thinning ozone layer.9 McIlwain says, “If journalists take the trouble to learn the basics, as they surely must do in every field they encounter, then many problems in writing about climate-change science are minimized.” Good knowledge of the subjects they’re covering, McIlwain says, is an antidote to “bogus distractions about disagreement” and “manipulation of issues by vested interests” like industrial and political lobbyists.
Michigan State University researchers advise that on the environmental beat, it is necessary to start with a good understanding of the subject because journalists “must deal with the difficulties of translating arcane, complex, and specialized knowledge to multiple audiences.”10 The authors say coming to a story from a point of knowledge not only helps in crafting an accurate, understandable final product; it prepares the reporter to be more effective throughout the entire process. A knowledgeable journalist is better equipped to identify good sources, ask the right questions, provide analysis, and discern what angles are most important to cover. Interestingly, research shows higher education does not amount to better quality environmental reporting. “The ability to locate people with the right knowledge is important as is the ability to ask the right questions, willingness to try new things, and use of mediating processes,” this study concludes.
Knowledge journalism is just one tool that’s being used to bolster solid, modern environmental reporting. Associate Professors Sara Shipley Hiles and Amanda Hinnant of the Univ. of Missouri School of Journalism interviewed several experienced environmental reporters about their views on objectivity.11 Each had his or her own formula to achieve what would traditionally be called a “balanced” story. One said, “because a significant portion of the population does not believe in global warming, it is important to maintain credibility with readers and ‘to remind people this is something scientists have studied, and not something politicians pull out of thin air.’” During Hiles and Hinnant’s discussions, the point was also made that although journalists should avoid giving climate skeptics equal time in a report, at times they cannot be ignored. “If they are elected officials—governors, congress people—you certainly are bound to quote them,” one interviewee said. Another said she makes sure to add context, explaining it’s “not just the who, what, when, where ... but the why, the motives.” And what is not known is part of the fairness formula for another journalist in the study who said, “being fair means admitting ‘what you don’t know and what the scientists don’t know’—not overstating the story or glossing over uncertainties.”
Shifting roles and retaining credibility
Some journalists say that because of the gravity of the climate crisis, they’ve been compelled to bring an element of advocacy into their reporting. It comes in a variety of forms but is generally described as advocacy for the Earth, not taking sides in policy debates.
Phil Vine worked in print, radio, and television for 25 years before he took a position at Greenpeace. He took immediate criticism from former colleagues who were outraged that he “had the audacity to keep describing myself as a journalist.”12 Vine insists that moving from traditional media to the environmental advocacy group does not mean he abandoned his journalistic standards. Further, he notes the developed world has seen a steady decline in the public’s trust for years, while perceived credibility remained high for NGOs.
One of Vine’s first projects for Greenpeace was a video package about seismic blasting in underwater oil exploration, which is harmful to whales and dolphins. He says the piece quickly reached two million views online—a number far too large to assume the group was just “preaching to the choir.” Vine says this made him realize that it is possible to reach a wide audience outside of the traditional media he was used to. And although his package took a position (against seismic blasting), Vine believes maintaining “high standards of factual accuracy” will vanquish the tendency to see NGO reporting as slanted. He argues that “objectivity is an outdated and unachievable myth.” Vine readily admits communication from Greenpeace will be biased “towards the environment and away from greed and profiteering. But that bias in favour of the planet is intentional and transparent.” The classic definition of utilitarian ethics is something that creates “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number” of people.13 When applied to journalism, it boils down to reporting in the interest of the public.14 So journalistic bias in the context that Vine described would benefit humanity and is therefore justified.
That sort of justified bias was the underlying principle of an unorthodox media campaign in Bangladesh called “To the Prime Minister: Save Rivers, Save Dhaka.”15 A 2012 study chronicles the 2009 campaign, which grew out of an urgent need to clean up the capital city’s drinking water. Two legitimate news organizations, a prominent English-language national newspaper and a Bangla-language satellite television station, made the extraordinary decision to team up for an awareness campaign in the form of a series of special reports focused on river pollution. Their goal was to spur government action.
The author of the study, Jahnnabi Das, singled out some elements of the coverage that signaled somewhat of a renaissance in environmental reporting. Many of the reports in the series surrounded activists’ calls for protection of the rivers. “The editorial decision to publish these ‘calls’ as news reports,” Das says, “indicates a change in the reporting approach.” He says activists’ demands were treated as a “valid news hook, and an issue of broad social concern.”
