The First Rough Draft of History: How the Press Reports on Global Warming
The Denver Post
Thomas Jefferson had some things to say about the newspaper business. Wise man that he was, he said that if he had a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." And I would like to know how many agree with him. That's what I thought. He also said, "[t]he man that never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them because he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors." Now, if you agree with that, you also might think that with 27 million trees killed for Sunday newspapers every week, illiteracy could save the world. My final note on Jefferson is his recommendation that ''Editors should divide their papers into four chapters: (1) truths, (2) probabilities, (3) possibilities, and (4) lies." Which brings us to this conference.
What if the National Enquirer were here covering this? What would the headlines read and into what chapters would this information fall? I made some up. Our keynote speaker two nights ago: "Weiss Wants Sun Belt to Hold Its Water" and then a subhead, "Wishful Thinker Visits Scottsdale." Or how about our friend from Washington who gave us a talk yesterday at lunch: "Bureau-Rec Boss Brags 'All Things to All People'—Bureaucrat Bamboozles Public." Or, one of our scientist friends of yesterday, "Marshall Moss Mutilates Model: Egghead GCM No Match for Madonna."
On the global warming issue, the media generally is criticized in one of two ways. First, people say that we overplay it—and this I'm just going to dismiss with, "I disagree." It's a hell of a story; it's the Big One (to use the name of a show on NBC the other night); it's the Big One into the next century. And so what if we've overplayed it? What is the implication of an error on that
side of the equation? The second criticism is that we ignore it, or that we badly report science, or that we speculate wildly. Stephen Schneider says we have to have news told four ways: drama, disaster, debate, or dichotomy. To that I plead, "Uncertainty."
The media is this great, imperfect information machine that puts out news hourly, daily, sometimes weekly. A newspaper like the Denver Post, for example, puts out the equivalent of two or three books in 24 hours; most of that news is written in an 8-hour shift. We are, what I like to call, the first rough draft of history. But like you, who spend your life, say, perfecting a model, we spend ours trying to improve on that machine—trying to produce better, clearer, more useful information. We have our problems. We get tired of stories, for instance. That's one of the problems with covering trends or long-term stories. But I think in that way we are a reflection of people. They get tired of stories, too; they get tired of bad news. We also are easily manipulated; I think a good example is the alar scare. We report too many football scores and too many stories like football games. We are not in the "truth" business; we are in the "perception" business. And we often act like a herd, or another analogy might be like bacteria in a petri dish: stories are reproduced to excess and then die off.
On the global warming issue, we have some specific problems. One is localizing, and I noticed in your talks that this is one you have problems with, too. How do you make that come home to the reader? "How is it going to affect me?" is a question we always ask of any story. Two, what's the evidence? What can a television camera take a picture of about global warming? And three is this question of probabilities. I don't think that's as much a problem as you think, because we report probabilities all the time in terms of health research about cancer risks and that kind of thing.
On the positive side, we put out another paper tomorrow. Competition keeps us honest and alert. We balance our views. We tend to be pro-environment. At the Denver Post, for example, we have three environmental reporters and we make it front-page news. And, we have raised this particular issue, as Helen Ingram mentioned, sufficiently to help generate a billion dollars for research. I think we do a reasonable job of science reporting—whether it's on cold fusion or the cholesterol issue or global warming. I think most readers are aware (and we may hear more about this because there's some research that has been done) of the "certainty of warming." We quite accurately reflect the "uncertainty" of the consequences and of the policy. We have a sense of what people will read and what will help make them read it. If they turn
the page in a newspaper, then we've lost them and we've wasted our time. So, we need news hooks or articulate talking heads like Schneider, who has found a way to fit climate uncertainty into a sound bite.
I have to tell you that, frankly, the name of this conference is a tough one to deal with in our business. My editor would say, "What does that mean? How would that fit into a headline? How would that fit into a lead?" We try every day to make complicated stories interesting and intriguing and relevant enough to read. There is a misunderstanding of our role. We do, in fact, try for facts, or we try to carry factual accounts of someone's opinion. We rarely speculate. Although we have carried lots of speculation, it isn't our speculation; it's rare that we speculate on our own. As Helen mentioned, during the fires of 1988, the speculation came from somewhere else. And I'm also uncomfortable with this panel's title—that we should be part of building a public consensus. That's not our job. All sides expect us to be advocates for them. We carry water for a lot of people and if it's done right, with enough buckets of water, we reflect accurately the scientific and the policy debate.
Now, as you know, global warming became a media event in 1988. I happened to be camping in Yellowstone in July with my daughter that year. I left five months later with enough material to write a book. I raised some issues and formed some opinions about that fire and the way it was handled that the park people don't agree with. The first is that it was a triumph of science and a failure of political science. In Yellowstone in 1988, science became dogma. The "let burn" policy was so rigid that it actually ignored things: for example, the Palmer Index, which, when I began snooping around, I found rolled up in the fire cache. We in the press were criticized for pitting science against the emotion of fire: the scientist talking about the natural fire regime versus a cabin owner who lost his place to the fire or a person at Old Faithful when the fire storm blew over. But I think the biologists who consider Yellowstone a biome for their own personal study fail to see Yellowstone for what it is: a political stage on which our democracy plays out its environmental ethic. And global warming is such an issue as well: it is a political, value-packed debate—that's why it is acrimonious. You know, John Sununu says we don't have enough evidence of global warming. Well, I don't think that anyone is fooled by that; I think we should move beyond this issue of whether or not global warming is happening. I don't think that's an issue anymore. It's kind of like the cigarette industry
saying they didn't have enough evidence to link smoking and cancer—ultimately it didn't make a lot of difference.
I think the implications of global warming are so horrendous that there is little dwelling on the pure science anymore. The mind immediately leaps to—what my mind leaps to—is, what about me? I think about where I'm going to live, and who's to blame, and what we can do, how much we must do, and what it will cost.
Your role as scientists in this debate is one of information. If you should, as Schneider has done, become a political scientist, then recognize that you're leaving the ivory tower and entering into the arena with the lions. And the history of scientists who have done that—the Einsteins, the Oppenheimers of World War II, the Craigheads of Yellowstone—is that they lost some skin in the process, despite the exoneration of history. The mass media in the real world—and this may be something that you don't agree with at all—is this great peer-review forum. It's the broad view, with experts, politicians, industrialists, minorities, and ordinary Joes all contributing to this great pile of information and opinion. And through the media we kind of lurch toward a consensus position that serves democracy best. Aldo Leopold had faith in this, and he could have been talking about global warming when he wrote: "[A] sufficiently enlightened society, by changing its wants and tolerances, can change the economic factors bearing on the land."
My plea to you is to join the chorus. Become part of the first rough draft of history. We depend on you to referee and validate what's going on. I wouldn't want to live in a world that is run by scientists, but I wouldn't want to live in one without them either. Don't pass up opportunities to speak to the press. There are ways to communicate that are better than others. One of the things that we use in our business all the time is to write as if, or talk as if you're speaking to your neighbor across the back fence. Metaphors help. I think Mr. Dickinson's metaphor of the "house warming" was beautifully done.
This, as I repeat, is a hell of a story, and thanks to you we know about it. Thanks to you and the much maligned press, we won't wake up one morning with Lake Powell dry or with the Atlantic Ocean running up Fifth Avenue.