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A group of scientists from around the world is using new web-based technology to assess the accuracy of media coverage of climate change, and the organization spearheading these efforts is looking for support to take its work to the next level.
The organization, known as Climate Feedback, uses what’s known as web annotation technology to layer scientists’ comments directly onto articles and opinion pieces, so that readers can easily understand whether -- and to what degree -- the pieces are consistent with scientific understanding of climate change. Climate Feedback then assigns a credibility score known as “feedback” to each media piece, which serves as an overall guide to its accuracy -- or lack thereof.
The result looks like this:
At Media Matters, we’ve given scientists a forum to set the record straight when media distort their climate studies. Now Climate Feedback is further improving the media conversation by giving scientists the opportunity to respond to a wide variety of climate change coverage, as founder Dr. Emmanuel Vincent explained in an email to Media Matters.
“We think scientists need to have a voice of their own in the media,” Vincent said. “Not as a replacement of journalism, but as a way to ensure that scientific results are not misunderstood or distorted.”
The approach Climate Feedback employs is unique in several respects. It borrows from the peer review process used to evaluate scientific research papers, ensuring that media coverage of climate science receives a similar level of scrutiny. “After an article is selected for review, scientists with relevant expertise are invited to provide their feedback directly” using the web annotation platform, Vincent said. “Reviewers then fill [out] a short questionnaire with their rating and appreciation of the overall credibility of the piece that are all revealed at the same time to guarantee the independence of scientists’ reviews.”
Vincent noted that Climate Feedback usually solicits comments from five to 10 scientists for each media evaluation, which is substantially higher than the two to three reviewers typically involved in a classic peer review of scientific literature. “This distributes the workload among scientists who can focus on discussing what they know best,” and helps “convey a more robust sense of the consensus when there is one.”
Climate Feedback also ensures that only highly qualified experts weigh in on the accuracy of the media reports it analyzes. According to Vincent, contributors must have been the lead author of an article published in a top-tier peer-reviewed scientific journal within the last three years, and they must have a doctorate in a relevant discipline. Depending on the nature of the claims made in the article, Climate Feedback may seek comments from experts in a variety of subjects including biogeochemistry, oceanography, climate variability, paleoclimatology, climate impacts on ecosystems, human health and beyond.
Once an evaluation is published, Climate Feedback shares it with the reporter or columnist via email or social media. As an example of his group’s success, Vincent pointed to an article in London’s Telegraph newspaper, which “appended a correction and made major modifications” to its original article, “withdrawing 5 sentences, in such a way that the title of the article announcing an imminent ice age is not supported anymore.” Additionally, one Climate Feedback evaluation formed the basis of an open letter from a group of scientists to The Wall Street Journal, criticizing an opinion piece for “attempt[ing] to throw clouds of uncertainty around the hard facts about climate change.” And just last week, members of the British House of Lords referenced another Climate Feedback evaluation while calling on The Times of London to more accurately cover climate science.
Since Climate Feedback launched in late 2014, Vincent has observed several common media failings, including using flawed reasoning, making logical fallacies, cherry-picking data, and offering misleading or imprecise statements. One example he highlighted was a May 2015 Forbes column by “merchant of doubt” James Taylor, of the Exxon- and Koch-funded Heartland Institute, which misleadingly denied the impact of global warming on polar ice. Vincent noted in his email that Taylor’s column received “almost a million views and is by far Forbes’ most influential climate article in 2015 – which gives an idea of the scale of the problem we’re tackling.”
Indeed, because the challenge is so great, Climate Feedback is ramping up its efforts via a crowdfunding campaign this week. The aim is to raise enough funds to hire a scientific editor and build a “Scientific Trust Tracker,” which will aggregate the group’s ratings to assess the overall credibility of various news sources. According to Vincent, the new tool “should provide a healthy incentive for more accurate science reporting,” because “building trust is essential for news sources and scientists’ endorsements can help journalists with integrity to get ahead.”
