Responsible communication of established truth: how evenhandedness can get in the way


(The original version of this entry was written by Julia Chapman)

Evenhandedness is a journalistic tradition that shortchanges the coverage of issues involving established truths. Science stories are often victim; climate change in particular.

Naomi Oreskes’ 2004 report in Science magazine, ‘Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change’ is known for establishing consensus in the climate change debate. This means three things: that climate change does exist, that it is anthropogenic – or human-induced – and that we need to do something about it. Oreskes analyzed 928 peer-reviewed, academic papers on climate change to find that “remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position” (Oreskes).

On Feb. 2, 2007, The Guardian ran a front-page story with this quote from Achim Steiner, head of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “This day marks the removal from the debate over whether human action has anything to do with climate change” (Walker). That was the day the IPCC released a report at a Paris conference with more than 2,000 scientists from over 100 countries (Gelbspan 6) endorsing the consensus (Walker).

Almost more remarkable than Oreskes’ findings is that in the media, the debate continued to exist. In 2006, CNN.com published an article titled, ‘The science debate behind climate change – Is global warming really a threat?’ giving an equal hand to two climate scientists on opposite ends of consensus (Coren). In March 2010, TVO’s The Agenda broadcast a show titled, ‘Is the debate really over?’ featuring only two scientists, one of whom had written that we shouldn’t be alarmed by a warming climate (TVO). In 2007, the National Post gave equal footing in their pages to climate change skeptics in an opinion series by Lawrence Solomon called ‘The Deniers’ (Hoggan 155).

Media outlets likely handle stories this way because evenhandedness is an approach that journalists are taught early in their careers – to give subjects from both sides of the story an equal hand. It’s a way of seeking objectivity and validating a story. But what if the truth of the matter is established? What if there is no longer an equal debate?

In a speech at the 2000 International Climate Change Communication conference at the University of Waterloo, science writer Lydia Dotto articulated the problem best:

“Lacking in understanding of and patience for scientific detail, the media frequently fail to examine the evidence with much rigour.
Instead, in an often-misguided effort to appear even-handed and objective, they tend to cover such disputes simply as screaming
matches between equally armed opponents … it doesn’t translate well to covering environmental issues. Nor does it do much
service to the urgent need for greater public understanding of the implications of global climate change” (Dotto 1).

With Oreskes’ and the IPCC reports as support, it is simply inaccurate for deniers and skeptics to be given an even hand in media reports with scientists who have clear evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Evenhandedness in climate change reporting – or in the reporting of any issue where there is no equal debate – qualifies as irresponsible communication and does not serve the public interest; it inhibits public understanding, policy decisions and discredits journalism.


Evenhandedness as a journalistic “norm”

Evenhandedness can be described as the "he said/she said" approach to reporting – giving equal weight to parties on either side of a story. This approach helps journalists seek the truth in a controversial issue and can be a mode of verifying and justifying a story. Evenhandedness, or balance, can be considered as a long-established principle in journalistic reporting.

American Media Studies professor Robert Entman wrote in 1989, “Balance aims for neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention” (Entman 30).

With respect to science reporting, Sharon Dunwoody and Hans Peters discussed the role of evenhandedness in a 1992 article. Dunwoody and Peters described evenhandedness as a “surrogate for validity checks…. the typical journalist, even one trained as a science writer, has neither the time nor the expertise to check the validity of claims herself” (Dunwoody 210).

Evenhandedness spawned from journalism’s quest for objectivity, but as Brent Cunningham argues in a 2003 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, objectivity and evenhandedness sacrifices one of journalism’s primary functions – finding the truth. “Our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to ‘truth.’ Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is ‘both sides of the story,’ that’s often good enough,” Cunningham writes (Cunningham 26).

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s text The Elements of Journalism, discusses evenhandedness as a well-established “substitute” for seeking the truth. But Kovach and Rosenstiel now recognize this as problematic. “Balancing a story by being fair to both sides may not be fair to the truth if both sides do not, in fact, have equal weight.” About climate change: “The preponderance of scientists have argued for years that it exists, but press coverage has continued long past the time of the scientific debate to give equal weight to both sides” (Kovach 46).

