Defining Objectivity, False Balance, and Advocacy in News Coverage of Climate Change
Summary and Keywords
Objectivity and advocacy have been contentious topics within environmental journalism since the specialism was formed in the 1960s. Objectivity is a broad term, but has been commonly interpreted to mean the reporting of news in an impartial and unbiased way by finding and verifying facts, reporting facts accurately, separating facts from values, and giving two sides of an issue equal attention to make news reports balanced. Advocacy journalism, by contrast, presents news from a distinct point of view, a perspective that often aligns with a specific political ideology. It does not separate facts from values and is less concerned with presenting reports that are conventionally balanced. Environmental reporters have found it difficult to categorize their work as either objective or advocacy journalism, because studies show that many of them are sympathetic to environmental values even as they strive to be rigorously professional in their reporting. Journalists have struggled historically to apply the notion of balance to the reporting of climate change science, because even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s experts agree that human-driven climate change is real and will have major future impacts, a minority of scientists dispute this consensus. Reporters aimed to be fair by giving both viewpoints equal attention, a practice scholars have labeled false balance.
The reporting of climate change has changed over time, especially as the topic moved from the scientific domain to encompass also the political, social, legal, and economic realms. Objectivity and advocacy remain important guiding concepts for environmental journalism today, but they have been reconfigured in the digital era that has transformed climate change news. Objectivity in climate reporting can be viewed as going beyond the need to present both sides of an issue to the application in reports of a journalist’s trained judgment, where reporters use their training and knowledge to interpret evidence on a climate-related topic. Objectivity can also be viewed as a transparent method for finding, verifying, and communicating facts. Objectivity can also be seen as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. In a pluralistic media ecosystem, there are now multiple forms of advocacy journalism that present climate coverage from various points of view—various forms of climate coverage with a worldview. False balance had declined dramatically over time in mainstream reportorial sources, but it remains a pitfall for reporters to avoid in coverage of two climate change topics: the presentation of the many potential future impacts or risks and the coverage of different policy responses in a climate-challenged society.
In 1975, a distinguished American sociology professor argued that a sharp conflict existed between two modern roles for reporters: gatekeepers and advocates. Gatekeepers, wrote the University of Chicago’s Morris Janowitz, aligned themselves with the concept of objectivity. They endeavored to find facts and separated in their stories those facts from opinions. Advocates, in contrast, believed journalists should participate more directly in society. They were determined to make society more equal and to do this they presented in their stories the viewpoints of underprivileged groups that often did not have prominent spokespeople of their own. Gatekeepers aligned themselves with objectivity to achieve what Janowitz (1975, p. 626) argued was the core task of journalism: the provision of citizens with unbiased information essential to democratic life. The gatekeeper, he wrote, was a type of “public servant.” The advocate, in comparison, he wrote, was more like a “lawyer” or “politician.”
More than 40 years after Journalism Quarterly published Janowitz’s paper, journalists and scholars continue to debate the definitions and argue the relative merits of objectivity and advocacy, an argument that has profound implications for climate change journalism. Decades of discussions have also revisited two implicit arguments in Janowitz’s paper. The study, first, placed objectivity and advocacy as binary concepts that are in continuous conflict. It put forward, second, a highly normative view of journalism: it argued for standards of behavior the author desired or designated as normal for journalists to follow as they fulfilled what he saw as their proper role in society.
Anchored in a view of what reporters should do, this style of criticism has run through scholarly examinations of science and environmental journalism. A common argument in these studies is that journalistic coverage is inaccurate, biased, or distorted (Stocking, 1999). But as influential environmental communication scholar Anders Hansen (2010, p. 89) argued, these studies display a weak understanding of how journalism operates. Critics blame coverage that they perceive as inaccurate, argued Hansen, on poor reporting by inadequately trained journalists, but ignore “the simple fact” that journalists reflect in their coverage disagreements, controversies, and uncertainties within science itself. Ignoring this idea contributes to the tendency to produce normative accounts of what journalism should do or should be instead of more systematic, analytical examinations of the boundaries and differences between objectivity and advocacy.
Drawing on past scholarship and debate, the following study proposes contemporary definitions of objectivity and advocacy in news coverage of climate change. It charts the changing definitions of these concepts over time. It puts these concepts within the entwined histories of journalism, science journalism, environmental journalism, and, finally, climate change journalism—specialisms that are always enmeshed in a dynamic field of political, social, scientific, and cultural forces. As the review explores their shifting meanings, it also examines the related idea of false balance, itself a particular manifestation within climate change coverage of the unresolved tensions between objectivity and advocacy.
The evidence is based largely on studies, reports, organizational guidelines, and the published reflections of environmental journalists on their work. Much of this material is drawn from sources based in the United States and United Kingdom, countries where there is a long tradition of research on climate change and the media, and countries where controversy over balance has been most noticeable. Where possible, evidence from other countries is also included. The study concludes with a set of reconfigured definitions of objectivity, advocacy, and false balance—definitions suitable for a new digital media era and a historical moment when society has come to recognize what the book Climate-Challenged Society (Dryzek, Norgaard, & Schlosberg, 2013, p. 17) called climate change’s “omni-present, pervasive, permanent, and encompassing character.”
Origins of Objectivity and Advocacy Journalism
Objectivity in journalism has a history. Objectivity remains the dominant concept in American reporting and it is there that the idea’s origins and elements can be understood most sharply. Across a series of studies, the eminent communications scholar Michael Schudson (1978, 2001, 2011) argued the concept emerged as a central idea for journalism in the 1920s, when it replaced the partisan journalism that was dominant in previous decades. In the 1920s, journalists allied themselves with the era’s progressive reform movement that favored a society run by neutral public administration instead of party politics. The Progressives believed news should convey information, not argument, and should separate facts from values. “Facts can be reported and evaluated,” as Patterson and Seib (2005, p. 194) described, “values can be reported but not evaluated.” As political parties’ ties to the press weakened in the 1920s, reporters established themselves as a professional group, one that was independent from politics and distinct from the emergent profession of public relations.
As reporters established their professional identity, they drew from the practices of scientists and social scientists—particularly the commitment to objectivity. For science studies scholar Dorothy Nelkin, objectivity in journalism emerged at a time when science began to be seen as superior to all other forms of knowledge. The New Republic in 1915 proposed that journalism schools should seek to inculcate journalists with an attitude that was as disinterested as that of scientists who investigated the natural world. “News gathering cannot perhaps be as accurate as chemical research,” wrote the magazine (quoted in Nelkin, 1995, p. 86), “but it can be undertaken in the same spirit.” In this culture, wrote (Schudson, 2011, p. 75), “objectivity seemed a natural and progressive ideology for an aspiring occupational group at a moment when science was God, efficiency was cherished, and increasingly prominent elites judged partisanship a vestige of the tribal nineteenth century.”
But objectivity in science also has a history. In Objectivity (2010), the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison identified the ways the concept changed over centuries. The notion of objectivity imported into journalism around the 1920s was a particular version of the concept, one developed in the mid-nineteenth century. It was one that Daston and Galison called “mechanical objectivity.” It was a set of procedures that scientists followed to capture and reproduce objects as they existed in the natural world. It was “noninterventionist” in that the researchers restrained themselves as much as possible from becoming involved in the technical processes that resulted in “gaining a right depiction of nature.” This idea of objectivity found its emblem in the photograph, which was produced by a machine that apparently eliminated the subjective interference of the photographer (Daston & Galison, 2010, pp. 187, 185).