Climate Feedback is doing this work at an important time. Major U.S. media outlets continue to give undue attention to those who deny the scientific consensus that fossil fuel pollution and other human activities are causing global warming, while scientists remain vastly underrepresented in some of the most high-profile media discussions of climate change, such as those taking place on the broadcast networks’ Sunday shows. And revelations of Exxon’s climate change deception exemplify the ability of the fossil fuel industry to inject misinformation into the media to undermine climate policies. As the fossil fuel industry continues to wage war on the Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement, and other major climate initiatives, too many Americans remain confused about the causes of climate change (although the trend is positive), and not enough recognize the urgent need for action.
As Vincent explained, “We now have growing evidence that corporate interests have been using the same playbook as Tobacco companies a few decades earlier: using the media to sow doubt about the science of the smoking-cancer connection then and of climate change now in order to confuse the public and undermine democratic support for dealing with the issue.”
Climate Feedback is a valuable resource to counteract the fossil fuel industry’s harmful influence and encourage media consumers to “stand with science” to achieve more accurate climate change coverage.
Following Temperature Record Announcements, Oil Industry Ads Outpaced Climate-Related Coverage By Almost 5-To-1
CNN aired almost five times as much oil industry advertising as climate change-related coverage in the one-week periods following the announcements that 2015 was the hottest year on record and February 2016 was the most abnormally hot month on record. Specifically, CNN aired 23.5 minutes of American Petroleum Institute ads during its morning, afternoon, and primetime coverage over those two weeks, compared to just five minutes of coverage about climate change or the temperature records. That disparity does not even account for dozens of Koch Industries ads that also ran on CNN, which were not energy-focused but did serve to boost the image of the oil billionaire Koch brothers’ primary corporation.
On Earth Day, 175 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement -- the most countries to ever sign an international accord on a single day. Conservative media are reacting by recycling debunked myths about the landmark climate change agreement. Here are the facts.
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Six years after BP’s offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, media outlets are detailing new research that shows how the spill continues to harm wildlife and the local environment. These reports stand in stark contrast to the countless times conservative media defended BP and downplayed the disaster’s catastrophic impacts.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history, which devastated the region’s ecosystem and economy. The magnitude of the spill was so great that new evidence of its long-lasting impacts continues to surface six years later in research and media coverage.
US News & World Report: The BP Spill Is Responsible For A “Die-Off Of Baby Dolphins.” On April 12, U.S. News & World Report covered a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finding that “[m]ore than 170 stillborn and juvenile bottlenose dolphins found stranded in recent years along the Gulf Coast were likely killed by oil from the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.” The article further reported:
Scientists observed a spike in stranded stillborn and juvenile dolphins along Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana's shores from 2010 to 2013. Researchers now believe the dolphins' mothers suffered chronic illnesses after being exposed to oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill off the coast of Louisiana.
"Our new findings add to the mounting evidence from peer-reviewed studies that exposure to petroleum compounds following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill severely harmed the reproductive health of dolphin living in the oil spill footprint in the northern Gulf of Mexico," veterinarian and study co-author Teri Rowles, head of NOAA's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, said in a statement.
The oil spill's long-term effects on dolphins' reproduction remain unclear.
More than 1,400 dead dolphins and whales – collectively referred to as cetaceans – have washed up on the Gulf's shores since the disaster, far more than the average before the spill. Federal officials have declared an "unusual mortality event" for cetaceans in the region, which remains ongoing.
The Tampa Tribune: Spill May Have Long-Term Effects On Fish Health. The Tampa Tribune reported on April 18 that researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) are just “beginning to chart the long-term effects of one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.” For one, the scientists are examining the long-term effects on both shallow and deepwater fish:
No contaminated fish have made their way to the seafood market, said Steven Murawski, a professor of population dynamics and marine ecosystem analysis at USF, but researchers are still trying to figure out how many generations of fish may be affected by the spill.
