The Elephant We're All Inside

(Getty Images)

Junk Journalism on Climate, or Too Big to Cover?


Nature's Edge Notebook #35

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

A number of the world's professional climate scientists are perplexed by - and in some cases furious with - American news directors.

"Malpractice!" is typical of the charges this reporter has heard highly respected climate experts level - privately, off the record - at my professional colleagues over the past few years.

Complaints include what seems to the scientists a willful omission of overwhelming evidence the new droughts and floods are worsened by man made global warming, and unquestioning repetition, gullible at best, of transparent anti-science propaganda credibly reported to be funded by fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation allies.

As scientific reports about the speedy advance and devastating impacts of man made global warming have grown steadily more alarming, surveys have shown most mainstream American news organizations covering it less and less over the past two years.

Even during this hot summer, when inescapable bad news about the warming climate from around the United States and the world has forced its way into main stream media coverage, it has usually been reported only in a reactive and literal event-coverage sort of way.

There's been little of the persistent probing analysis and regular coverage scientists say is urgently needed for a grave planet-wide crisis - reporting of the kind surveys show there was much more of in mainstream coverage up until two years ago.

Why this decline in persistent coverage?

It seems unlikely to last; all responsibly sourced reports from around the world - "as solid as science ever gets," say eminent climate scientists - suggest the increasing impacts will soon force news directors to offer more coverage and explanatory reporting to a public that will appreciate getting it.

It may be that many of our mainstream news directors are, in effect, in the final stages of getting their act together as they get ready to cover this unprecedented story.

Elements that have stalled American coverage appear to include a cynical disinformation and intimidation campaign - as reported in detail by a handful of professional journalists and academics including Steve Coll, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, and Ross Gelbspan (as we've reported before on Nature's Edge) paid for, so the reporting says, by multinational fossil fuel companies, often based in the United States, that are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent inevitable regulation on carbon emissions as long as possible.

' A Crime Against Humanity'

A number of climate scientists have told this reporter they agree with those, including NASA scientist James Hansen, who charge fossil fuel CEOs are thus guilty of a "crime against humanity," given the calamity that unregulated greenhouse emissions are quickly bringing on.

But there's another aspect of the global warming story that is challenging and upsetting everyone - fossil fuel CEOs, environmental activists, presidents, high school teachers, their students, bus drivers, economists, cartoonists, chefs, Kansas wheat farmers and Chinese rice farmers, MIT philosophers, amateur chess players… and political strategists in every party.

That aspect is its scale.

At this point in reporting this story, this reporter feels it may be helpful to simply stop for a moment and focus briefly on this one, most obvious and unprecedented aspect of this story.

It may be psychologically helpful simply to name it - to recognize the full size and complexity of this problem.

One reason - though not an excuse - for journalistic hesitation on this story may well have been that, in its unprecedented immensity, it is simply so psychologically daunting.

This reporter would respectfully suggest that any reporter who hasn't felt this hasn't been paying attention.

And there is still hardly a day, after eight years covering it, that I don't find myself being pulled once again back out of natural, even healthy, denial about it.

Psychologists Charles B. Strozier and Robert J. Lifton report finding what they call a sort of pragmatic "professional numbing" in several professions that deal with traumatic or frightening events or information.

The Elephant We're All Inside Of… and a New 4 th Category of News

One metaphor I came up with when first grappling with this story eight years ago (journalists love to find a good new metaphor) was that "This isn't the elephant in the room, it's the elephant we're all inside of."

Global warming, we're barely beginning to realize, is actually… global.

There may, in a way, be something new under the sun here - a new fourth category of news: "global news"… as something quite different from "foreign news."

Traditionally, we've spoken of three categories of news - local, national and foreign.

As news consumers, we may all, perhaps unconsciously, have been influenced in some degree to tend to sort the world's events each into one of these three concentric rings.

But the world's constantly swirling and mixing air has no borders, and the molecules of any one puff of invisible greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide are quickly, the scientists tell us, dispersed around the entire globe.

Thus, everyone on the globe is affected almost immediately by any one greenhouse emission. Global.

Most corporate news divisions at the national level - including TV network news divisions - have tended to sort news into two major parts - domestic and foreign. When calling in from the field, we have phoned either "the domestic desk" or "the foreign desk."

There are no global desks, so to speak - yet. But their embryonic precursors may be glimpsed, for example, in desks focusing on "Technology" … which is inexorably a global phenomenon and business.

Junk Journalism - Sorting Phonies From True Professionals

Whatever junk journalism there may have been on the climate story in American and other media seems to this reporter to be starting to fade, unable to stand in the reviewable definiteness of digital print as the scientists' long standing predictions continue to pan out.

The overt disinformation propaganda of the so-called "Climategate" emails has been largely exposed - for those able to read the exposures - however successful it may have been in forestalling American legislative action on carbon emissions.

Even the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, in an on-the-record speech to the Council of Foreign Relations that is publicly available online, has now said that it is clear that burning fossil fuels warms the planet.

You can watch the speech online for yourself, or read a full transcript of the speech and following Q&A.

Tillerson added that he felt sure humanity would be able to adapt to the higher temperature.

Several journalists and other analysts saw this as the latest calculated step backward in a slow retreat, signaling that fossil fuel industry leaders have decided a feint, pretending no fault in the warming, is no longer supportable as the visible impacts of manmade global warming worsen dramatically.