As this version of journalistic objectivity became codified in professional training and codes of practice for journalists in the 1920s, it took on multiple meanings. It was a code of ethics to guide journalists’ moral reasoning to ensure they avoided inserting personal opinions into their reports and, therefore, remained unbiased. It was a set of practices to guide how they gathered information to ensure they sought different viewpoints about the same event. It was a set of rules that shaped how they wrote their stories, focusing on facts, attributing information to credible sources, and citing opposing views in a fair and balanced way. These strategies were intended to insulate them from criticism from readers or sources who did not agree with the reporter’s presentation of the story (Schudson & Tifft, 2005). These ideas of objectivity would go on to underpin the work of world news agencies and inform the journalistic work of public service broadcasting (McQuail, 2013).
Objectivity remains a broad concept. Scholars in the related fields of communication studies and journalism studies continue to define its core features. Researchers place different emphases on its many dimensions. Denis McQuail (2013, p. 101) proposed that objective journalism had seven criteria. These were relevance, accuracy, reliability, factuality (information that is opinion-free, precise, and verifiable), separation of fact from opinion, balance and impartiality, and neutrality in how information is presented. Michael Schudson (1978) stressed that objectivity implied a focus on facts and the separation of facts from values. Robert Entman viewed balance as a central characteristic of objectivity. He defined (Entman, 1989, p. 30) balance as presenting “the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute,” and this presentation involves providing “both sides with roughly equal attention.” Objectivity remains a cornerstone of journalists’ professional ideology. Objectivity is a foundation for journalism’s social status. “Journalism is presented to its audience as a truthful discourse about the real world,” wrote Brian McNair (2010, p. 65), “and it must command legitimacy on these terms or it is without value in the cultural marketplace.”
While objectivity remains the main professional value that motivates American reporters, advocacy has been a common motivation for European journalists (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). The press in many European countries has had historical ties to specific political parties. As a result, even as the idea of the party press has weakened, many newspapers and digital media in several countries retain clear political sympathies. In Germany, wrote Hallin and Mancini (2004, p. 27), for example, citizens who follow politics are likely to identify that “the Frankfurter Allgemeine is right of center, the Süddeutsche Zeitung left of center; Die Welt further still to the right and the Frankfurter Rundschau further to the left.” Even with their partisan affiliations, journalists in many European countries consider themselves professional. They strive to be accurate in their reporting and reject what they term misinformation or propaganda. They do not equate professionalism with objectivity. A distinct point of view is part of a newspaper’s independence. As a former editor of the Jerusalem Post wrote (cited in Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 40), “all newspapers have a character of their own, telling the story of the present as they perceive it.”
Outside of the Western world, journalism has strong affinities with European advocacy journalism. As opposed to the view that journalism was a literary, political, or philosophical examination of current affairs, the idea that journalism was primarily fact-based was, for one researcher (Chalaby, 1996, p. 303), an “Anglo-American invention.” As examples, journalists in Egypt, Tasmania, and Nepal did not view objectivity as a feature of their reporting (Ramaprasad; Ramaprasad & Hamdy; Ramaprasad & Kelly, cited in Schudson & Anderson, 2009, p. 93). In another example, Chinese history does not create a culture where the concept of objectivity could take hold. As studies of journalism there showed, there is no political polarization and its journalism is grounded in Confucian philosophical ideas, which state that intellectuals should have a role in promoting values and explaining the meaning of events to wider Chinese society. Rooted in this intellectual tradition, Chinese journalists “shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that society is running healthily and that the rulers are ruling humanely” (Lee, 2005; Tong, 2015, p. 752).
In the West, journalists and scholars argued that journalistic objectivity had several shortcomings. It was impossible to have what objectivity promised: a view from nowhere. Literal objectivity is impossible. The media, wrote Schudson (1995, p. 19), “add something to every story they run.” The author and journalist Joan Didion (1996) argued that, when it came to reporting political news in Washington, DC, where politicians were preoccupied with trying to control the news through public relations, fairness came to mean that reporters took things at face value. Fairness, she wrote, too often has meant “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” The established notion of objectivity relies on sources to convey facts. When these sources do not present facts, reporting dissolves into what journalist James Fallows calls “false equivalencies,” in which journalists place side by side in stories different assertions that do not have the same basis in fact (cited Patterson, 2013, p. 52).
Objectivity also was criticized as a form of collusion with society’s institutions of power. The practice of objective journalism, this argument runs, leads to the domination of media discussion by society’s elites. By endeavoring to be objective, journalists end up relying on what communication studies scholar James Curran (2005, p. 126) called “established power holders and legitimated holders of knowledge as sources of news and comment.” These privileged sources, he argued, can then present their own economic and social interests as being the common interests of all citizens. Because these sources then dominate news coverage, other voices that might challenge their views are marginalized. Influential media sociologist Gaye Tuchman (1972, p. 660) criticized objectivity as a “strategic ritual.” It was a routine that journalists followed to avoid criticism and responsibility for the potential consequences of their stories. As the civil rights movement and public opposition to the Vietnam War grew in the United States, these criticisms contributed to a change in reporters’ traditional routines. “For journalism, habitual deference to government officials,” wrote Schudson (2011, p. 80), “came to be seen not as professionalism but as occupationally induced laziness, naïveté, or worse.” These criticisms of objectivity became crucial in the conceptualization of a new form of journalism—one focused on the environment.
The Rise of Environmental Journalism
Environmental journalism emerged at a time of great historical tumult. Called the “long 1960s,” the epoch between 1955 and 1975 saw enormous changes in Western societies in the relationship between science and society (Agar, 2008, p. 568). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) helped catalyze modern environmentalism. Carson argued that the annual uncontrolled release into the wild of hundreds of potent insecticides and other chemicals poisoned ecosystems and killed species. Serialized in the New Yorker and the subject of a documentary on 60 Minutes, the book brought controversial science into the public domain. Carson also dragged into public view expert disagreement about the environmental effects of pesticides. She also questioned the value of science-driven industrial progress (Agar, 2008; Carson, 1962).
A new scientific discipline also emerged: ecology. The new science had a holistic view of the natural world: Everything was connected, often in complex ways, to everything else. Ecology was also a philosophy with moral and political dimensions. It was an ethical position that offered a guide to living harmoniously with nature. It was a political movement that fought what its adherents saw as capitalism’s exploitation of nature. Ecology was ambiguous about science. For some advocates, it caused environmental devastation. For others, it could find ways to heal ecological damage (Bramwell, 1989; Commoner, 1971; Yearley, 1992).
The environment became a newsworthy topic. The long 1960s saw decisive political action as the US government enacted a slew of environmental protection laws. Government officials drove the environmental agenda as the major sources of news. The United Kingdom saw the rise of a host of single-issue environmental pressure groups that aimed to influence the news agenda on controversial issues such as nuclear power (Anderson, 1997). Although the number of sources for environmental news increased, the working routines of journalists made it difficult for them to cover the environment. The holistic nature of the topic made it tough to slot into routine organizational divisions of how journalists did their day-to-day work, where reporters focused on longstanding subject domains—or beats—like politics, the economy, science, and health. It was impossible to separate these domains in environmental coverage. Journalism, therefore, needed a new specialism. In 1969, the New York Times created an environmental beat. Newspapers across the United States followed. The numbers of environmental reporters in the United Kingdom would expand dramatically at the end of the 1980s (Hansen, 2010; Sachsman, Simon, & Myer Valenti, 2010).
Journalists reported on the environment, but the way they reported it was criticized for not examining the fundamental causes of ecological problems. An environmental issue like pollution is systemic, knitted into the structures of industrial societies, but the coverage of this and other issues is highly episodic. Reporters focused in episodic coverage on distinct events, controversial incidents, or particular problems. The 1970s and 1980s featured several major disastrous environmental events, such as the buried toxic industrial waste in the residential area of Love Canal in upstate New York; the thousands who died after the release of poisonous gases at Bhopal, India; the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl; and the sinking of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez. Journalists in their reports—and academics in their studies of environmental news—focused far more on these episodic events than on thematic issues (Friedman, 2004; Hansen, 2015; Revkin, 2007).