1. In what ways does “false balance” remain a stumbling block in environmental reporting, and how can journalists avoid it?
2. How are journalists reimagining the concepts of balance, objectivity, and fairness in environmental reporting?
3. Why has reporting on climate change had such a limited effect on public opinion so far, and what can journalists improve to better inform their audiences?
4. When an environmental issue involves a policy debate, what are some ways to offer the public solutions without crossing the line into opinion?
5. What threats to credibility might environmental journalists encounter that they might not on other beats, and how can they avoid those pitfalls?
For a more complete overview of prevailing contemporary viewpoints, further research was conducted including a survey of recently published articles as well as a series of original interviews with currently working environmental journalists. The topics that were pursued included threats to credibility (or perceived credibility), practical recommendations for vanquishing those threats, and ideas for improving communication of environmental issues to the public without sacrificing objectivity.
Secondary sources included articles related to the search terms “climate change,” “environment,” “journalism,” “balance,” and “ethics” published between January 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021. In addition, four original interviews were conducted by phone. The interviewees were active environmental journalists with extensive experience facing the ethical challenges discussed in this study. Peter Dykstra is a longtime environmental journalist—he is a former Executive Producer for the CNN Environment Unit and at the time of the interview was Environmental Health News’ Weekend Editor and a contributor for Public Radio International’s “Living On Earth.” Angela Fritz provided perspective as both a scientist and a journalist—she is a meteorologist and at the time of her interview she was the Senior Climate Editor for CNN’s Global Climate Team. Eric Freedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and at the time of his interview was serving as the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (The Knight Foundation describes Knight chairs in Journalism as “top professionals who bridge the newsroom-classroom divide with innovative teaching, major outreach projects and their own journalism.”) Cynthia Barnett is the author of several books on water including “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis,” she was a newspaper and magazine reporter for twenty-five years, and at the time of her interview was the Environmental Journalist in Residence at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
New, trickier forms of “false balance”
Journalists are largely abandoning the “both-sides” method of covering the environment to protect their stories’ accuracy, but false balance still creeps into coverage through unavoidable soundbites. After a gubernatorial debate in Virginia between Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin, the Democratic blog Blue Virginia picked apart the Republican candidate’s statements on the environment, claiming he “avoided saying the words ‘climate change’ (or ‘global warming’ or any other synonym) ... falsely described methane as ‘clean burning natural gas’ … [and] falsely asserted that moving to a clean-power system will lower Virginia’s energy resiliency.”16 This is clearly a blog with a one-sided agenda. In contrast, the Associated Press published a debate wrap that went no further than summaries and transcriptions, quoting both candidates with no analysis or fact-checking follow-up at all.17 Without judging the validity of this specific example (fact-checking the fact-checker), one can see how publishing straight quotes alone can be a way journalists might allow false balance into their coverage.
A group of researchers who study false balance in print media say in recent years that kind of “problematic reporting is largely falling by the wayside.”18 They analyzed 2,662 articles on climate change published in Western newspapers between 2005 and 2019 and found only 150 of them showed signs of false balance. Climate change and conservation magazine Anthropocene reported the study’s authors are warning that even though the obviously flawed “both-sides” type of environmental reporting is disappearing, more subtle forms of false balance planted by interest groups can be more difficult to avoid.19 Anthropocene quoted study team member Meaghan Daly as saying, “New strategies are emerging to … delay meaningful action on climate … so, it will be important for researchers to examine the stealthier ways in which opponents of climate action are now working to undermine efforts to address the causes and consequences of climate change.”
Improving environmental messaging for audiences
A rebranding of climate change coverage as the “climate crisis” is becoming increasingly common in mainstream media outlets. NBC News’ website has a subcategory of its Science section called “Climate in Crisis.”20 The Guardian runs headlines like “Enduring and surviving the climate crisis - in pictures.”21 The United Nations22 and the Biden White House23 have adopted the phrase in communiques as well. The new trend, using stronger language for the topic than the previously preferred “climate change,” was applauded by Michigan State University’s globalEDGE business blog, which said, “creating the perspective that we are all affected by the harsh aftermath of a weakening climate is eye-opening.”24
The managing editor at the nonprofit journalism outlet Canary Media, which is funded by a clean energy advocacy NGO, says major media organizations are missing the mark on informing the public.25 Eric Wesoff says, “mainstream journalism has not caught up to the climate crisis—not even close.” He says mainstream coverage routinely fails to cover the solutions that are being developed, portraying clean energy ventures as “oddball science projects.” Wesoff feels his advocacy organization is doing a better job by “reporting on climate policy wins and losses, holding corporations accountable for their climate pledges, [and] asking tough questions about innovations being touted as magic bullets.”