Despite this long-time method of reporting, Kovach and Rosenstiel write that in situations when the truth is established, the act of being evenhanded is redundant to a dangerous point. The public would no longer hear an accurate report, just like the case of climate change discussed in the aforementioned texts. Not only is this redundancy harmful to public knowledge, it degrades the integrity of the journalist and the party who established evidence supporting the truth.


Climate change reporting and evenhandedness
The study and discussion of a changing climate goes back to at least 1957, when American oceanographer Roger Revelle published a paper predicting climate change. In 1979, the Natural Academy of Sciences released a report indicating that several studies support this consensus: global climate change will result from man-made combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land usage (Hoggan 19).

But it was in 1988 that climate change finally caught media attention. George H.W. Bush, then U.S. vice-president, promised to convene an international conference on the environment and “act on global warming.” Sure enough, IPCC was born and therein came a surge in the environmental beat and climate change reports in the media. After 1988, a public confused on the science, reasons behind and consequences of climate change emerged (Hoggan 20). This occurred despite Oreskes’ 2004 findings that there is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change (Oreskes).

Jules and Maxwell Boykoff came up with a good reason why. In their 2004 study, Balance as bias, Boykoff and Boykoff focus on the norm of evenhanded reporting in 636 articles on climate change published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal between 1988 to 2002. Fifty-three per cent of the articles cast doubt on the cause of global warming and gave equal weight to the scientific consensus on the one hand and the discredited view that humans play no role in climate change on the other (Boykoff 2004).

This reporting trend has since changed somewhat, according to Maxwell Boykoff. He conducted a follow-up study in 2007 analyzing climate change-related articles from 2003 to 2006 in the same four American newspapers, and added USA Today and four British ones. In total, 1607 articles were sampled (Boykoff 2007, 2). Boykoff found that in the American papers published in 2003, 36.6 per cent took an evenhanded – or balanced – approach. In 2006, that number declined to 3.3 per cent with 96.7 per cent agreeing that anthropogenic contributions to climate change are significant.

While this change was exhibited in the U.S. and UK, Canadians have a reason to be strongly interested in seeing the same reporting trends. Jennifer Good outlines why in Framing of Climate Change in Newspapers. Good argues that according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada “emits a huge quantity of greenhouse gases” and has a significant trade relationship with the U.S. – the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitter. Canada, additionally, ratified the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has a close relationship with European Union nations, and the EU actively addresses the dangers of a changing climate (Good 237).

Regardless of Canada’s need for accurate reporting and Boykoff’s findings, journalists continued to foster a sense of debate. As a March 2010 J-source post put it: "Journalists aren’t stupid, right? No, they just respect the idea of balance and love a good controversy.” The idea of evenhandedness remains entrenched.


Irresponsible communication: why journalists need to break their norm

“Intended or not, our routines perpetuate a public impression of science that’s fundamentally inaccurate,” Maija Saari, Wilfred Laurier University journalism professor and science journalism researcher, wrote in a 2008 J-source article about journalists’ “troublesome balance habit” (Saari).

The routine Saari speaks of is evenhandedness in which, “Our standard practice of lining up a few sources and letting them duke it out conceals the important fact that scientific theories are not wishful guesses on the part of self-interested speakers” (Saari). This “standard practice” greatly affects how climate change is communicated and has distorted the truth about cause, consequences and action for the public. That is irresponsible communication, and it has significant implications.

Public confusion

In the print edition of Al Gore’s An inconvenient truth, Gore references Boykoff and Boykoff’s 2004 study on evenhanded reporting. Gore writes, “The authors concluded that American news media had been falsely ‘giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.’” And the kicker: “No wonder people are confused.” Giving an even hand to the consensus and skeptics has left the public with a confused view about what to think and who to believe.

Clark, Stamm and Eblacas wrote in their 2000 article, “previous research often holds the mass media responsible for public inadequacies... public understanding mirrors inadequacies of media coverage” (Clark 219). The same article also identified mass media outlets as four out of the top five most popular sources for climate change information. Newspapers, television and magazines ranked as the most popular sources, respectively (Clark 224). Public radio and environmental groups followed. Given these findings, the media should have accepted more responsibility to inform but still, inadequacies in coverage ring true.

