Climate change coverage: what’s a science journalist to do?

Canadian Science Writers' AssociationAn overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed articles say that climate change is real, and manmade, and suggest we need to act now. But, in the name of balanced reporting, the press has given equal weight to both scientists and skeptics in climate change stories, fuelling the campaign of misinformation, Scott Unger writes. What’s a science journalist to do? This was the topic of a recent Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference workshop. See more workshop coverage here.
Jim Hoggan
Jim Hoggan speaks at the CSWA conference. Photo by Peter McMahon.

Jim Hoggan is a Vancouver-based public relations consultant, lawyer and author (with Richard Littlemore) of the recently published “Climate cover-up: Crusade to deny global warming.” Hoggan is Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation (he describes his role in the climate change discussion as an “accidental activist”) and his background has been in crisis management as a PR consultant. He is also a supporter and contributor to, a blog dedicated to supporting credible climate change science and debunking the misinformation propagated by industrial interests.

As Hoggan described it, climate change cover-up may be one of the most disturbing stories of fraud perpetrated upon the entire world, and certainly the most widespread campaign of misinformation he’d ever encountered. The campaign spans the past decade, crosses borders, is fuelled by money from big industry, and has confused the clear message that scientists have been broadcasting for years – climate change is real, it’s disturbing and something needs to be done.

Hoggan spoke about a campaign undertaken by a host of industries to artificially (and successfully) sway public opinion against the realities of climate change science – astroturfing over the truth and discrediting the voices of scientists who all agreed climate change is real. He referenced his book, which goes into greater detail on the industry campaign to discredit science.

This campaign of misinformation led directly to the type of statistics that showed up in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Hoggan referenced the survey “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” published in the journal Science by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Scientific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. In this 2004 study Professor Oreskes looked at 928 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on global climate change – a subset of what was published over the ten-year period from 1993 to 2003. She reported that 75% explicitly or implicitly supported the scientific consensus that human activities are causing global warming and climate change, and that none of the papers directly dissented this stance.
3rd rock from the sun

In contrast to Professor Oreskes, Hoggan also referenced a 2004 study by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff, “Balance as bias: global warming and the US pretsige press” (published in Global Environmental Change Part A) which examined a random sampling of articles on climate change from major U.S. news outlets published over a 14-year period. Of these articles, 53% gave equal attention to both the sound scientific evidence that global warming is attributable to human activity and to the side of climate change skeptics. The result was that the press adherence to “balanced reporting” and giving equal weight resulted in biased coverage of the climate change issue.

Hoggan spoke about the role of PR experts as staunch advocates for their clients, but that this advocacy must be tempered with ethical considerations. He offered three rules which have not been followed by the PR groups sewing misinformation:

1 – Do the right thing
2 – Be seen to be doing the right thing
3 – Don’t confuse 1 & 2

When a major company has a crisis to deal with – and there have been several that could be listed recently – they need to approach the problem from an ethical standpoint – fix the problem and put the information about what they are doing to fix the problem into their PR campaign – this is good PR that shows good corporate citizenship.

What occurred over the past decade with respect to climate change science is what Hoggan described as “Darth Vader PR” – the dark side of public relations. It was a systematic approach funded with money from big oil and big coal, among others, to seed artificial doubt into the minds of the public – the voters – and push these stories into the media.

By Hoggan’s reckoning, it was clear from looking at the statistics that there was consensus amongst scientists that human activities impacting our environment are the cause of global climate change. He went on to detail a number of “think tank” groups, established by industry to work hard at executing a campaign of confusion to discredit the solid science on climate change, to ensure that the public doubted the existence of a problem. These industries are the same whose bottom line benefits from preventing the adoption of sound climate change policies. Hoggan also referenced a recent poll showing 48% of Americans believe global warming is exaggerated. This was at a time when the world most needed to begin working on solutions.

Hoggan pointed out organizations (there are dozens) like TASSC (The Advancement of Sound Science Centre), Bonner & Associates and the CATO Institute in the U.S. hide behind a reasonable-sounding name and purport to be scientific organizations. However, such groups have been funded extensively by industry to build anonymous websites, coach employees how to answer questions to discredit climate change science, invent petitions, create protests and hire rent-a-crowds to ensure that the confusion and misinformation are propagated.

This issue in not limited to the US. As Hoggan described it, the same astroturfing has been employed in Canada, by groups like The Fraser Institute (with links to big tobacco) and the Friends of Science (with close ties to oil companies). Both organizations have continued to put out communication through popular media (which can still be found online) calling climate change a myth and working hard to discredit the overwhelming number of scientific publications that have clearly established the climate change facts.

The story Hoggan unfolded continued to describe these PR organizations also engaging in campaigns of “message echoing,” establishing entirely untrue stories about climate change but ensuring that the message was parroted so frequently and in so many different levels of media that it eventually sounded like the truth. Messages like “scientific debate remains open” on climate change.

Such echoing also included a story purporting glaciers around the globe are actually growing – a story that was completely discredited when the World Glacier Monitoring Service was contacted by Hoggan’s team. The evidence is clear that most of the world’s glaciers have shrunk – a fact that Hoggan underscored with startling before and after pictures of the glaciers showing great swaths of water and mud where ice used to reign. These statements about the growth of glaciers were traced back to an online campaign of misinformation.

Hoggan’s presentation brought up a very important point – that providing equal time to a dissenting point of view coming from a source without a track record of credibility, and putting it up against the facts presented by academics and scientists who have been studying climate change for years is not balanced journalism. It unfairly ignores the weight of extensive ongoing research and scientific credibility and undermines journalistic integrity. He pointed out this gives “someone who’s done no work on climate science … just as much right as the scientists in the debate.”

So what did Hoggan suggest? How does a science journalist find the truth and know whose message is credible? And what should scientists and NGOs be doing differently? First, we need to stop debating climate change – it’s not a debate, there is no debate: it’s a fact. To begin understanding and working on solutions, Hoggan said “We need open, honest and transparent conversation … Crisis management is not an IQ test – it’s a character test.” The issue needs to be re-framed by pointing out that the astroturfers are acting with the interest of the bottom line of the industries that are supporting them. Journalists need to directly ask these groups purporting to be credible on the topic – who funds you? What science does your group do? Who are your science experts, and what are their credentials? If they aren’t forthcoming with this information, if you can’t confirm that they are legitimate, credible sources, then they probably aren’t.

Scott Unger is a Science and Technology Liaison Officer working in the knowledge translation and brokering field as part of Environment Canada’s S&T Liaison Division, and has now attended two Canadian Science Writers’ Association annual conferences as a member.