Offering solutions while keeping objectivity
The World Economic Forum, the international NGO best known for its annual idea-sharing gathering in Davos, Switzerland, recently offered some suggestions for improving messaging on climate change. WEF says most people around the world know climate change is a problem and they want to address it, but they feel “overwhelmed” and “powerless” by the doomsday messaging, so the group called for a “reset” on climate talk.26 Although this call for action was not aimed at the media in particular, the advice it offered could be useful to environmental journalists. WEF suggests that “how we talk about the climate needs to change, to highlight innovation, hope and practical solutions,” rather than focusing on “apocalyptic scenarios” that often make people shut down. Positivity is a major component of this strategy. Another is specificity: the group says it’s important to demonstrate that “climate challenges are solvable,” calling it making hope “tangible.” WEF notes “we also have to be honest and transparent” about the gaps that remain in technology to solve the world’s climate crisis.
Author and “audience strategy expert” Luba Kassova agrees that to be more effective, climate coverage must include hope for the future and solutions to get there.27 She suggests instead of writing “calamitous headlines” which “strip individuals of agency, leaving them feeling overwhelmed or apathetic,” journalists should empower the audience with headlines like “14 ways to fight the climate crisis after ‘Code Red’ IPCC report” or “The IPCC report is a massive alert that the time for climate action is nearly gone, but crucially not gone yet” and then following up with “solutions to encourage engagement and empowerment.” Lastly, she says journalists should make an emotional connection. Kassova says it’s important to “make climate change coverage relevant to audiences’ lives and validate their emotions.” She suggests “linking climate change coverage with higher interest topics (e.g. employment, welfare, social equality, security, immigration and health).”
In late 2020, the International Center for Journalists held a forum on successful environmental reporting. Brazilian journalist Gustavo Faleiros, environmental investigations editor for the Pulitzer Center, suggested organizations incorporate climate change coverage into various beats to make a deeper connection with audiences.28 He said it makes sense to cover climate change as it relates to a range of issues outside of traditional environmental coverage, since the problem now touches virtually every aspect of people’s lives. He also advised focusing on one specific angle at a time, saying “otherwise you can just drown in them.”
A common concern among journalists covering the environment is keeping the public’s trust in their credibility. Journalism researcher Wolfgang Blau says many journalists have told him they’re worried about being seen as activists.29 “It’s a surprisingly foggy situation for many journalists, but this can be solved,” Blau says. The solution, he advises, is for news organizations to guide their staff on how to stay within the margins of credibility. “News organizations should … give clearer guidelines on what sets out activism from journalism,” he says, “so that especially younger editors don’t have to second-guess themselves and feel empowered to cover the climate crisis more frequently.”
Interview #1: Peter Dykstra, Environmental Health News Weekend Editor
No need to attribute the truth
Peter Dykstra is one of the few journalists who accepted thirty years ago that climate change was probably happening. Because of that, he says his credibility was questioned back then but now accepted scientific conclusions give climate reporting a solid base. Dykstra now can say definitively, “climate change is not an issue where objectivity is a question; climate change is real and that’s your starting point.” He says there is no need to present any view that opposes that. If you really want to test the balance of your reporting, he says, “take a few sentences about climate and take another subject that’s been proven to be real and subject the same rules to it. Like cancer, do you need to prove its existence?”
Don’t throw out balance; add reasonable advocacy
On whether the principles of balance have shifted, Dykstra says no. “The rules haven’t changed,” he says, “but the posture in the scientific community has changed, and journalism has an obligation to follow.”
In addition to adjusting “your starting point” in a climate change story to the accepted scientific facts, Dykstra says adding an element of advocacy is okay if you set out with this mindset: “You start with the assumption that destruction of habitat, extinction, etc. are all in our interest, whether ideological interest or financial … It’s not an issue of bias but it’s an issue of whether or not the science will back up an advocate’s argument.”
Above all else, accuracy
Dykstra’s endorsement echoes views of other journalists who say advocating in favor of the Earth is perfectly justifiable for the public good. He argues that accuracy is the key to a credible piece. “You check everything,” he says. “Going back to one of the oldest cliches about teaching journalism, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Interview #2: Angela Fritz, Meteorologist and CNN Senior Climate Editor
CNN’s Angela Fritz agrees with Dykstra on the starting point for environmental reporting. She says, “There are things you report as fact: Climate change is happening. Human emissions are the cause and the only way to reverse the crisis or solve the problem would be to reduce fossil fuel emissions.”