While research on the Earth’s climate had been gathering pace for decades, it was set of major events that coalesced at the end of the 1980s that imprinted the systemic issue of climate change on the international news agenda.
Climate Change Becomes News
The year 1988 was a hinge moment in the history of climate coverage. Americans experienced a record hot summer. James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) testified before US Congress that global warming was real. The UK prime minister and trained chemist Margaret Thatcher, in a speech to the Royal Society, became the first political leader to identify global warming as a challenge for civilization. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded to coordinate the work of thousands of the world’s top scientists, who evaluated and synthesized vast numbers of studies into coherent sets of findings about the global state of climate research. The IPCC continues to be what the historian of science Spencer Weart (2008, p. 153) called “neither a strictly scientific nor a strictly political body, but a unique hybrid.”
Amid this heightened political and scientific interest in climate change, US-based environmental journalists founded the nonprofit Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) in 1989. The organization helped reporters share expertise, but also sought to clarify the concepts of objectivity and advocacy, which were particularly contentious in environmental journalism. As Ward (2002, p. 40, emphasis in original) noted, journalists were often viewed “not as environmental reporters but as environmentalist reporters.” They were dismissed, he wrote, as “Greens with press passes.” Keen to avoid the label of an advocacy organization, the SEJ initially tried to establish criteria for objective coverage. In its early years, it asked reporters who sought membership to submit work samples that the SEJ board evaluated for objectivity and fairness. But this practice soon stopped. As one long-time member later wrote (Palen, 1999, p. 163), the task was “a monumental if not impossible job.” The organization since then has “made no effort to police advocacy journalism among its members” (Palen, 1999, p. 164). SEJ members could undertake advocacy journalism if they wanted. But they could not be paid for their advocacy reporting by anyone except their media organization.
The SEJ viewed objectivity as journalistic independence. The organization defined the idea more precisely as “independence from vested interests” (Palen, 1999, p. 159). It prohibited membership from media professionals paid to undertake public relations or lobbying work for industry or environmental organizations. The SEJ did not accept funding from nonmedia companies, government, or environmental groups. By 1997, wrote Palen (1999, p. 169), the organization’s conception of objectivity “served as a central concept around which environmental journalists could define themselves.” The organization would also influence future scholarly understanding of climate coverage news, as several subsequent studies surveyed or interviewed SEJ members. At the start of the 21st century, there were, by one estimate, more than 1,400 journalists covering the environment in the United States, and 7,500 worldwide (Wyss, 2008).
The difficulty in codifying journalism that was objective or advocacy-driven was reflected in the attitudes of working environmental reporters. A comprehensive set of surveys in first decade of the 21st century captured the beliefs of 652 full-time US-based environmental reporters (Sachsman, Simon, & Myer Valenti, 2010). These journalists closely aligned themselves with the traditional journalistic ideals of objectivity and fairness. More than 99% of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they should be as objective as other journalists. The same number agreed or strongly agreed they should be fair to environmental activists. And the same number agreed or strongly agreed they should be fair to corporations. In contrast, UK-based environmental reporters in the early 1980s, one study (Lowe & Morrison, cited in Hansen, 2010, p. 82) found, had “undisguised sympathy” for the issues environmental groups championed.
But once the survey researchers probed deeper, they found more complex attitudes to advocacy among US environmental reporters. One in three journalists agreed that they sometimes should be advocates for the environment: 32.2% agreed and 4.5% strongly agreed with this view. At the same time, 20.9% strongly disagreed and 42.4% disagreed with this stance. Asked if environmental reporters were “too green,” slanted in favor of environmentalism, 35.8% agreed and 2.3% strongly agreed. Asked if environmental reporters were “too brown,” slanted in favor of business and industry, 4.2% agreed and none strongly agreed. Notably, these questions about reporters being too green or too brown had some of the survey’s lowest response rates. In summary, reporters aligned themselves in broad terms with objectivity and fairness, yet one in three believed they should be advocates for the environment, and almost two in five believed their colleagues were too green (Sachsman, Simon, & Myer Valenti, 2010).
As well as presenting survey evidence, the researchers also quoted environmental journalists who argued their work was held to unfair standards. “Must a business writer declare that he or she is not a capitalist in order to have credibility? Should a political reporter purport to have no opinion on the virtues of democracy as opposed to dictatorship? Must a crime reporter strive not to care about right and wrong?” asked one independent radio producer (cited in Sachsman, Simon, & Myer Valenti, 2010, pp. 26–27). “For someone aspiring to work one of these beats to even suggest that they’re indifferent or hostile to the basic concerns of the endeavor would guarantee that they don’t get the job. And yet on our beat, we are constantly under pressure, even from within our ranks, to disavow any concern or values associated with what we cover.” Elsewhere, individual reporters have publicly stated their environmental advocacy. One of Europe’s longest-serving environmental correspondents, Frank McDonald covered the beat for approximately three decades since the Irish Times appointed him environment reporter in 1986. In correspondence with a colleague, he wrote (Brown & McDonald, 2000, p. 70): “Everyone who reads the Irish Times knows where I stand on the major environmental issues. As you know from our conversations over the years, I see nothing wrong with being an advocate as well as a reporter.”
As well as these difficulties in how environmental reporters view their vocation within journalism, climate change poses additional problems for journalists. A first set of problems relates to the complexity of climate change itself. The Earth’s climate is a dynamic, complex system that is difficult for scientists to fully understand. It cannot be tested in the controlled circumstances of a laboratory experiment, so scientists use ever more sophisticated computer models to predict future temperature rises and potential impacts of climate change (Pielke, 2007). This complexity is difficult to report. Acknowledging this complexity is a principle for Pulitzer Prize–winning environmental reporter Usha Lee McFarling. In a piece of writing that sets out lessons for science writers, she wrote (2006, p. 247): “beware of anything in climate that seems simple. With its many interrelations and feedback loops abounding, climate change is full of counterintuitive facts.” Finding appropriate sources for climate news is also difficult. “An ecologist concerned about species decline due to climate change is not an authority on the science of greenhouse gases,” wrote McFarling (2006, p. 246). “An economist concerned about regulations on the coal industry is not a scientific authority, either.”
This points to the second set of problems for reporting on climate change—the workings of journalism. Climate change faces the difficulty of not fitting into established, organized routines of newsgathering. “Climate is not only a science story. It is a political story, a foreign story, and a business story as well,” wrote McFarling (2006, p. 244). “It would be best if climate were covered from all of these myriad angles; more commonly, no one takes ownership of it.” The nature of climate change does not conform to the nature of news. Climate science is not tied to single, dramatic events. News about climate change does not break. It “oozes” (Ward, 2008, p. 24) and its effects—the extinction of an animal or plant species, for example—are almost imperceptible and are a long way off (Wyss, 2008). Despite these difficulties, reporters in their first sustained coverage of climate change in 1988 and 1989 mirrored the scientific consensus.
False Balance Causes a “Lost Decade” of Climate Coverage
Climate change became news when it entered the political arena. Once there, climate became a contentious policy topic. Politicians, business, and advocacy organizations entered into a broader discussion of what had until then been a scientific topic. A significant strand of research on climate news coverage focused on the way fossil fuel companies and US conservative politicians and thinkers, in particular, shaped how policymakers and citizens came to understand climate change in a way that was sympathetic to their political ends. A cornerstone of this mobilization, researchers found, was the strategic influencing of news coverage of climate.