Now, researchers are working to determine if the spill has had any long-term effect on fish DNA by attempting to grow second generations of affected fish at Mote Marine in Sarasota. The production of baby red snapper has fallen in the eastern gulf, for example, but researchers can’t yet say if that’s a result of the spill or natural cycling.
The fish can metabolize some oil components and were only exposed to lower, sub-lethal concentrations of toxins because the oil that escaped the well was a light form of crude, but there are still questions surrounding the effects of long-term exposure, [USF scientist David] Hollander said.
“It’s like if you stick your head in a paint can and smell the fumes you would get a headache, but what are the results if you painted a room and went to sleep in it so you’re breathing those fumes for a lot longer?” Hollander said.
National Geographic: The Oil Spill Was Even Bigger Than Previously Thought. On April 20, National Geographic reported on a new study finding that the BP oil spill was even bigger than previously thought -- 19 percent bigger, to be exact. From National Geographic:
Scientists from the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several private research companies found oil along 1,313 miles (2,113 kilometers) out of 5,930 miles (9,545 kilometers) of surveyed shoreline after the spill, an increase of 19 percent from previously published estimates. That makes the disaster the largest marine oil spill in history by length of shoreline oiled, the team reported in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
The scientists found the majority of the oiling in Louisiana, with significant oiling in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and, to a lesser extent, Texas.
National Geographic also reported that approximately “30 percent of the oil thought to have been spilled is still unaccounted for,” adding that some scientists think “it must have sunk to the ocean bottom, where it may be harming communities there.”
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) -- a Koch-backed front group that is opposing the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court -- released a misleading “scorecard” on Garland’s rulings as a judge on the D.C. Circuit, claiming that Garland is not “moderate” because he supposedly sides too often with federal agencies to the detriment of business interests.
But what NFIB fails to mention in its “scorecard” is that many of the decisions involving federal agencies that NFIB has selected for criticism -- namely the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Labor (DoL), and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) -- were unanimous rulings where Garland was often joined by fellow D.C. Circuit judges appointed by Republicans.
While claiming to speak for small businesses, NFIB is actually a front group that has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers network and other large corporate interests, and its opposition to Garland is part of a campaign against environmental, labor, and healthcare policies that most small businesses support.
On April 12, NFIB released a “judicial scorecard” purporting to analyze Garland’s career as a judge on the D.C. Circuit. The group promoted its “scorecard” with a press release that asserted Garland’s judicial record indicates he “would overwhelmingly rule in favor of the government, unions, and environmental groups at the expense of small businesses.” According to an NFIB official quoted in the press release, “When you look at Judge Garland’s record on the bench, it is absolutely impossible to conclude that he is anywhere near a moderate."
But NFIB’s attempt to scandalize Garland’s record, which is widely viewed as moderate, dishonestly omits important context.
According to a Media Matters analysis of the 35 cases cited by NFIB concerning Garland’s judicial opinions on the EPA, DoL, and the NLRB -- issues highlighted as the most important in NFIB’s press release and classified as “wins” for the government by the NFIB -- judges appointed by Republicans were on the same side as Garland in 28 out of 35 -- or 80 percent -- of the cases.
In fact, in 17 of the 35 EPA, DoL, and NLRB cases NFIB complains about in its scorecard, Garland wrote the majority opinion for three-judge panels that were composed of him and two judges appointed by Republicans. In only one of the 35 cases did Garland write a majority opinion for a panel composed entirely of judges appointed by Democrats.
NFIB’s attempt to scandalize Garland’s judicial opinions for siding with government agencies more often than not also ignores the longstanding Chevron Deference doctrine, which “raised the issue of how courts should treat agency interpretations of statutes that mandated” agency action, where the “Supreme Court held that courts should defer to agency interpretations of such statutes unless they are unreasonable” -- meaning that there is nothing unusual about agencies often prevailing against challenges to their interpretation of law.