On the ethics of a journalist offering solutions for climate change, Fritz says, “I would still attribute that to scientists, but I don’t feel the need to find some other voice” arguing against their proposed solutions.
Media sowed the seeds of doubt
Eschewing that “other voice” helps to avoid adding an element of false balance that muddles the facts. Fritz believes the damage done by false balance years, or even decades, ago is still confusing the public today. “The idea of balance in climate science came out of this idea that climate was a political issue … and that’s how audiences were first exposed to it, so in that frame I think it made a lot of sense ten or twenty years ago for editors and journalists to approach climate as a balance thing.” So in the same way that there is no right or wrong on Republican or Democratic policies, there were no right ideas about climate change. Now, Fritz surmises, much of the public continues to operate on that original premise, applying it to the topic of climate change as a whole as if the facts themselves are still up for debate.
Adding to the confusing message on climate has been the media’s inability to boil down scientific findings to declarative statements. Fritz says by the time the IPCC put out its first report in 1990, scientists already knew climate change was a problem, but the news that came out of that report was veiled in uncertainty “because that’s how scientists speak... Nothing is ever one hundred percent sure; it’s always ‘very likely,’ or ‘probable.’ They use those kinds of uncertain terms.” Fritz believes the uncertain language used by scientists gave traditional media the impression they should be applying balance in a situation that did not actually call for it. But now that the science is undeniable, she says it would clearly be unethical to apply that traditional balance to “something that scientists are telling us it’s happening and is getting worse by the moment.”
Have compassion; don’t villainize
Fritz notes that although it is an accepted truth that the world needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, we should recognize that not everyone is in the position to wean themselves off coal. Keep in mind, she says, “... the rest of the developed world was able to get to where they are on fossil fuels, which are cheap and reliable and relatively easy. There’s a significant ethical question around whether we should expect developing economies to not go down that same path we did in order to achieve their own success.” And those considerations apply not just internationally but in our own backyard. For instance, in West Virginia, Fritz notes, “we have to take into account the fact that there are still thousands of families who rely on coal as their income, so it’s important to not villainize the people behind these industries when we talk about things that need to be done.” Focusing on the humanity in the story can lead to better discussion on how the goals can be met “equitably and ethically,” says Fritz.
Interview #3: Eric Freedman, Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University
Some advocacy journalism is necessary
Although concerns about attribution and compassion for the subjects of news coverage are considered carefully in established newsrooms, traditional media organizations are no longer the only ones making those editorial choices. Journalism is being done on many levels, in a variety of ways, by people who may or may not have formal training. Eric Freedman says in some cases, the line between activist and reporter has blurred simply due to circumstances. He points out that in some parts of the world where traditional media cannot gain access, bloggers or activists may be the only ones who can get close enough to report what’s happening. He says “from the perspective of getting information out about a problem, or an event, or a situation, these people are the ones who are getting the information out, whether it’s on social media or websites, their blogs, and you can’t say to them, well, you’re claiming to be a journalist but you’re also advocating, say, the shutdown of the mine or imprisoning poachers ... So, are they doing journalism? Yeah. Are they activists? Yeah. Would I say they’re incompatible? They’re not.” Freedman says consumers now have the power to choose from many sources of information and make their own judgments about them.
On tone: write for your audience
Audiences should also be part of the equation when determining the tone of an environmental report, according to Freedman. He says you should consider “what kind of journalism are you doing? Are you working for an advocacy type news organization? For example, you write for Sierra Magazine, you’re doing all of the journalism things but there’s an expectation from the audience that the magazine will have a certain point of view that affects policy. If you’re writing for the Washington Post or The New York Times or AP or Bloomberg, I think readers shouldn’t know from your story what your views are on it.” However, Freedman says even journalists reporting for those more “objective” outlets may unconsciously inject their biases as they make choices about sources, photos, infographics, and other elements of the story.
Interview #4: Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Journalist in Residence, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications
Use “civic objectivity” as a guide
Modernizing the concept of fairness and balance in environmental reporting may require building a new lexicon. Cynthia Barnett says it’s possible to achieve fairness more accurately in reporting by striving for what she calls “civic objectivity.” Rather than “looking for a 50-50 split in every story, especially in things that aren’t balanceable,” Barnett says, journalists should be “thinking about the civic good of your world and your community.” It’s a comprehensive approach involving using credible scientific studies, finding independent scientists to interview, and making sure you are transparent about any sources’ agendas. When working within the framework of civic objectivity, she says, “you’re not thinking about it like a mathematical formula; you’re looking at it more like a democracy or an ecosystem” to deliver an objective and useful truth to your audience.
