One Way To Improve Environmental Journalism: Confront The Obvious, Over & Over Again


Seatbelt use promotion. Image credit:The IdiotReport

If I had a dollar for every time some journalism 'expert' was quoted in a story about what's wrong with climate coverage I could afford a subscription to the New York Times. Dealing with complexity and big science words always come up in these reports. For me, the biggest and most common issue has been ignoring the obvious. (It's true that many experienced writers are laid off and those remaining are demoralized. But, curiosity ought to enliven the kittens enough to have them pawing at the obvious.)

Illustration: Utah gets almost all (93%) of its electricity from coal burning, yet a local news story concludes, not having referred to the weight of this evidence, that very high mercury levels measured in Utah's Great Salt Lake come from - everywhere. "The studies suggest the source is industry all over the world, similar to what lands on lakes everywhere." Right. It hardly matters whether the cited researchers, in their scientific report, accounted for Utah's high coal dependence. It's the news writer's (and blogger's) job to ask about and report on something that obvious - so readers will not discount the entire issue as unresolved and not worth paying attention to. This is the key point. A debate that ignores the obvious gets people to tune it out and answer polls dismissively.

This happens all the time.
Overlooking the obvious is exactly what reporters did in publishing so many amateurish claims, this winter, that a few weeks of cold weather on the East Coast proved that 'global warming is a fraud.' A regional weather pattern does not indicate global climate - simplistically, climate is the average of all weather - yet time after time, such narrow minded expression went unchallenged in reporting all over the world.

The opposite of ignoring the obvious is just as bad.
By now there have been so many postings and news reports on toxicity of Bisphenol-A that I'll bet a majority of people are assuming it just needs to be "banned' from general use. That would be wrong. BPA presents a danger only when ingested - mostly via indirect food contact from containers and such. Most BPA ends up in applications where there is no chance whatsoever of ingestion. End of story. This is the Big Obvious news that everyone over looks.

These examples remind me of reporting that occurred during the years when mandatory seat belt usage was first proposed in US states. Media reports obsessed on claims made about some guy's brother in law or whomever else they could drum up. 'They were only alive long enough to make Congressional testimony because when their car went into a lake they were able to escape the wreck as they were not wearing seat belts.' The only things perhaps more ridiculous were the claims frequently made by auto makers, back in the early 70's, that mandating seat belt installation would bankrupt manufacturers and take away jobs. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Eventually somebody figured out the Big Obvious: crashes were far more costly to society than seat belts.

By then, unfortunately, the guy in the lake story was a meme, and remains the perfect libertarian sucker bait.

Solution: confront the obvious early on, and repeat frequently.

Tags: Utah