Below, Media Matters provides the context to the cases NFIB attempts to scandalize with its scorecard, demonstrating how a strong majority of the EPA, DoL, and NLRB cases NFIB cites to claim Garland is not “moderate” involved Garland’s agreement with Republican appointee judges:
The NFIB scorecard suggests that Garland has been overly deferential to the EPA by claiming that the agency “wins 94% of cases” before Garland, citing eight EPA “wins” versus one “split decision.”
The scorecard does not mention that in six of the EPA’s “wins,” Garland was in agreement with at least one Republican-appointed
The NFIB scorecard includes the 1999 decision American Trucking Ass'n v. EPA. Garland did not actually participate in the ruling in this decision, so it does not merit inclusion in NFIB’s scorecard. Instead, Garland later joined several judges in voting in favor of rehearing the case en banc before the entire D.C. Circuit. Legal scholars have said a vote to rehear a case en banc is not a ruling on the merits of the case, and as a matter of law, does not signify a “win” for the EPA, although the NFIB scorecard baselessly claims that “Garland would have ruled for EPA.”
The scorecard also includes the 2002 decision American Corn Growers Ass'n v. EPA. Garland issued an opinion concurring and dissenting in part with the majority opinion, which was issued per curium on behalf of a panel with two Democratic appointees and one Republican appointee. In his opinion, Garland noted that his concurrence applied to “most of” the majority opinion, which included the Republican-appointed judge.
Of the six cases cited by NFIB that could actually be reasonably characterized as EPA “wins," Garland was joined in his opinion by at least one Republican appointee every time:
The NFIB scorecard suggests that Garland has been overly deferential to the DoL by claiming that the agency “wins 87% of cases” before Garland, citing eight DoL “wins” versus two “losses.”
The scorecard does not mention that in six of the DoL’s “wins,” Garland was in agreement with at least one Republican appointee judge.
Here are the Republican appointees who joined Garland’s opinions in favor of DoL in six of cases cited by NFIB:
The NFIB scorecard suggests that Garland has been overly deferential to the NLRB by claiming that the independent agency “wins 78% of cases” before Garland, citing 19 NLRB “wins” versus five “losses” and one “split decision.”
The scorecard does not mention that in 16 of the NLRB’s “wins,” Garland was in agreement with at least one Republican appointee judge. In the other three cases, FedEx Home Delivery v. NLRB, Northeast Bev. Corp v. NLRB, and Ross Stores, Inc. v. NLRB, the NFIB scorecard doesn’t tell the full story -- in all three cases Garland only partially dissented, agreeing in part with his Republican-appo
Here are the other 16 cases cited by NFIB where at least one Republican appointee agreed with Garland’s decision in favor of the NLRB:
Charts by Oliver Willis.
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The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) claims that it is speaking for the small business community in its opposition to Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination. In reality, NFIB is a front group that has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers network and other large corporate interests, and its opposition to Garland is part of a campaign against environmental, labor and healthcare policies that most small businesses support.
NFIB has released a scorecard criticizing Garland for allegedly having “ruled against private parties and especially private businesses with striking regularity.” But here is how NFIB rates on Media Matters' small business scorecard:
Contributors at USA Today and Bloomberg View are echoing false attacks on attorneys general who are investigating whether oil companies deceived the public on climate change, and grossly misrepresenting why the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands has subpoenaed records from an oil industry-funded think tank as part of his investigation.
A coalition of attorneys general has committed to holding fossil fuel companies including Exxon accountable if they obfuscated climate change research in order to protect their financial interests. This follows reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times showing that Exxon’s own scientists confirmed by the early 1980s that fossil fuel pollution was causing climate change, yet Exxon funded organizations that helped manufacture doubt about the causes of climate change for decades afterwards. One of the climate denial organizations that Exxon funded was the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker is now subpoenaing CEI for “records of the group's donors and activities involving climate policy,” as InsideClimate News reported. CEI said it “will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena,” and called it "an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association.”