Don’t be tricked
Barnett says climate change skeptics who are allowed to share their views in the name of balance are sometimes paid by interest groups. That’s bad enough, but she flagged another way climate reporters can be targeted with misinformation. “When they cover a story and are out at a meeting,” she says, “there’s often someone who comes up from the audience who’s clutching a manila envelope and says ‘hey you’ve got to see these documents; here’s the truth.’ And they’re always the same set of documents ... that look credible but they’re not.” Barnett says she’s heard about this from former students and other journalists she knows, and she personally experienced it at a book reading just a couple of years ago. She says these are “paid skeptics planting doubt in climate change on behalf of polluting industries.” Be careful, she warns, “young reporters can be vulnerable to that.”
Don’t forget to make a human connection
Although a sound factual foundation is crucial to communicating environmental developments, Barnett says storytelling is even more important. She says since she came to the University of Florida as the Environmental Journalist in Residence and has been exposed to more media research, she’s concluded that “facts don’t even move people … All of those facts we spout out or ranking logical choices, none of those things are as important as stories themselves in terms of connecting with audiences, making a difference, moving people.” Telling a story, she says, “is the very best work we can be doing to help people understand and to make decisions.”
Research for this report included journals and online articles going back as far as 2012. For a more current assessment, articles pertinent to the subject no older than 2020 were consulted and four phone interviews were conducted with environmental journalists—all of them active in various types of media, two university professors.
One large study of environmental media reports shows the use of false balance, which diminishes accuracy by giving equal footing to false arguments, has fallen dramatically.30 Journalists say they no longer feel obligated to give voice to climate deniers due to the scientific certainty of two facts: climate change is real, and it is driven by human activity.31 However, false balance can still find its way into environmental reporting by way of soundbites,32 or through fallacious science intentionally planted by interested parties.33
Recent polling shows that despite several years of climate change being reported as fact, more than 40 percent of Americans have doubts that humans are causing global warming.34 The cumulative effect of years of false balance in environmental journalism is one suspected reason the truths of climate change are not getting through to a larger portion of the public. The inability of journalists to translate scientific language, which tends to be complex and full of uncertainties, into definitive statements is another.35 Additional theories on what’s causing the disconnect include a frequent lack of context in environmental reporting, which leaves the audience confused,36 and the media’s tendency to focus on doomsday scenarios without presenting solutions or reason for hope.37
The WEF and expert Luba Kassova suggest “solutions journalism,” defined by the International Journalists’ Network as “reporting solutions to known problems,”38 can elevate environmental reporting. Many journalists worry about the appearance of bias,39 but some environmental reporters insist it is possible to construct a fair, objective piece of journalism while taking a stance as an advocate. They say to achieve this, a journalist’s advocacy must be in favor of the environment, and the reporting must be underpinned by traditional tools like knowledge, transparency, and accuracy.40 Attribution is another suggested way of safeguarding the ethical integrity of a report. Although it is no longer necessary to attribute the two basic truths of climate change, meteorologist Angela Fritz recommends attributing all possible environmental solutions to experts in order to demonstrate objectivity. Professor Cynthia Barnett suggests applying the concept of “civic objectivity” for stories that do not have two equal competing sides, like the climate crisis. Instead of presenting two equally weighted views, using civic objectivity requires gathering enough pertinent, accurate, credible pieces of information to assemble an objective and useful truth for the audience.41
It is not just the way in which a journalist constructs a report that can threaten credibility—outside forces can pose threats as well. Researchers McIlwain and Daly warn of interested parties attempting to plant uncertainty. Barnett says “paid skeptics” sometimes present themselves as experts or provide false documents that appear legitimate. McIlwaine suggests good knowledge of the subjects a journalist is covering can be an effective antidote to that sort of “manipulation.”
Achieving balance in environmental reporting is a hot topic in newsrooms and university classrooms. Journalists have realized the “tell-both-sides” method of fair reporting can be ineffective, and even counterproductive, when reporting on climate change and other environmental issues. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was common to report on the environment in the same manner one would report a political story. Ironically, trying to ensure balance by giving equal weight to differing opinions regarding climate change had the opposite effect, skewing the accuracy of those stories. Abandoning the old approach to balance has become an obvious decision but finding the right mix of new methods to ensure balance and avoid bias is much more difficult. Journalists are exploring a range of alternate techniques as they strive to bring audiences the truest picture possible when reporting on environmental issues. The purpose of this study was to delineate those methods, collect the most current ideas on how to replace false balance, and locate the line between objectivity and bias.