This strategy focused on two approaches. The first was to use uncertainty as a political tool by changing public debate, via the media, on climate change. Journalists view controversy as newsworthy. For science journalists, a story is controversial when there is expert disagreement, a lack of scientific consensus, or when minority views challenge the scientific majority (Friedman, Dunwoody, & Rogers, 1999). Some political and industrial interests, therefore, sought to highlight and magnify the inherent certainties in climate science. Created by a consortium of energy companies in 1989, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) publicly questioned the scientific view that humans influenced climate change. It told policymakers and citizens that action on climate was not justified because the science was too uncertain (Revkin, 2007). A larger conservative movement consisting of think tanks, conservative foundations, journalists, public intellectuals, and politicians amplified uncertainty to avoid or postpone legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008). Generally criticized for reducing uncertainty in their reports (Stocking, 1999), journalists now amplified uncertainties as they covered climate change as a controversy.
The second strategy was to take advantage of journalistic objectivity with its commitment to balance. This working practice suited journalists covering political issues, where there are often legitimate arguments from various political perspectives on legislation and policy. But in climate coverage, when journalists seek multiple voices, minority viewpoints—like those of scientists who dispute the human influence on global warming—gain a level of attention that is disproportionate to the amount of evidence that supports such a view. Journalists tried to make their coverage balanced by reporting these minority viewpoints, but instead made it biased (Gelbspan, 1998). This was false balance.
The concept is tied most closely to the scholarship of environmental studies researcher Maxwell Boykoff. Its first major articulation came in 2004, when he published with Jules Boykoff a content analysis that examined how four elite American newspapers had covered climate change between 1988 and 2002. The article examined how journalists across beats reported on two dimensions of the scientific consensus on climate change. The first dimension was that human actions have contributed to global warming. The second was that immediate, mandatory policy actions are needed to curb climate change. But the study found that climate reporting reflected neither consensus. On the first dimension, the majority of coverage—52.65%—was balanced. It gave “roughly equal attention” to the view that humans were contributing to global warming and the view that the planet’s temperature increase was due to natural fluctuations. Yet more than one-third of coverage—35.29%—mirrored the scientific consensus: Journalists reported that humans were contributing to global warming, as distinct from natural temperature fluctuations, but there is debate about aspects of this issue. On the second dimension, concerning responses to global warming, the majority of articles—78.20%—described with “roughly equal attention” various courses of action to deal with climate change, which ranged from voluntary to mandatory, and from cautious to urgent. Journalists, the authors concluded (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004), reported climate change using routines of balance. Balance introduced a false equivalence into coverage. Balance created bias.
The 2004 Boykoff and Boykoff article has had enormous influence on thinking about climate coverage in the media. It has been cited more than 1000 times on Google Scholar. It reached a level of public renown in 2006 when Al Gore featured it in the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gore used the study to argue for the disconnect between scientific knowledge and media reporting (even though, as Boykoff (2011) acknowledged, the study’s time period ended in 2002—years before the film was released). The balance-as-bias concept has been critiqued. In their paper, Boykoff and Boykoff (2004, p. 134) concluded that the coverage was a “failed … translation” of ideas from the scientific community to the media. Such a description underlines the highly normative assumption guiding the study: That the role of journalism is to translate scientific ideas faithfully into public life. However, there is another motivation for journalists. As Juliet Eilperin, a longtime environment reporter and now a political reporter with the Washington Post, wrote (2012, p. B1): “Boykoff suggests that many mainstream reporters quote climate contrarians out of a misguided quest for journalistic balance,” she wrote in a review of Boykoff’s Who Speaks for the Climate? “But this point misses the real reason that many journalists include comments from climate skeptics: They are trying to capture the political divide over global warming.”
A limitation of the balance-as-bias study is that it does not identify the type of reporter who wrote each journalistic item. Political reporters and science reporters, for example, present the same topic differently. Two analogous examples from turn-of-the-century US public life show how coverage of science-based issues changes when political reporters become involved. As the intelligent design movement stepped up its campaign to have creationism taught in public school science classes, political reporters and opinion writers largely took over the reporting of the issue from science journalists. Political reporters focused on the topic’s controversial elements and reported creationist opinions to create balanced reports. They also analyzed the communication strategies of intelligent design advocates in the same way as they habitually examined other political campaigns (Mooney & Nisbet, 2005). A similar pattern occurred in the reporting of stem cell research, which became a highly political issue in 2001 during the first administration of President George W. Bush. As the issue moved from the scientific to the policy realm, journalists put dramatically less emphasis on science and much more on strategy and political conflict (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003). A similar process is likely to have contributed to the inclusion of voices deemed skeptical in climate news coverage, as by the late 1990s, political journalists and opinion columnists in the U.S., particularly, saw climate change as another terrain on which the political left and right contested legislation and policy.
The difficulty journalists faced as they reported science as a political issue became acute in the US during the tenure of President George W. Bush. In its statements and actions on the science of climate change, Bush’s administration often gave what science writer Chris Mooney (2004, p. 28) described as a “privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion.” This presented a dilemma for political reporters. As Mooney wrote (2004, p. 28), journalists have had “to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House—which has had very few scientific defenders—or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.” Outside the United States, the political divide also explains how news organizations with historically shaped political viewpoints have covered climate change. Between 1985 and 2001, British newspaper coverage of climate change skewed along ideological lines. The editorially left-of-center The Guardian and The Independent gave more coverage to market regulation and climate mitigation compared to the editorially right-of-center The Times, which advocated unchanged business practices and regulation in the absence of certain evidence about climate change (Carvalho, 2007).
Later, Boykoff surveyed his own work and concluded that, from 1990 to 2002, newspapers had covered human-induced climate change not as consensus, but as conflict. A similar pattern occurred in television coverage from 1995 to 2004. The scientific evidence supporting human-induced climate change became more definite and persuasive throughout the 1990s. But because of this mismatch between scientific evidence and newspaper coverage, Boykoff concluded (2011, p. 129) that the period from the mid-1990s to approximately 2004 in the United States was a “lost decade” of climate coverage. (See “Elite News Coverage of Climate Change”.)
Balanced Journalism Recast as “Weight-of-Evidence” Reporting
During this contentious period of environmental reporting, objectivity came under renewed scrutiny from within the journalistic profession. In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States erased objectivity from its revised code of ethics. But as the Columbia Journalism Review noted in 2003, the concept persisted because it had not been replaced with another idea that was better able to guide reporters. Brent Cunningham, a former managing editor of the magazine, advocated an alternative view of objectivity, one centered on journalistic expertise. Reporters, he argued (Cunningham, 2003, p. 31), should be encouraged “to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening.” He argued (2003, p. 26) that these techniques would help reporters be less passive disseminators of news and more “aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”
Around the same time, experienced science reporters had started to rethink objectivity in similar ways. Their specialism was caught between two distinct pressures. They believed their work involved faithfully reporting scientific findings, which provided reliable, verifiable knowledge of the natural world. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning environmental writer and New York University journalism professor Dan Fagin (cited in Borel, 2015) put it: “Science journalism’s ultimate loyalty, when practiced properly, is to the closest possible depiction of reality.” But, like other journalists, science reporters were committed to fairness and the inclusion of multiple points of view. Andrew Revkin, who reported on the environment at the New York Times for decades before creating the Dot Earth blog for the news organization in 2007, noted that these twin motivations often resulted in reporters quoting side by side the views of experts who disagreed with each other on a science-related topic. Reporters, he argued (Revkin, 2007, p. 152), quoted different points of view to demonstrate their lack of bias, but when they used this technique too often, they tended to “highlight the opinions of people at the polarized edges of a debate instead of in the much grayer middle where consensus generally lies.” Revkin said coverage, as a result, became dictated by what he called “the tyranny of balance” (2007, p. 151).
