Sunday, February 26, 2017

When Truth Has to Sit in the Back of the Bus: How Journalistic Conventions Undermine Consensus on Climate Change

If you're wondering how the country became controlled by a science-denying president and political party, it's worth taking a look at how climate change is reported by the mainstream press. Below is an "embedded critique" in which a Boston Globe article on climate change is examined paragraph by paragraph, to see how its structure and content sustain controversy and doubt despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and a grave threat to our future.

Here is a summary of what this fine-grained look revealed:
  • Controversy and uninformed, contrarian views are front-loaded--in the headline and first half of the article--while compensatory truth, good news and growing agreement (colored brown to reveal the pattern) is forced "to the back of the bus" (the end of the article, which many readers don't reach). I explain in the critique how this article structure could be serving to perpetuate political polarization and paralysis.
  • Use of the word "skeptic" in the context of climate change falsely implies a tough-mindedness in people who lack any skepticism about their own stubbornly ill-informed views. A more accurate term would be "rejectionist".
  • The article applies a corrupt form of populism, in which the opinions of highly visible but inadequately trained meteorologists are given equal weight with those of climate scientists.
  • Readers are left uninformed about the basic mechanisms that drive global warming. Just as campaign coverage focuses on the horse race, and coverage of forest fires describes the damage while offering no insights into fire ecology, coverage of climate change indulges contrarian views while leaving readers ill-equipped to resist false assertions.
The embedded critique below, of a Feb. 13, 2017 article by David Abel, an experienced journalist with the Boston Globe, shows how misleading this seemingly mainstream journalism can be. My comments are formatted left, while the article's text is indented. 

(Click below on "Read more" to access the article.)

Sunday, February 05, 2017

When Political Cowardice Poses as Strength

This is a highly deceptive time, when cowardice, irresponsibility, and political opportunism are portrayed as tough-mindedness. Even those news media sources that aim for objectivity appear helpless to expose the deception, and instead often perpetuate false assumptions.

Consider a recent PBS News Hour piece on Obama's climate change legacy. Of course, it's exceptional to see 9 minutes of broadcast time devoted to climate change. The NewsHour has done more than most to give the subject visibility.

But what those nine minutes reveal is how warped is the lens through which we view the massive problem of climate change and the efforts to reduce the terrible risks posed. If you follow the link above and watch the piece, the problematic aspects play out in the following order:
  • False Balance: The report begins by telling us that Obama took action against climate change "despite opponents who criticized the costs or doubted the science". That suggests that there's a cost for taking action, but not for inaction, that opponents have no responsibility to offer their own solutions, and that doubting the science is still a defendable position. None of that is true. If one side of the political spectrum is disciplined in its drift from reality, in essence decides to wear no clothes, even respected news sources like the News Hour dare not point out the obvious, for fear of appearing biased. The "opponents" are presented as tough-minded critics, protecting us from costly actions and false alarms, when in reality they are running from a profound threat to the nation and the world.
  • The politician's role in enabling honest reporting: Speaking to a dinner audience, Obama sharply criticizes Republican inaction on climate change, but through the prism of comedy, with his "anger translator, Luther". He calls Republicans irresponsible, but the visual is of a crowd laughing. There's no mention of whether Obama consistently and forcefully, throughout his administration, took Republicans to task for running from the problem of climate change. My memory is that he did not. Without the aid of strong, quotable criticism of Republican obstructionism coming from a prominent politician like Obama, it has been harder for the news media to point out on their own the cowardice and naked political opportunism of climate denial.
  • Climate Change is Not Santa Claus: The "anger translator" scene is followed by the weakest quote on climate change ever, from former EPA administrator Carol Browner--"I think that this president believes that climate change is real." As if climate change were a matter of belief, like Santa Claus! 
  • Stoking fear of big government: Then, we hear criticism of Obama's proposed action as "very intrusive and heavily regulatory". The consequences of inaction, and the lack of Republican alternatives, again go unmentioned. The famous quote from Reagan's 1981 inaugural address began with four oft-forgotten words: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem". Failing to heed those words, Republican leaders have warped national decision-making by drawing false conclusions from the 1980s. Reagan's implication is that, in some crises, government is part of the solution. 
  • When cowardice and pessimism pose as tough-minded criticism: In the next scene, Republican House leader John Boehner plays the tough-minded critic, eviscerating proposed climate legislation, "flipping through and reading pages randomly", finding "something bad on every one." Boehner reads the bills recommendations, "Twenty percent of the electricity that goes into every federal agency has to come from renewable sources. Do we have any idea whether this is possible? I can’t find the answer here." What appears to be tough-minded skepticism is in fact a deep pessimism about the country's capacity to identify and solve problems. Again, a Republican is portrayed as a gate keeper. He need not provide any solutions of his own, but merely find fault in others. The resulting governmental paralysis opened the door for Obama's nihilistic successor.
  • Solution Assassination--Then, playing into the image of skeptics as tough-minded, a West Virginia hunter is shown out in the woods, shooting a hole through Obama's cap and trade bill, pinned to a tree. Will the hunter's gun and macho demeanor fend off oceans lapping at the foundations of Miami resorts? All we're left with is an image of tough resolve expressed by people who are too selfish and afraid to face up to national threats.
  • Connotation Overwhelms Denotation: The piece describes how Obama's proposal of cap and trade became labeled by Republicans as a tax. But the reflexively negative connotation of taxes goes unquestioned. Investing words with strong connotation shifts discourse away from thought and towards emotion, which protects politicians who lack facts to back up their views. Government needs revenue in order to operate. How does one raise that revenue? That is another tough issue that Republicans have consistently run from. Those who oppose Obama's climate legislation, and anything else called a tax, are not held responsible for the consequences of their opposition, whether it be future climate chaos or the rising deficits that have characterized Republican administrations since 1980.
  • Blaming the Problem Solvers: Then, a talking head blames Democrats for legislative failure, while the Republican opposition is given a free pass on even acknowledging the gravity of the threat. The uniformly obstructive, denialist nature of the Republican Party is confused with strength, and becomes in many people's minds an almost geologic entity, an insensate rock that has no volition or free will. Thus, Democrats get blamed for not being deft enough to avoid the rock, while it's the rock that's causing the obstruction. 
The aim here is not to find flaw in PBS news coverage, but to show how deeply embedded a false notion of strength has become in the nation's political discourse. The news media can be more aware of how it perpetuates a false storyline, through its selection of images and quotes, but the media is hampered by the absence of a strong counter narrative, repeated over and over until it begins to sink in, that dares to call cowardice by its name.