What became apparent is that objectivity and bias are no longer black and white concepts in environmental journalism—it’s a sliding scale. One surprising concept that emerged from this body of research is the fact that a certain type of bias—bias in favor of the environment—is considered acceptable in environmental reporting. Global warming is bad. Just like cancer is bad. And offering solutions to an audience doesn’t necessarily mean running afoul of journalistic principles. “Solutions journalism,” which is defined by the International Journalists’ Network as “reporting solutions to known problems,” can be intimidating for traditional journalists who are trained to avoid taking sides. But environmental journalists in the fray in 2021 say solutions journalism and objectivity are not mutually exclusive. Climate editor Angela Fritz says the key to protecting your credibility as an objective journalist while offering possible solutions to your audience is to attribute those ideas to experts.
There’s no need, however, to attribute the two widely accepted basic truths of climate change. The scientific community says global warming is happening and it is driven by human activity. The mounting evidence has given journalists what reporter David Schechter calls “armor” against the compulsion to cover both sides of the climate issue.
There is some evidence that the damage from years of false balance has already been done, with 43 percent of Americans doubting the incontrovertible facts of climate change. Several tactics have been recommended, including solutions journalism, for improving the media’s communication of the climate issue to the public. Other suggestions include using more dramatic language (observers have applauded major news organizations for using “Climate Crisis” to brand their coverage) and focusing on issues that make an emotional connection to the audience. The quandary journalists face when considering mechanisms for shaping stronger environmental coverage is the increased risk of going too far and appearing biased. But many journalists are confident that the risk of bias can be overcome using traditional tools of the trade. Their message: a working knowledge of the subject matter, transparency and accuracy are integral to ensuring the ethical integrity of a piece of journalism, especially when it is crafted from a standpoint of environmental advocacy.
Researchers say even when a journalist is on guard against false balance, it can sneak into environmental stories through soundbites of officials, a failure to analyze or fact-check (as in a debate wrap by the AP), or even trickery. Cynthia Barnett shared the astounding cautionary tale of journalists being approached at conferences or public events by people who present official-looking papers purportedly containing the “real” truth, with charts and graphs that look legitimate but are not, contradicting mainstream scientific beliefs about climate change. Barnett says this is an example of how interested parties like the fossil fuel industry or industrial polluters actively work to sow doubt with the public, in hopes of driving public policy away from restrictive environmental regulations.
Ways to protect yourself against those outside attacks on credibility are, again, the old ethical pillars-- transparency and accuracy. Explain what you know and how scientists came to their conclusions and reveal what you don’t know. Be thorough. Check every fact. Peter Dykstra says he lives by the old saying, “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” So check everything. Another effective tool that came up repeatedly was knowledge. If you’re educated on a subject, you can choose credible sources, sift out paid skeptics who pose as experts, and spot false documents like those Professor Barnett was talking about.
Further study to provide a deeper understanding of best practices in environmental reporting could include data-driven investigations comparing news organizations, their perceived credibility, and the types of words and sources they use in their climate coverage. This would reveal which practices are leading audiences to perceive bias, even if bias is not actually judged to be present.
The advice collected here from previous research, journalists’ published opinions and interviews amounts to updated guidance for environmental reporters. We must shift our mindset and move from regurgitating quotes to weaving information into a complete and true picture for our audience. Improving messaging means providing context and analysis, focusing on humanity, using stronger language, offering solutions, and even embracing a certain type of bias—remember, we are allowed to hate global warming as much as we’re allowed to hate cancer. We must be especially on guard against outside forces seeking to muddy the picture; they are a major threat to our journalistic product and to our credibility. Most other beats don’t face the prospect of being targeted by parties with an interest in planting untruths (imagine a pro-cancer lobby!) The core tenets of ethical journalism are what make it possible to fend off these threats and to employ unorthodox strategies without sacrificing objectivity. Acute attention to accuracy, transparency, and knowledge can shore up every type of environmental piece and protect journalists’ credibility. Our planet’s future depends on our ability to elevate environmental reporting in an ethically responsible way. It is up to us, the world’s communicators, to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public in hopes of spurring appropriate action to address existential environmental threats. It is a goal that is both noble and achievable, and the formula for success is now clearer than ever.
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