Revkin developed techniques to overcome these constraints. One he called (2007, p. 153) “truth in labeling.” When applying this technique, the reporter tells readers about a source’s perspective and motivations, making their agenda transparent. As an illustrative example, Revkin described how he referred to US-based scientist Pat Michaels, a climate change skeptic funded in part by conservative or industry-supported groups, in an article on climate politics. “‘Climate change is at its absolutely most political,’ said Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist at the University of Virginia who, through an affiliation with the Cato Institute, a libertarian group in Washington, has criticized statements that global warming poses big dangers” (Revkin, 2006, p. 226). In a second technique, Revkin (2007, p. 157) reported areas of “deep consensus.” To find these areas of widespread agreement in climate science, ones based on established bodies of knowledge, Revkin cultivated scientists who acted as guides to help him navigate the mass of complex climate science evidence. Similarly, McFarling (2006, p. 246) endeavored to report “consensus thinking” on climate science, which she sourced from the National Academy of Sciences or the IPCC reports. She considered IPCC reports as scientific, not political, documents. Veteran environmental reporter and educator Tom Yulsman (2009) advised reporters to avoid being stenographers when reporting climate. He recommended instead that they be referees, who helped audiences “weigh the merits” of various sources and evidence.
Scholars advocated a similar practice. The science communication researcher Sharon Dunwoody (2005, p. 90) called it “weight-of-evidence” reporting. Applying this practice, journalists ask scientists where the volume of evidence and expert opinion lie on an issue at a particular moment in time. The reporter then conveys to audiences where the weight of evidence lies. Reporters do not dismiss other evidence or perspectives, but put them in proportion. Journalists do “not get into the weeds of the scientific evidence,” or referee the validity of a source’s claims. They default to expert judgment, a stance that also protects reporters against charges of bias (Kohl et al., 2015, p. 4). Weight-of-evidence reporting was ethical reporting, argued Dunwoody and Konieczna (2013), as the practice meant reporters could help citizens form evidence-based opinions that could guide their behavior. A small number of media effects studies have supported the idea that a weight-of-evidence style of reporting enhanced audience understanding of the certainty of scientific knowledge (Corbett & Durfee, 2004; Kohl et al., 2015; Kortenkamp & Basten, 2015).
The BBC sought to encode a similar idea to weight of evidence or deep consensus into its editorial guidelines. Part of the public service broadcaster’s historical mission has been to ensure its news and current affairs outputs treat controversial subjects impartially. The concept was codified as granting “equality of voice” to various participants in a controversy. But for the renowned evolutionist and science writer Steve Jones, this principle presented problems for science and climate coverage. In a 2011 review of the BBC’s science coverage, the professor at University College London praised the organization’s output overall, but raised the issue of false equivalence in climate coverage. He wrote (Jones, 2011, p. 16): “Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite.”
Before his review was published, the BBC had incorporated into its editorial guidelines the revised idea of “due impartiality.” Commenting on this inclusion, the BBC executive board, which runs the corporation, wrote that the concept’s application will depend on the “nature and context” of a particular science story. “Sometimes it is appropriate to present it as a debate within the scientific community,” wrote the executive (cited in Jones, 2011, p. 6), “whereas at others a range of views, including from non-experts, is justified given the social, political and cultural context.”
By the time of Jones’s report, the BBC had already been moving toward a weight-of-evidence approach. The fourth IPCC report in 2007 noted that effects of global warming could now be seen. The publication marked a time when political elites and the public paid more significant attention to global warming. A year later, a senior BBC figure noted in an internal document about impartiality in coverage that the scientific evidence for climate change was conclusive. “Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC,” the executive wrote (cited in Jones, 2011, p. 70), “it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently.”
By 2010, experienced environmental reporters adopted practices akin to weight-of-evidence reporting. In the United States, environmental reporters, according to researchers Hiles and Hinnant (2014, p. 448), felt “duped” by the efforts driven by the fossil fuel industry to cover climate change as a controversy. While still viewing objectivity as an essential norm of their work, they replaced it with a weight-of-evidence approach.
Researchers also found that by 2010, incidents of false balance in news coverage had dropped dramatically. In an update on his earlier work, Boykoff (2007) found the balance-as-bias trend ended in elite US newspapers in 2005. Coverage in 2005 and 2006 almost entirely portrayed climate change as having human influences, a shift Boykoff attributed to a combination of more persuasive scientific evidence and a perceived shift in the Bush administration’s climate policy, which had moved closer to the international scientific consensus. In British newspapers, there was no evidence that coverage between 2003 and 2006 exhibited balanced reporting, a feature Boykoff attributed to the comparative lack of political division about the issue. No evidence of balanced news coverage was found in other studies around the same period (Nisbet, 2011; Xie, 2015). Right-of-center newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Telegraph also had “little uncontested scepticism in their news reporting” (Painter & Ashe, 2012, p. 7), though most articles appearing at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages dismissed consensus views on climate change (Nisbet, 2011). In mainstream newspaper reporting, false balance around the fundamentals of climate science—that human-driven climate change is happening—had effectively ended.
Skeptical interpretations of climate science, however, continue to be found at news outlets aimed at conservative audiences. A significant outlet of this type is the US-based cable news channel Fox News. Founded in 1996 as a counterpoint to what conservatives argued was a liberal bias in the media, the channel produces a style of advocacy journalism aimed at conservative audiences, and its editorial viewpoint is sympathetic to US Republican interests. Fox News is strongly critical of climate science. Almost 60% of the channel’s broadcasts on the issue in 2007 and 2008, one study found, were dismissive of climate change, in that they challenged its reality, severity, causes, or the need for action to address it. About 20% of Fox broadcasts accepted climate change as a real problem requiring action. (In comparison, more than 70% of the broadcasts on the nonpartisan CNN and the liberal MSNBC cable channels accepted climate change as real.) Compared to the other two cable channels, Fox also interviewed a greater ratio of doubters to believers in global warming (Feldman et al., 2011).
Fox News is part of a worldwide network of companies ultimately controlled by global media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. One study examined how editorials, columnists, and commentators across Murdoch’s media empire treated climate change between 1997 and 2007. The researcher (McKnight, 2010, p. 693) judged that, overall, opinion journalism “largely denied the science of climate change and dismissed those who were concerned about it.” Yet opinions varied between countries and between outlets in those countries. Opinions were most skeptical in the United States and Australia. Fox News hosts and commentators challenged the science of climate change, as did editorials in the New York Post and The Australian. No newspaper in the United Kingdom took a skeptical line in editorials, although The Sun, and, to a lesser extent, The Times, and the Sunday Times published articles by climate contrarians on their opinion pages. In 2007, at the end of the period studied, Murdoch told all his employees that climate change posed “clear catastrophic threats” (cited in McKnight, 2010, p. 694).1
Advocacy Flourishes in the Digital Era
The digital era, which took hold in the US news industry from the mid-1990, significantly reshaped science journalism and climate coverage. New digital technologies upended reporters’ traditional role as the privileged arbiters of what climate science information entered the public domain. Scientific institutions, scientific publications, advocacy groups, political activists, and scientists entered a space that had until then been the exclusive terrain of established media companies. Gavin Schmidt, a prominent climate scientist and blogger, argued that blogs allowed scientists to talk directly to nonspecialists about complex, controversial topics (Gramling, cited in Trench, 2012). Environmental advocacy organizations also became news providers. Greenpeace, which for decades had used strategic communication techniques to influence news agendas and public policies, established in 2015 a team of investigative environmental journalists (Jackson, 2015). Science journalists as a result are no longer the sole gatekeepers who decide what climate change information enters the marketplace of ideas, filtering that access through predigital professional values like objectivity, fairness, and balance.
Audiences in the digital era are active. Instead of relying on journalists to put the most important climate news before them, citizens migrated online to seek scientific information themselves through search engines like Google and social networks like Twitter and Facebook (Brossard, 2013). Online sources of information are important for citizens interested in climate change. One in five Americans in 2006 used the internet as their primary source of scientific information. Almost half of those who said they were interested in climate science received information online (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006). Highly interested and motivated audience members—who usually hold professional, personal, or political affinities for a scientific discipline or policy debate—“deep dive” online into science subjects like climate change, commenting on stories, and sharing news within their social networks. Online news, therefore, is social, participatory, and collaborative (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011, p.783).
