National Conference of Editorial Writers: Split Decision

The notion that climate change is still debatable is alive and well among the continent's editorial writers.
The scientific community has long since arrived at the conclusion that:
  • greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are causing global warming; and
  • this is an issue of urgent concern.
And a purely anecdotal majority of Editorial Page editors and writers attending the 60th annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW) in Pittsburgh on the weekend apeared to accept that position.

None, however, said they were prepared to challenge the rights of their less enlightened colleagues to deny climate change. And most suggested that the enduring debate about the validity of climate change is a sign of health in the nation's journalism, not a sign of weakness.

The position is elegantly challenged in this paper by academics Maxwell and Jules Boykoff. Boykoff and Boykoff argue that responsible journalists should present information that is factually accurate, not just “balanced.” They go further to say that the media's preoccupation with “balance” - constantly reporting one voice from one side of an “argument” and one voice from the other - is actually creating a debate when, among scientists, there is none.

That's a flat-footed statement that will undoubted wrankle in some quarters. For example, one of the Ed Page Editors made an impassioned argument that “respected scientists” - people like hurricane expert Bill Gray from the University of Colorado - are still denying that the climate is changing, or are suggesting, as Gray does, that a cooling trend will begin soon. In such circumstances, the editor says, it would be irresponsible to cut these contrarians out of the debate. America, he says, is all about defending minority rights.

I don't think that's good enough. As a former editorial writer, I think it's an intellectually lazy way to feign impartiality. If, as Boykoff and Boykoff argue, the overwhelming number of scientists - many thousands of the best in the world - all agree on one position, that is the position that should be getting the most attention. Bill Gray and Richard Lindzen (two of the few credible scientists still in the skeptic camp) should be heard, but not half the time - not in every story.

The other argument that I heard here in Pittsburgh is that scientists are frightened to speak out - that there are legions of conscientious objectors out there who have been cowed by the international scientific agreement. Somehow, these shy scientists believe that if they speak up, the controlling interests in science will cut off their funding. They believe that if they propose experiments that might not contribute to the climate change consensus, they won't find support.

This doesn't fly either. Scientific experiments are, by nature, open-ended. They don't reveal intended answers, they real discovered truths. So, whatever the proposing scientist might have “hoped” he or she would prove with a particular experient, the data won't lie. And if they do, a reputable process of peer review should discover the problem.

No, at some point North American editors must accept that they have a responsibility to inform themselves and to make some critical judgments as to the quality of the information that they pass alone to their readers. It is an abdication - a cop out - to merely offer people a menu of positions (some valid, others not) and claim to have thereby provided balance.

Every choice, every decision to run one column over another, or one story over another, affects the nature and quality of journalism from which the (otherwise defenceless) public might learn. Editors have to start taking responsibility for those decisions, even if it means standing up to the writers in your midst who insist on arguing unfounded positions as if they are unequivocal truths.