Now, contributors at USA Today and Bloomberg View are defending CEI and Exxon by misrepresenting Exxon’s alleged wrongdoing. Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle authored a column on April 8 headlined, “Subpoenaed Into Silence on Global Warming,” in which she claimed the attorneys general are trying to “shut down dissenters” and criminalize “advocating for policies that the attorneys general disagreed with.” Similarly, USA Today contributor Glenn Reynolds proclaimed in an April 11 column that the attorneys general investigations look like “a concerted scheme to restrict the First Amendment free speech rights of people they don’t agree with,” and that their goal is to “treat disagreement as something more or less criminal.”
In casting the issue as a matter of “free speech,” both McArdle and Reynolds ignored the real reason the attorneys general have launched investigations into Exxon and subpoenaed records from CEI. As InsideClimate News explained, despite Exxon’s “emerging understanding of climate change science in the 1970s,” the oil giant subsequently worked to “undermine the scientific consensus, in part by financing research organizations including CEI.” InsideClimate News added:
CEI is one of several organizations that have been repeatedly named over the years by those who have criticized Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for financing the climate denial work of third parties. After the Royal Society of the United Kingdom castigated Exxon in 2006 for giving money to groups misrepresenting climate science, Exxon said it had stopped financing the CEI.
Additionally, the Climate Investigations Center (CIC) uncovered that the year after CEI received $270,000 from Exxon for “Global Climate Change,” “Global Climate Change Outreach,” and “General Operating Support,” CEI released a climate science-denying TV commercial with the tag line: “Carbon Dioxide: They Call it Pollution, We Call it Life.” CIC stated that the commercial “caused such an outcry, we believe it triggered ExxonMobil to cut funding to CEI altogether.”
Bloomberg View’s McArdle warned that the attorneys general investigations could set a bad “precedent” that would “eventually be used against” the “enemies of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and ExxonMobil.” But that has already happened: climate science denier and then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was found by the Virginia Supreme Court to have overstepped his authority by demanding that the University of Virginia provide emails and other documents from climate scientist Michael Mann. Identical documents were sought by the American Tradition Institute, whose senior director of litigation, Chris Horner, was also a senior fellow at CEI.
McArdle did mention in her column that her husband Peter Suderman had “briefly worked for CEI as a junior employee.” While she was at it, she could have disclosed that Suderman currently works for Reason magazine, and that the Reason Foundation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Exxon.
The Obama administration has released a comprehensive new scientific report detailing how climate change affects human health, presenting the broadcast networks' nightly news programs with a good opportunity to cover a critical topic that they rarely addressed last year.
The Climate and Health Assessment, which is the result of three years of research by approximately 100 health and science experts in eight federal agencies, builds on the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment and signifies increased "scientific confidence in the link between climate change and a broad range of threats to public health."
These threats include some of the most severe effects of global warming, such as increased incidence of death from extreme heat waves and worsened air quality, as well as some less discussed impacts, including the potential for carbon pollution to make our food crops less nutritious and the toll that weather-related disasters can take on our mental health. The report also details how climate change will increase or otherwise alter the risks of suffering from various diseases and illnesses, including Lyme disease from ticks, West Nile virus from mosquitos, water-borne illnesses, and Salmonella poisoning from food.
Any of these topics could provide fodder for an important and informative nightly news segment that would help viewers better understand the threats and challenges posed by climate change.
NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News did each provide a substantial report last year on the ways climate change is impacting allergies and asthma, respectively. But here, too, the Obama administration report provides opportunities for additional coverage.
For instance, the networks could examine these issues from an environmental justice perspective; the report finds that minority adults and children "bear a disproportionate burden associated with asthma as measured by emergency department visits, lost work and school days, and overall poorer health status." And when considering all of the various health impacts, the report identifies many specific populations that are "disproportionately vulnerable" to climate change:
[C]limate change exacerbates some existing health threats and creates new public health challenges. While all Americans are at risk, some populations are disproportionately vulnerable, including those with low income, some communities of color, immigrant groups (including those with limited English proficiency), Indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.