Environmental news has flourished online (Brainard, 2015), as born-digital outlets—created in the digital era—delivered specialized, high-quality environmental information to niche audiences. Some of these digital outlets are similar in their goals and methods to traditional, nonpartisan, objectivity-driven news organizations. For example, InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news outlet founded in 2007, focuses its coverage on energy and environmental science. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its reporting on the flawed regulation of oil pipelines in the United States. Other born-digital outlets are advocacy-orientated. Grist, founded in 1999, offers news and information from a strong environmentalist perspective. Treehugger, founded in 2004, describes itself as “dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream” to its global audience of more than 3.5 million monthly unique visitors. Others contextualize climate news. RealClimate.org, founded in 2004, features commentary by working climate scientists—including Gavin Schmidt—to provide the context they argue is sometimes missing from more mainstream climate journalism. The site deliberately avoids what it terms “any political or economic implications” of climate science. Watts Up With That? provides a different perspective, one that offers a more skeptical interpretation of climate science (Brainard, 2015).
The Guardian is one legacy news organization—an outlet that existed before the digital era—that has harnessed digital technologies to enhance its environmental journalism. In 2015, the paper began what the Columbia Journalism Review called its “latest foray into advocacy journalism” (Langley, 2015). Alan Rusbridger, stepping down after 20 years as editor, wrote (2015) that even though the paper was at the forefront of environmental reporting, it had “not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue” of climate change. Calling climate change “the biggest story in the world,” Rusbridger and a dedicated team of reporters produced six months of multimedia stories, a podcast detailing their efforts, and an (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to force the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. As the paper drew attention to divestment, it published critiques of its campaign. The eminent climate change scholar Mike Hulme (2015), for example, argued that while divestment offers potential “symbolic success,” it “diverts campaigning and political attention away from the multiple causes of climate risk and removes potential allies from positions of shareholder influence.”
At other legacy news outlets, however, environmental journalism has struggled. In many Western countries, new technologies exacerbated longstanding economic pressures on journalism, including declining circulation and advertising revenues (Boczkowski, 2004). Science writers lost their jobs and newspaper science sections closed (Brumfiel, 2009). In 1989, there were 95 weekly science sections in US newspapers, reported the Columbia Journalism Review (Morrison, 2013), but in 2012, there were 19. As a consequence, science-related debates have increasingly been written about by political reporters, columnists, or editorialists, who focused on political dimensions such as the tactics employed by competing interest groups and elected representatives (Nisbet et al., 2003). In a parallel development, the environmental reporters who kept their reporting jobs have often been spread across their newsrooms, integrated into other news beats such as politics and business. A rationale for this reorganization is that environment reporters will be able to apply their expertise to political stories, for example, that have a climate-related dimension. Friedman (2015, p. 148) called this process “mainstreaming.”
As well as changing their position in the newsroom, environmental reporters in the new media ecosystem have shifted in their professional roles. One researcher (Santamaria, cited in Trench, 2009, p. 176) said the reporters today were “less gatekeepers and more cartographers pointing out interesting news paths online rather than filtering and packing a closed news product.” Journalists have taken on one or a combination of new roles. They can be curators, who gather climate news and present it for audiences in a structured format, with some evaluation. Or they can be conveners, who connect and bring together scientists and other interested citizens to discuss climate-related issues. Or they can be public intellectuals, who synthesize a range of information about the climate and present it from a distinct perspective. All these roles are underwritten by the skills of criticism, synthesis, and analysis (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). The curation role, for example, is vital to help readers make sense of climate change discussions on blogs. According to one evaluation of the content on climate blogs, the “contributions do contain moderate exchanges of evidence and argument, but there are high numbers of controversial and uncheckable assertions,” argued Gavin, cited in Trench, 2012, p. 282). “Entries are often highly disjointed and difficult to follow—part polemic, part rant, part ramble, part squabble, and often involving people flatly contradicting or sniping at one another.”
Within this environment, there has been a shift also in how journalists gain and exert authority. This authority goes beyond an analytically shallow notion of objectivity and fairness that means giving equal voice to all interested groups. Journalistic authority rests not on being first with the news, but rests on knowledge. As Matheson (2004, p. 458) noted, authority is based on “knowing more, knowing better, knowing comprehensively, and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish.” He continued that this is “a journalism of linking rather than pinning things down, that is situated within a model of knowledge-as-process rather than knowledge-as-product.” Revkin (2016a) described his journalistic approach on Dot Earth as “interactive and interrogatory” and elsewhere as a place where people with different ideological viewpoints come to discuss climate change (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011).
This focus on knowledge has led to an enhanced focus among journalists on how knowledge comes to be created and communicated. Harvard’s Tom Patterson (2013) called for “knowledge-based journalism,” where reporters must add to their traditional evidence-gathering skills of interviews and observation. He argued that they should also excel at understanding research and applying to public affairs relevant specialized expertise. The late communications scholar Wolfgang Donsbach (2014, p. 661) also called for journalism to become society’s “new knowledge profession.” As well as knowledge of scientific content, journalists need process knowledge: an understanding of how knowledge is created and understood. It includes a recognition of what social science research suggests about the factors that influence journalists’ news judgments, as well as the effects of news coverage decisions on audiences. Experienced environmental journalists, like science writers, can also draw on their understanding of the production of scientific knowledge to recognize legitimate science. They can adopt practices that have been suggested to science journalists in general, such as considering the venue where the work was presented or published, the credentials and experience of the researcher, the source of research funding, and how the research fits into current understandings of how the world works (Nisbet & Fahy, 2015; Priest, 2013). These reporting practices, as Priest described (2013, p. 139), help establish a “basis for trusting or not trusting the results, based on understanding and evaluating the social practices and social institutions that produced those results.”
The focus on knowledge rather than objectivity reflects another recent shift in climate journalism research: the enhanced focus on climate reporting as global endeavor. Western notions of objectivity provide only a limited understanding of climate coverage elsewhere. A small number of studies of climate change journalism in China, for example, shows that journalists have different guiding principles to their Western counterparts. Journalists in China examined climate from their particular historical roles as educators and guardians of society. Chinese reporters have not traditionally separated facts and interpretation in their work, argued Tong (2015, p. 762), because they believed it was “meaningless to write a report without a clear and prominent theme.” Tong continued that Chinese reporters see their role as truth telling: “By the ‘truth,’ they mean both facts and the meanings of those facts.” Yet—in an echo of the idea of objectivity as strategic ritual—environmental journalists in Chinese newspapers appropriated a variation on American objectivity to avoid potential retribution from the Chinese Communist Party in the event that they should publish an article critical of the ruling party’s agenda of economic modernization (Tong, 2015; for more on environmental journalism in China, see de Burgh & Rong, 2012).
Reporting Climate Futures
At the start of Mike Hulme’s career as a climatologist in the 1970s, he said he viewed climate change as a scientific issue (2009). He watched as it evolved over decades to become an issue of public and strategic decision making. As Hulme and others identified, climate change is what social theorists call a wicked problem. Unlike a conventional environmental problem like acid rain, climate change as a wicked problem has no clear, single solution. It is a systemic, global problem with the potential to disrupt economic systems, political organizations, and social communities. Rooted in the modernization of the developed world, tangled up with industrialization, population growth, and energy consumption, climate change is marked by intense disagreement about how to address its impacts. It is unlikely to be solved or ended in the conventional sense. It has suffered repeated failures of policy to address its challenges. At best, climate change is a chronic condition that global societies will struggle to understand and will only do better or worse at managing through a never-ending process of risk reduction, conflict resolution, and political negotiation (Hulme, 2009; Nisbet, 2014b; Rittel & Webber, 1973). Covering the wicked problem of climate has therefore presented a perplexing challenge for journalism. Conventional ideas of objectivity and advocacy are more difficult to apply to such unconventional environmental problems (Howarth, 2012).
