5 New Year's Resolutions For Reporting On Climate Change

››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

Whether they were covering extreme weather events or presidential campaign events, media outlets often came up short in their reporting on climate change this year. But 2016 will be a fresh opportunity for improved climate coverage. With that in mind, here are five resolutions for reporters looking to provide better coverage of climate change in the new year.

Resolution #1: I Will Disclose The Fossil Fuel Ties Of Those Attacking Climate And Clean Energy Policies

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If you read an op-ed in your local newspaper attacking the Environmental Protection Agency's flagship climate change policy this year, chances are its author was working on Big Oil's dime. The National Black Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and the Beacon Hill Institute, which have all received extensive funding from fossil fuel companies, each orchestrated op-ed campaigns attacking the EPA's Clean Power Plan. The media has a responsibility to disclose these groups' financial conflicts of interest -- along with those of dozens of other fossil fuel front groups -- when publishing or broadcasting their claims.

It's essential for media to disclose the potential conflicts of interest of politicians as well, like noting that the attorneys general attacking environmental protections formed what The New York Times called an "unprecedented, secretive alliance" with the fossil fuel industry, or that the Senators who attempted to force construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline took millions in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies. This year, media largely failed on both counts.

While Washington, D.C. publication The Hill has been particularly egregious when it comes to lack of disclosure, the problem is widespread throughout the media. Some outlets like Newsweek have taken important steps to address disclosure issues, but then failed to apply that same standard to future reporting. Most recently, lobbyist and Washington Post writer Ed Rogers was forced to admit that he and his lobbying firm represent the fossil fuel industry. Time will tell whether the Post and other major media outlets live up to this standard of disclosure more frequently in 2016. 

Resolution #2: I Will Not Provide False Balance On The Science Of Climate Change

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Image from a Media Matters analysis of opinion pieces about the United Nations climate change conference in Paris

While 97 percent of climate scientists say that burning fossil fuels and other human activities are causing global warming, media continued to give those who deny this scientific consensus undue attention in 2015. Four of the 10 biggest U.S. newspapers published op-eds, editorials, or columns that denied climate science while criticizing the recent international climate change negotiations in Paris, constituting 17 percent of their total opinion page coverage of the climate conference. Emblematic of the false balance prevalent in news reporting was a CBS Evening News segment about the pope's climate change encyclical, during which CBS aired a clip of a business professor disputing the accuracy of climate models. And when the industry-funded Heartland Institute and Marc Morano held a publicity stunt to insert climate denial into coverage of the Vatican climate summit that preceded the encyclical, major U.S. newspapers advanced their misinformation campaign by failing to note that their views are rejected by the vast majority of climate scientists. Thankfully, when Heartland and Morano attempted a similar publicity stunt during the Paris conference in December, media did not take the bait, reporting on them instead as "yesterday's men" and "outliers" who are "wildly out of sync" with both the scientific consensus and the global dialogue that occurred at the summit. That's the way deniers should be covered in 2016 -- if they are covered at all.

Resolution #3: I Will Provide The Climate Change Context When Reporting On Extreme Weather Events

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From winter snowstorms to severe droughts and flash floods, the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country -- yet the media has largely failed to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather events as they are occurring. Just this month, media neglected to mention climate change when discussing the heat wave on the east coast. The absence of climate change in extreme weather coverage may help explain why many Americans don't believe global warming will harm them personally -- even though it is already doing so.

The good news is that weather forecasters (with exception of those on Fox News) increasingly accept that man-made climate change has and will continue to impact the weather in their area, and feel it is appropriate to convey the science of climate change to their audiences. And we have catalogued some instances where major networks like NBC, CBS, CNN and Univision have done a good job explaining the connection between climate change and severe weather. But these were exceptions that prove the rule.

Scientists have extensively detailed the relationship between climate change and many types of extreme weather events, and it's important that this climate context is consistently reflected in media coverage of extreme weather so that Americans can better understand how climate change is impacting their lives.

Resolution #4: I Will Compel Presidential Candidates To Discuss Climate Change, And Hold Them Accountable When They Do

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Regardless of whether presidential candidates want to act on climate change -- or even recognize its existence -- media should press them to articulate their approach to the issue, particularly during televised debates. But the media's refusal to recognize climate change as an important presidential campaign issue was on full display in recent days, as both CNN and ABC debate moderators completely ignored the topic even though leaders from every country in the world had just struck a historic climate change agreement in Paris. 

And when reporters do ask candidates about climate change, or quote them talking about it, it's equally important that they hold those candidates accountable by noting when their remarks deviate from the scientific consensus. Several months into the presidential campaign, we found that major newspapers and wire services were failing to fact check candidates' climate science denial almost half the time, and major broadcast and cable news outlets other than MSNBC were failing to do so three-quarters of the time. While CNN's Jake Tapper and Fusion's Jorge Ramos provided instructive examples of how to handle climate science denial by a presidential candidate during a live interview, other prominent media figures allowed similarly false remarks to go unanswered. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued, the "best choice" for reporters who are confronted with climate-denying candidates is "Persistence: Call it what it is -- a rejection of the science -- and keep calling it that."

Furthermore, when reporting on a candidate's energy plan or attacks on climate change policies, media outlets should mention the candidate's ties to the fossil fuel industry, which can help explain where those policy positons may be coming from.

Resolution #5: I Will Give Climate Change The Coverage It Deserves

As an issue that will touch every person on the planet -- with broad implications for our national security and economic future -- climate change is an issue worthy of substantial media attention. Yet in the past few years, the major broadcast networks have provided too little climate coverage, while key outlets like The New York Times and NPR have cut their environmental reporting staff.

In addition to covering climate change in the context of extreme weather events and the presidential campaign, here are just a few other big climate stories that are deserving of media attention in the year ahead:

  • The plans states across the country are crafting to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which combats climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants.
  • The steps countries around the world are taking to meet their commitments to reduce emissions under the landmark climate agreement reached in Paris. 
  • Developments surrounding the mounting evidence that Exxon Mobil peddled climate science denial for years after its scientists recognized that burning fossil fuels causes global warming, including an investigation of Exxon by New York State's attorney general and calls for a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Growing evidence that climate change is increasingly threatening national and global security by spurring conflicts over food and water resources abroad that can escalate existing social tensions to the point of violence.
  • Opposition to opening up the Atlantic Ocean for offshore oil and gas drilling, which along with exacerbating climate change would pose huge risks to the local environment and economy.
  • Campaigns across the country calling for institutions, individuals, and governments to divest from fossil fuels, an important component of a larger effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
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