The networks could also cover some of these public health findings alongside a distressing new study on sea level rise, which projects severe impacts on coastal cities that will undoubtedly have profound implications on the health and well-being of millions of Americans. Or they could address the public health benefits of the most significant U.S. climate policy in U.S. history, the Clean Power Plan, which the networks infrequently covered in 2015 -- and which polluting fossil fuel industry groups and allied attorneys general are now fighting in court.
Major news outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, Time magazine, The Associated Press, and McClatchyDC have already covered the new White House report. Now is the time for the broadcast networks' nightly news programs to improve on last year's coverage and educate their viewers about the myriad ways that a changing climate is affecting our health.
Image at top via Flickr user Graeme Maclean using a Creative Commons license.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) called out The Wall Street Journal for its long history of wrongly defending fossil fuel companies, including the Journal's recent attempts to confuse its readers about the rationale for a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of Exxon Mobil and other oil companies. Writing in the Huffington Post, Whitehouse cited Journal editorials dating back to the 1970s and described the Journal's modus operandi as follows: "Deny the science, question the motives, exaggerate the costs, help the polluters."
The Journal has repeatedly distorted Whitehouse's calls for a federal investigation into whether Exxon and other oil companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by purposely misleading shareholders and the public about climate change. The Journal continued to misrepresent the basis for an investigation in an April 1 editorial that falsely claimed Whitehouse wants to "punish those who disagree with him on climate."
Whitehouse directly responded to the Journal's distortions in the Huffington Post, pointing out that "[c]limate skeptics -- people who 'disagree' with me on the reality of climate change -- are not the targets of such an investigation, any more than smokers or people who 'disagreed' with the Surgeon General were targets" of an earlier Department of Justice lawsuit against tobacco companies, which the Journal also vocally opposed. He added: "Fraud investigations punish those who lie, knowing that they are lying, intending to fool others, and do it for money. No one should be too big to answer for that conduct."
Whitehouse concluded of the Journal's behavior: "[A]ll this makes it look like they are out to protect the fraudsters, by misleading regular people about what such a lawsuit would do and continuing their long tradition of downplaying or denying scientists' warnings about the harms of industries' products."
From Whitehouse's April 3 op-ed:
The Wall Street Journal is quite irate that I rank them with industry front groups and cranks denying climate change. But they have a record whenever industrial pollutants are involved. Look at the Journal's commentary on acid rain, on the ozone layer, and on climate change. There is a pattern: Deny the science, question the motives, exaggerate the costs, help the polluters. When they are wrong this often, but keep at it, you have to wonder whether they care about whether they're right or wrong, or whether they are performing some other service.
[I]f there is indeed a core of deliberate fraud at the heart of the climate denial enterprise, no industry should be big enough to suppress investigation of that fraud. Most of the writers I mentioned note similarities between the tobacco fraud scheme and the climate denial operation, as has the lawyer who won the tobacco lawsuit for DOJ; as apparently have more than a dozen state Attorneys General.
Climate skeptics -- people who "disagree" with me on the reality of climate change -- are not the targets of such an investigation, any more than smokers or people who "disagreed" with the Surgeon General were targets of the tobacco case. Those folks may very well be victims of the fraud, the dupes. Fraud investigations punish those who lie, knowing that they are lying, intending to fool others, and do it for money. No one should be too big to answer for that conduct.
This is an important difference, and it's the difference I'm talking about when I say the Wall Street Journal editorial page is trying to saddle me with an argument I'm not making because they don't have a good response to the one I am. Frankly, all this makes it look like they are out to protect the fraudsters, by misleading regular people about what such a lawsuit would do and continuing their long tradition of downplaying or denying scientists' warnings about the harms of industries' products.