One difficulty for journalists is that scientists disagree about climate change’s future impacts. While there is almost universal agreement among scientists that the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased over recent decades, mainly because of human emissions of greenhouse gases, there is less certainty among scientists about how fast the planet will warm. There is also less certainty about the severity, timing, and location of the impacts of global warming. As Painter (2013, p. 3) wrote, the problem of climate change is one of “risk in a context of uncertainty.” (See “Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change across Countries.”) Uncertainty, for scientists and engineers, means that more than one outcome to a situation can be expected. Risk is different: the likelihood of a particular outcome can be quantified by probabilities (Pielke, 2007). When faced with this difficulty, journalists, argued Revkin (2007, p. 157), should “cast science in its role as a signpost pointing toward possible futures, not as a font of crystalline answers.”
A further difficulty for journalists is that experts such as sociologists, economists, scientists, and political scientists disagree about how to manage or avoid climate impacts. Their expert disagreement is driven by a clash of political values, intellectual traditions, and visions of a future society. The editors of The Oxford Handbook on Climate Change and Society, for example, published 47 chapters from experts on various facets of climate change. The editors wrote in their introduction that most authors agreed on the scale and severity of climate change, but there were “substantial differences” about “identifying what matters, what is wrong, what is right, how it got to be that way, who is responsible, and, not least, what should be done” (Dryzek, Norgaard, & Schlosberg, 2011, p. 4). Against such disagreement, concepts of objectivity and weight-of-evidence reporting are difficult for journalists to apply. Moreover, scholars also identified what they classified as a new variant of climate skepticism. Impact skepticism, as it has been termed, stressed that future climate impacts are highly uncertain and the need for strong emissions regulations are, therefore, questionable (Rahmstorf, 2004). Impact skeptics are found almost entirely in the United States (Painter & Ashe, 2012), and from 2012 to 2013, there was a rise in the amount of coverage in the US print media that featured impact skepticism (Schmid-Petri et al., 2015).
Reporters across the world have not yet pointed to possible climate futures. Instead, they have pointed overwhelmingly to a single climate future, one dominated by disasters, cataclysms, and catastrophes. The German press since the mid-1980s, for example, neglected complexities and uncertainties as it told a story of climate change as a threat that required urgent action to avoid catastrophe (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000). (See “Climate Change Communication in Germany.”) A similar finding emerged from a comprehensive analysis of how journalists across countries reported climate risks and uncertainties (Painter, 2013). The study analyzed approximately 350 climate change articles in three newspapers with combined circulations of at least 15 million people in each of six countries: United States, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Norway, and India. Eighty percent of stories, across all countries, the researchers found, focused on future disasters and catastrophes. The language of risk—where the probabilities of uncertain future outcomes are measured—was not embedded in climate coverage. Climate coverage in British tabloid newspapers, which present information in a dramatic fashion and have a majority of readers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, also focused most often in their headlines on fear and doom (Boykoff & Mansfield, 2008).
Experienced climate reporters had informed views on climate change’s causes and consequences. For them, the most important climate-driven problem was the increased spread of poverty, disease, and hunger. According to a survey of 64 climate reporters across the world, the next most important consequence was extreme rain, flooding, and droughts. The climate change reporters—sampled from the high CO2-emitting countries of Germany, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and United States—together rated the most relevant cause of climate change to be political: the lack of a binding agreement on the global reduction of CO2 emissions. As to potential solutions, they rated renewable energies as highest and nuclear power expansion as the lowest (Engesser & Brüggemann, 2015).
Across the world, reporters portrayed climate change as one of five distinct storylines. It was a story of “industrialized countries’ economic policies,” in which it is the responsibility of the industrialized world to reduce CO2 emissions in spite of strong lobbying against climate policy. Or climate change was told as a story of “sustainability,” which aims to reform the economic system and change consumer behavior. Or it was told as a story of “technological optimism,” in which society relied on technology to solve the problem. Or it was told as a story of “emerging economies’ responsibility,” where those countries are important contributors to climate change. Fifth and finally, climate change was told as a story of “global ecological discourse,” where communication was crucial for raising awareness of the ecological consequences of climate change (Engesser & Brüggemann, 2015).
Experienced climate reporters also disagreed about who was responsible for climate change. A foundation of their disagreement was the part of the world in which they are based. Indian journalists refrained from exploring the contribution of emerging countries to climate change. Western journalists did not question consumerist culture. As a consequence, climate change was reported as a “blame game” between emerging and developed countries (Engesser & Brüggemann, 2015, p. 14). (See “Traditional and Shifting Roles of Science Journalists and Environmental Reporters Covering Climate Change.”) Argentina’s elite press, likewise, framed climate change most frequently as a conflict in international political negotiations between developed and developing countries (Mercado, 2012). At this level of global coverage, reporters adopted a perspective that advocated for their national or regional interest.
Yet climate change reporters have become a global group. They have come to constitute an “interpretive community” in that they all follow the same sources, such as prominent journals and IPCC reports, and cover the topic in broadly similar ways. Climate reporters from the United States, United Kingdom, India, Germany, and Switzerland, researchers found, agree with the IPCC consensus. They agree that human-driven global warming is happening, will create major problems for ecosystems worldwide, and needs to be limited through emissions reduction. The climate reporters also agree that the claims of skeptics are scientifically unproven. Yet the reporters argue that skeptics should be allowed to express their views, once those views are assessed. Most reporters do not want to grant skeptics equal space or time to other views (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014). The global scope of climate news, furthermore, can be seen by the fact that almost 600 journalists from developing nations—out of 4,000 journalists overall—attended the United Nations (UN) Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 (Painter, 2010).
Climate policy coverage has so far been dominated by a narrow range of elite sources. When journalists covered the Copenhagen climate summit, for example, they relied on accounts from a narrow range of established national and international authorities. These included the IPCC, the World Health Organisation, the UK Met Office and the US Environmental Protection Agency (Painter, 2010). After 195 countries signed up to a new UN climate agreement in Paris in 2015, with individual nations having made pledges about cutting emissions, journalists in the future will have to deal with multiple perspectives that will likely be in conflict. In line with the wicked nature of climate as a social problem, various voices will come from different perspectives, with varied evaluations and presentations of evidence from different sources that can claim to be reliable, but have fundamentally different ways of seeing and understanding the world. (See “Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change Across Countries” and “Elite News Coverage of Climate Change.”)
As a way to cover this complexity, reporters in climate policy debates have been urged to adopt the role of what Nisbet and Fahy (2015) call knowledge journalists. These journalists incorporate, but go beyond, truth-in-labeling and weight-of-evidence reporting to penetrate to the heart of disputes over climate change knowledge. They can be knowledge brokers, who open up to public scrutiny the process of how experts uncover and produce new knowledge, examining how and why scientific research was undertaken. They can be dialogue brokers, who convene connected, cross-platform discussions about climate change across a diverse network of contributors and readers. The role is motivated by a belief that such dialogue can help citizens understand and accept different ways of seeing climate change. They also can be policy brokers, who draw on a network of experts, advocates, and politicians to describe, evaluate, and expand the range of future climate policies and responses (Nisbet & Fahy, 2015). Covering wicked problems—as the journalism critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen described—requires tapping into networks of experts. A goal of reporting a wicked problem like climate, he argued, is to help people see the problem from different perspectives. “You never get everyone on the same page,” Rosen told science journalists in a 2012 speech. “What’s possible is a world where different stakeholders ‘get’ that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.”
