PBS Newshour Propagates Confusion On Climate Change

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UPDATE: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler has written that the segment "was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes." Getler said that global warming is an issue where it is "wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence" between what reporter Michels called "skeptics" and "believers." The Ombudsman added that it was "stunning" to him that PBS "picked Watts -- who is a meteorologist and commentator -- rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide 'balance.'" Getler also reported that NewsHour's executive producer has acknowledged that Watts' statements about the quality of temperature data should not have been left unchallenged.

Climate change contrarian Anthony Watts on PBSLast night, PBS NewsHour turned to meteorologist and climate change contrarian Anthony Watts to "counterbalance" the mainstream scientific opinions presented by the program. This false balance is a disservice to PBS' viewers, made worse by the program's failure to explain Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, an organization that receives funding from some corporations with a financial interest in confusing the public on climate science.

While PBS mentioned that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that manmade global warming is occurring, it did not reflect this consensus by giving significant airtime to Watts' contrarian views. The segment presented Watts as the counterbalance to scientists that believe in manmade global warming -- every time a statement that reflects the scientific consensus was aired, in came Watts to cast doubt in viewers' minds. As 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that "there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening," news organizations need to be careful not to contribute to this confusion.

The segment focused on the findings of physicist Richard Muller, who was previously skeptical of climate science, and decided to embark on a study to re-examine the data. Muller's work was partially funded by the Koch Brothers, who fund climate contrarian groups like the Heartland Institute, and he collaborated with Watts to address his concerns about the reliability of the temperature record. Watts stated at the time, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But after Muller reconfirmed the surface temperature record that has been constructed by several scientific groups and is consistent with satellite temperature records, Watts continued to dispute it. Yet in the full interview with Watts that PBS posted online, reporter Spencer Michels did not challenge Watts once, instead asking questions like, "What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?"

In the online report, Michels revealed that he got in contact with Watts through the Heartland Institute -- which he failed to mention on-air. Segments like this one on PBS are the very goal of groups like the Heartland Institute, as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin explained:

The norm of journalistic balance has been exploited by opponents of emissions curbs. Starting in the late 1990s, big companies whose profits were tied to fossil fuels recognized they could use this journalistic practice to amplify the inherent uncertainties in climate projections and thus potentially delay cuts in emissions from burning those fuels. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this strategy was a long memo written by Joe Walker, who worked in public relations at the American Petroleum Industry, that surfaced in 1998. According to this ''Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan,'' first revealed by my colleague John Cushman at the New York Times, ''Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom'' for ''average citizens'' and ''the media'' (Cushman 1998). The action plan called for scientists to be recruited, be given media training, highlight the questions about climate, and downplay evidence pointing to dangers. Since then, industry-funded groups have used the media's tradition of quoting people with competing views to convey a state of confusion even as consensus on warming has built.

In addition to being promoted by Heartland, Watts was paid by the Heartland Institute for his work on temperature stations. Yet PBS left out that fact, even as it aired Watts suggesting that 97 percent of climate scientists are lying in order to be paid by the allegedly lucrative global warming "business":

SPENCER MICHELS: He also thinks believers have a hidden agenda.

ANTHONY WATTS: Global warming has become essentially a business in its own right. There are whole divisions of universities that are set up to study this factor. And so there's lots of money involved. And so I think that there's a tendency to want to keep that going and not really look at what might be different.

To understand why false balance like this is troubling, imagine that PBS interviewed an oncologist who explained the dangers of secondhand smoke, and then interviewed a non-expert who cast doubt on the oncologist's views, without revealing that he is linked to a tobacco industry-funded group. Many of the same organizations who claimed that "Scientific Evidence Shows Secondhand Smoke Is No Danger" after receiving funding from the tobacco industry are now casting doubt on climate science. Heartland is one of them.

The group Forecast The Facts is calling for PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler to investigate whether the segment met PBS' standards -- you can sign their petition here.

UPDATE (9/18/12): PBS has responded to complaints about the on-air segment and online interview by pointing to its other coverage of climate change this year. To be sure, PBS often provides more and better coverage of climate change than the other news networks, which is why this story was so disappointing. However, one story PBS points to indicates that it won't stop turning to the Heartland Institute for "balance" -- PBS touts its May story on climate change education, which also featured someone paid by the Heartland Institute to sow doubt about climate science. While that segment noted that the views presented by the Heartland Institute fellow are "challenged by scientific evidence," it's not clear why PBS chose to air scientifically-challenged views at all. PBS says that it will soon provide another online post focused on the views of scientists, but does not indicate any plans to address the false balance in the on-air segment.

UPDATE 2 (9/19/12): PBS' Michels has responded that "we should not" have added an online post with extended remarks from Watts without providing the same platform for actual climate scientists. Judith Curry, a climatologist and frequent critic of the IPCC, also told Michels that she was "appalled" that the on-air report incorrectly suggested that she believes all recent warming was natural, when in fact she believes that some recent warming is manmade. Michels says that in "retrospect," that should have been made clear. PBS has still not responded to objections to the false balance in the on-air segment, which contained several unchallenged distortions as SkepticalScience has detailed.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
PBS, Heartland Institute
Anthony Watts
PBS NewsHour, The Online NewsHour
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