In a 2006 David Suzuki Foundation national study on understanding and attitudes about climate change, more respondents blamed the hole in the ozone on the changing climate more than any other factor (Hoggan 154). Respondents did not understand that burning fossil fuels and changes in land use – human-induced factors – created the greenhouse gases that made that hole.

Similarly, a 2007 Newsweek poll on climate change showed that 39 per cent of respondents believe “there is a lot of disagreement among climate scientists” and 42 per cent said, “there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming.” Less than half thought climate change is being experienced today. “Clearly the media – print or broadcast – have not succeeded in transmitting even the most rudimentary explanation of the actual cause of climate change,” said Hoggan, in response to these statistics (Hoggan 154).

But journalists use an evenhanded approach to science reporting for a reason. Two reasons, actually. First, science literacy amongst journalists has never been high (Saari). This includes media decision makers who do not have the knowledge to assist reporters or assign stories that require more time than a typical story (Smith). Second, daily deadlines do not lend themselves to in-depth research and the “he said/she said” approach, as Cunningham discussed, is “good enough” (Cunningham 26). But with an issue as important and complex as climate change, evenhandedness is not good enough. A confused public results in an uninformed public, and that means journalists have ignored what Kovach and Rosenstiel say is one of the top elements of journalism: “Its first loyalty is to its citizens” (Kovach).

Policy and civic engagement implications

Giving an even hand to climate change skeptics in media reports has an impact on how policy makers act. In the same 2000 speech at the University of Waterloo, Lydia Dotto said, “The existence of scientific uncertainty and controversy confuses many people about the reality and urgency of the climate change problem. Skeptics have succeeded in convincing the public, the media and decision-makers that we must wait for ‘proof’ of the global warming theory before acting – a strategy that has virtually paralyzed policymaking” (Dotto 1).

Maxwell Boykoff mirrors this concern in his 2007 article, arguing that media who take a “balanced” approach in their climate change stories play a significant role in shaping future climate-related policies. But, “when media framing confuses rather than clarifies scientific understanding of anthropogenic climate change, this can create spaces for policy actors to defray responsibility and delay action” (Boykoff 6).

Policy is implemented based on what is true (Boykoff 2) and the media has arguably convinced the public that climate science does not yet display the truth. This fact makes policy implementation contentious and open to scrutiny based on how the media present scientific consensus and debate (Boykoff 2). Good suggests in her paper that Canada has backed away from its Kyoto commitment because policy makers are skeptical of climate science (Good 237). One could argue the media’s portrayal of climate science “debate” has been a factor.

Additionally, an evenhanded approach hinders the journalistic media's democratic function to keep the public informed (Kovach 247). Without accurate knowledge and a defined view, it is difficult for the public to become civically engaged – examples are providing policy makers with direction as to what the public wants to see implemented or voting for a candidate for public office with a progessive platform on climate change action. Clark, Stamm and Eblacas outline a model for civic engagement as ‘Coverage --> Understanding --> Action’ (Clark 221). Without accurate and honest coverage, we have a confused public, little understanding and little civic engagement.

Degrades credibility of sources and of the journalism

Evenhandedness can send the wrong message about the information coming from a source. When a credible scientist is portrayed equal to a skeptic – or anyone who does not believe the truth – it paints the credible scientist with the wrong brush and degrades their work and status.

“[It] creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what’s going on,” W. Tad Pfeffer, an expert on Greenland’s ice sheets at the University of Colorado, told The New York Times’ environment writer Andrew Revkin in 2008. If the media is going to seek the truth and contribute to public knowledge, Pfeffer's statement is problematic. Even so, the statement is still true today.

In a June 2010 J-source article, Environment Canada Science and Technology liaison officer Scott Unger argues that it is a jab at a scientist’s integrity when he is given “just as much right” to a person who has not done work in climate change (Unger). Not only does this undermine the integrity of the science, it also undermines the integrity of the journalism.

As Maija Saari wrote,“Trust in science isn’t the only thing at stake” (Saari).