Like Hulme, Revkin’s view of climate change evolved over decades. He used (Revkin, 2016b, p. 32) to see climate change as a “mechanistic geophysical problem with biological implications and technical, economic, or regulatory solutions.” He believed clear communication would motivate public and policy action. But over decades, he came to see this solution as too narrow to deal with the vastness of climate change. While science could delineate future risks, Revkin wrote (2016b, p. 32), “societal responses would always be a function of considering various tradeoffs.” On solutions, he wrote (Revkin, 2016b, p. 34): “There are no clear-cut choices—only a mix of mitigation of emissions, adaptation to impacts, and suffering.”
Reconfigured Definitions: Objectivity, Advocacy, and False Balance
Although the application of objectivity and advocacy to environmental and climate journalism has led to problems and much debate, the concepts have demonstrated remarkable durability. They remain visible guideposts that influence journalists’ professional motivations, vocational identity, and working practices. They have not yet been jettisoned in today’s digital media ecosystem, where media organizations and audiences have fragmented, journalists have rethought their roles, and climate change has moved from being exclusively a scientific story to one of policy responses and social effects. Objectivity and advocacy have each been reconfigured. They can be redefined in several, overlapping ways.
Objectivity can be defined as trained judgment. This is a view of objectivity imported from the natural sciences, in the same way as mechanical objectivity was transferred from the sciences into American journalism in the 1920s. As historians Daston and Galison explained, during the first half of the 20th century, scientists gathered evidence from sophisticated technical instruments. But the evidence had no meaning without the perception of expert scientists. Researchers had to interpret this evidence using their advanced knowledge in order to grasp the meaning of what they observed and to understand how the evidence related to other facts and ideas. This changed view of objectivity was one Daston and Galison (2010, p. 314) called “trained judgment.” In an analogous process, experienced environmental reporters, wrote Hiles and Hinnant (2014, p. 446), adapted their definition of objectivity over time. The reporters, for the most part, agreed that “interpretation borne out of journalistic experience and extensive research is an acceptable form of objectivity.” This view of objectivity, trained judgment, can describe how science, environmental, and climate reporters undertake their specialized work.
The practice of objectivity can be defined as a transparent method. The journalism critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2014, p. 103) defined objectivity as “a disciplined unity of method transparently conveyed.” Objectivity was a method to verify facts and communicate those facts to citizens. Central to verification for these critics was journalistic transparency. Reporters clearly demonstrated to readers how they gathered and presented evidence. This conception of objectivity reconciles the different views of objectivity held by academics and journalists. Academics, one study found (Post, 2015), consider objectivity to be the application of systematic methods that are made transparent. Journalists, in contrast, believe objectivity is the presentation of facts that readers then judge. Viewing objectivity as a transparent method allows climate reporters to do both.
A third way to redefine objectivity is to see it as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. Wicked problems have no single solution. Citizens and policymakers must, therefore, reconcile different voices and viewpoints as they seek to live in a climate-challenged society. The shallow presentation of two extreme views in climate change news meant coverage ignored or downplayed the search for “middle ground’ solutions” that that can benefit, or be acceptable to, both the environment and industry. The potential for polarization, as a result, can be reduced (Priest, 2015, p. 308). Going further, journalists have also opened up the space for discussion and dialogue, convening conversations that involve different perspectives, a place where fragmented audiences and influential thinkers can come together. Writing about who has responsibility for responding to climate change, Revkin (2016b, p. 35) argued: “We need edge pushers and group huggers, faith and science, and—more than anything—dialogue and effort to find room for agreement even when there are substantial differences.”
The new media ecosystem has reconfigured the notion of advocacy. It has done so in two ways. Both involve the rejection of Janowitz’s characterization of advocacy journalism as less valued than objective journalism. Advocacy journalism, first, can be more usefully viewed as climate coverage with a point of view. Climate change news, embedded historically within environmental journalism, has at its core a set of ecological ideas. Since the 1960s, these ideas have become more and more widespread and taken for granted as journalists and citizens around the world express concern about climate change (Hansen, 2015). Climate coverage flows from this holistic understanding of the environment. And as the history of advocacy journalism has demonstrated, advocacy-oriented journalists are professional in their reliance on facts and the interpretation of those facts.
Relatedly, there are multiple types of climate coverage from various points of view. News organizations and individual journalists advocate different interpretations of, and responses to, climate change. In the United States, for example, the journalist-turned-campaigner Bill McKibben has been characterized as an “ecological activist” in that his writings argue that society needs to be reorganized to reduce humanity’s impact on a warming world. The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has been called a “smart growth reformer,” who argues that future climate risks can be avoided through sustainable economic growth. And Revkin has been classed as an “ecomodernist,” who advocates for a diverse menu of policy options to transition to green energy in a way that reduces future impacts and supplies clean power to developing countries (Nisbet, 2014a). These journalists all advocate for solutions to climate change in ways that are based on different—though equally legitimate—worldviews. Many other ways of seeing the environment exist (Dryzek, 2013). When journalists report on a wicked problem like climate change, argued Rosen (2012), they must have a perspective—a view from somewhere. There is considerable scope and need for future research to identify, analyze, and evaluate these different variants of advocacy climate coverage, these worldview-driven approaches to climate journalism.
There has been a dissolution of false balance in news coverage of climate science since the 1990s. This has been largely caused by a combination of changes in journalists’ working practices, such as the application of weight-of-evidence reporting, the search for strong scientific consensus, an awareness of industry attempts to influence coverage, and the presentation and curation of multiple points of view into news reports. Even so, false balance remains an important idea, as it provides, by negative example, a pitfall that contemporary reporters can avoid when they report on social and political responses to climate change.
Journalists can avoid false balance about climate futures. As climate models become more sophisticated, scientists will be able to quantify uncertainties and generate more precise probabilistic projections of future impacts (Painter, 2013). These estimations will feed into global, national, and regional decision making. Journalists, therefore, will need to understand how this reasoning works and be able to write about potential impacts in a way that moves beyond either presenting catastrophic scenarios or reporting merely that future impacts are uncertain. “So it needs to be in the DNA of journalists,” wrote Painter (2013, p. 137), “to ask scientists or forecasters questions like ‘what is the level of probability of such a weather event or impact happening, how confident are you in this prediction, and why are you confident’?” A major area of future research will examine and evaluate how well journalists convey to their audiences these future climate scenarios—and how journalists can draw on knowledge from communication studies to effectively report these scenarios in ways that resonate with citizens. (See “Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change Across Countries.”)
A second way to avoid false balance is for journalists to report a plurality of policy responses. As well as fostering dialogue and debate about climate responses, journalists should—as in the reporting of climate science—cultivate sources that can outline different political responses to climate change. In particular, they can seek out sources that are what Roger Pielke (2007) called honest brokers of policy alternatives. These experts expand and clarify the scope of available policy options. Honest brokers allow decision makers to make policy choices based on more than just their own values or preferences. A collection of experts often come together to broker policy alternatives. It is these individuals or collectives that climate journalists must find and cultivate. The difficult process by which journalists find, evaluate, and report these policy options, globally and regionally, will be a fruitful avenue for future research and innovations in practice.
Despite recent changes in the structure of the media, the important cultural role of journalism persists. The ability of news media to produce and oversee news about climate change and the environment has not entirely diminished. Their power continues to reside, in part, in how they legitimate and validate and verify forms of news and information produced by scientific organizations, political organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other news outlets. The news media continue to shape how stories are told and which stories have the most merit. The boundaries of journalism have expanded, but the rules and principles within this wider space remain rooted in the history of journalism (Powers, 2015). In climate coverage, these principles are reconfigured, reshaped, and redefined variations of two proven concepts: objectivity and advocacy.
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(1.) McKnight’s study of opinion coverage at Murdoch’s News Corporation was published in 2010. In 2013, the company was essentially split into two corporate entities. The first, 21st Century Fox, deals primarily in film and television; the second, a (new) News Corporation, deals with publishing. For more, see Chozick (2013).