Thus, it appears, the climate story is slowly but surely sorting phony journalism that abuses the professional label for purposes of paid-off or narrowly ideological advocacy, from truly professional journalism - the kind that tries constantly to be open about what it thinks its biases are and then constantly and openly explores them.

Some Honest Mistakes

Inevitably when a story so big and so new appears, there will be early missteps in reporting.

There will be well-meaning, often young, journalists who are eager to prove themselves, still, perhaps, unaware of the way their bosses may be tempted to use that eagerness to get them to say what they want… or, more often perhaps, to not say what these executives might fear could lose them ratings or circulation.

Nor does it make sense to berate any reporter or news director for worrying that delivering seriously bad news might lose them credibility. Credibility is all any professional journalist ever has to justify your attention, and it can be carelessly lost.

And it is only sensible to ask whether any journalist claiming that a story is enormously important may be motivated to do so at least partly for self-promotion.

But it is not our job as professional journalists to let the parties in a story determine how we frame it.

Our job includes making sure that they don't.

And when we perceive that parties in a story are trying to fool us into accepting their definition of terms and their framing of the argument, it is also our job to report on those efforts to control the debate, if those efforts seem somehow newsworthy.

Too Big to Cover - Almost

The unprecedented scale and complexity of the crisis of manmade global warming is obvious, but it would seem to need stating clearly - perhaps, for example, to make it easier for honest activists, working in good faith, to assess the matter, take its measure, catch their breath, and get on with dealing with it.

Manmade global warming is, according to the world's climate scientists, solidly on track to be far bigger than history's biggest atrocity so far ("atrocity" here defined as manmade, as discussed in another Nature's Edge Notebook about " Horrible Things."

Obviously, manmade global warming would seem to physically envelope and affect almost everything on earth, with each affected part then possibly changing its affect on other parts, producing a complexity of change no computer could ever fully track.

These affected "parts," to put it generally, have already been reported to include various aspects of, for example, agriculture, biodiversity, religion, public and private health, politics, world finance, local finance, national intelligence priorities and funding, prioritization of scientific studies, war, energy plans, cultural psychologies, communications technology, legal tactics and jurisprudential trends, media funding and management, education, food and water distribution practices, diplomatic norms… etc.

This is only a partial list, but long enough to indicate a critical aspect of this story - the size and complexity that not only any journalist but any news consumer faces when trying to grapple with this story.

It's only natural to hope that, once stated at least, this size and complexity may be a little less daunting, and offer a few new places to get a handhold.

The Many Findings at Nature's Edge

In our "Nature's Edge" reporting at ABC News, begun several years ago with the aim of getting our arms around the daunting climate story by putting it in the context of all sorts of "news from where nature and human nature meet," we have found some delightful and surprising new avenues opening up.

One of the basic premises of the Nature's Edge reports, in both video and digital print, is that the global warming story is clearly a story about the question, "What will the humans do?" - and therefore a story about the need to understand human nature better - even overall collective human nature, as a species, so to speak - for upon it may rest any success in dealing well with this immense crisis.

When asking computer modelers to identify the biggest unknown they put into their computers when trying to predict how the warming will progress, their answer is simple: What will the humans do?

Approached on the basis of this enormous scale with many complex interconnections - as opposed to only a science-based story of rising temperatures, rainfall measurements and sea level rise - fascinating elements that we've discovered for exploration include:

  • The explosion in the new sciences of animal intelligence, which, as explained by author and expert Eugene Linden in a number of our Nature's Edge video segments, such as one dealing with animal sarcasm, are finally giving scientists and philosophers new common conceptual ground on which to try to describe human nature.
  • A related increase in the scientific study of play behavior, which, as scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists including Stuart Brown, Jaak Panksepp and several others have explained, is key to survival in many species… and certainly to how we successfully handle (when we do) enormous problems… such as, perhaps, global warming.

For a quick taste of Brown's new ideas, here is a recent emailed comment, highly condensed, maybe puzzling at first, but worth a ponder and to the point:

"Play, with its capacities to instill early embodied empathy, followed by the kind of moral teaching necessary to keep it vital, is, in my view, our only hope for long term survival, based on who we are as biologically based social beings wired for care-taking."

You can see and hear his more conversational explanations in the short video and print at this nature's Edge link and others at

Other new stories we've discovered include Gloria Steinem explaining how global warming is especially a women's issue (no surprise to humanitarian relief workers around the world), nature-sensitive architecture - including adult tree-houses, science as a superior form of diplomacy to prevent war … and many other subjects you may explore via the three Nature's Edge links at the end of this article.

NOT Too Big to Cover

And how do professional journalists deal with something so big - once we see the size?

Simple. By doing what we've been doing.

We just keep at it, and start to figure it out.

We keep coming back again and again, until we get it right, or at least better.

The very word "Journalism" implies that's what we do:

Jour is the French word for day… implying daily - or some form of regularly repeated service such as a regular deadline reliably met.

We try to get a fix on whatever new psychological barriers the latest story has presented to us and to our news directors, much less to our readers and viewers.

An excellent college professor (Tom T. Tashiro) told this future reporter and his classmates that "All genuine learning is frightening. It's new, and therefore unknown, at first, and we're naturally frightened of the unknown."

It's much the same with a truly new story - what we mean by real "news."

Any big new story worth its salt always has new psychological barriers, by definition.

Manmade global warming appears, so far, to have the biggest of all.


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