Conclusions:

At the same conference at which Lydia Dotto spoke, journalist Ross Gelbspan delivered a speech about journalism and science. He said, “real balance would dictate a reporter spend some time reviewing the literature, interviewing a few scientists on background, learning where the weight of scientific opinion lay – and reflecting that balance in his or her reporting. Were that to have happened, the mainstream scientists would get 85 per cent of the story – and the skeptics a couple of paragraphs at the end” (Gelbspan 7).

Gelbspan delivered that speech in 2000, before Orekes’ and the IPCC’s reports. Today skeptics would likely not be included in reporting, but rather an even hand would go to a scientist with a different perspective than the consensus. One can only imagine what public understanding, policy and the state of science journalism would be like now if reporters had taken Gelbspan’s word in 2000.

Evenhandedness specifically relates to accurate reporting – inaccuracy results if a truth is established. In late 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada decided on a ruling of responsible communication in the public interest in the Grant v. TorStar case. While it deals largely with cases of defamation, a clause of the ruling is the ‘status and reliability of a source’ (Grant v. Torstar). In the case of climate change, the status and reliability of a source – and how the source is weighed in a report – is crucial to understanding the issues. If the source does not qualify as reliable or holds a position far away from an established consensus, that source should not be equally included in a report that represents responsible communication to the public.

This extends well beyond climate change. A 2008 article in Science Communication shows media coverage of the Autism-Vaccine controversy gave the impression that science was uncertain of a relationship between childhood vaccines and autism. But, there was no evidence to support the perceived uncertainty (Clarke 78).

Whatever the story, misguiding the public with evenhanded journalism is a disservice and undermines a journalist’s ability to report the truth.



Works cited

Boykoff, Maxwell. (2007). Flogging a dead norm? Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006. [Electronic version]. Area. 39:2. 1-12.

Boykoff, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. [Electronic version]. Global Environmental Change. 14, 125-136.

Clarke, Christopher E. (2008). A Question of Balance: The Autism-Vaccine Controversy in the British and American Elite Press. Science Communication. 30:1 77-107.

Clark, Fiona, Paula Reynolds Eblacas and Keith R. Stamm. (2000). Mass communication and
public understanding of environmental problems: the case of global warming. [Electronic version]. Public Understanding of Science. 9, 219-237.

Coren, Michael. (2006, February 10). The science debate behind climate change: is global warming really a threat? CNN Online. <http://edition.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/04/08/earth.science/index.html

Cunningham, Brent. (2003). Re-thinking objectivity. Columbia Journalism Review. 42: 2. 24-32.

Dotto, Lydia. (2000). Public Confusion over Climate Change. Climate Change Communication: Proceedings of an International Conference. Speech. University of Waterloo: 22-24 June 2000. F1 1-4.

Dunwoody, Sharon and Hans Peters. (1992). Mass media coverage of technological and environmental risks. Public Understanding of Science 1:2, 199–230.

Entman, Robert. (1989). Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Good, Jennifer. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers: A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. [Electronic version]. Canadian Journal of Communication. 33:2. 233-255.

Gore, Al. (2006). An Inconvenient Truth. New York: Rodale Publishing.

Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61.

Hoggan, James. (2009). Climate Cover-Up. Toronto: Greystone Books.

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Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. (2001). The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Oreskes, Naomi. (2004). Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/306/5702/1686.

Revkin, Andrew. (2008, July 29). Climate Experts Tussle Over Details. Public Gets Whiplash. The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/science/earth/29clim.html?_r=3&oref=slogin>

Saari, Maija. (2008, August 12). Science, hype, and the troublesome “balance” habit. J-source. <http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=2696>.

Smith, Joe. (2005). Dangerous News: Media Decision Making about Climate Change Risk
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TVO. (2010, March). The Debate: Climate I: Is the Debate Over? The Agenda. Broadcast.

Unger, Scott. (2010, June 10). Climate change coverage: what’s a science journalist to do? J-source. <http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=5216>.

Walker, Peter. (2007, February 2). Humans blamed for climate change. The Guardian. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/feb/02/greenpolitics.climatechange>