Climate journalism: More ‘disinterest’ would be nice – Activist journalists still ‘pretending objectivity’
By Tony Thomas
I had the privilege last month of hearing Jo Chandler (above), former environment writer for The Age, describing how she’s pursued her craft of writing about global warming. Whoops, she gave the whole game away! I’ve not previously heard a journalist disclose media people’s behind-the-news-desk strategies to boost the alarmist narrative.
Chandler has written two catastrophe books, about climate and (co-authored) ex-Police Commissioner Christine Nixon’s biography. After The Age and freelancing, she’s been since 2017 a “professional expert and lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism”. She has won two Walkley awards and ten-or-so other awards. A lot of her science writing is about non-climate topics and she’s a great researcher there. However, I found her 2011 climate book, Feeling the Heat, beyond terrible in peddling the climate-doom narrative, although it’s in stylish prose. In it she wrote, “The journey of this book is ambitious, meandering, indulgent, embracing, and a bit mad.” Well, Jo, you said it.
Her lunchtime talk was at the Elisabeth Murdoch building on Melbourne University campus.[i] It was a panel show run by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and titled, “Critical reflections on crisis and emergency framings” and under the aegis of 17-year-old Greta Thunberg.[ii] I’ve already written up another panellist, and the disquiet he engendered in the audience, but the event is the gift that keeps on giving.
Chandler says that when she started her 15 years of Age climate writing, “we were at the height of climate denialism, and well, it’s just kept keeping on.” She says she countered by covering science as an adventure story in order to tell readers how science actually works: “We thought that might assist in eroding some of the machinery of denial, and we were finding our way around some of that.” She allowed scientists to “speak passionately” and described the “blood sweat and tears” that preceded their publication in a science journal.[iii]
That would really provide a mechanism in which people would begin to understand and trust the science process. Fifteen years on, did it work?
I am having, like many of you, quite a crisis around how effective that was, and whether that is the way to continue. In preparing for that there is a lot of action around climate-change journalism and the way we tell the story in the mainstream media, particularly over the last two years. I’m sure you’ve been on the receiving end those changes [yep, I watch the ABC and skim The Age sometimes], but perhaps you’ve not necessarily seen where [the reporting changes] have been coming from. I thought I might quickly romp through some of these things that have really taken shape in the way we tell stories much more profoundly.
She’s a disciple of David Wallace-Wells, who in 2017 wrote a long climate piece for New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth”. This hellfire tract, subsequently expanded into a book, is so insanely catastrophic that the only-moderately-insane faction of the catastrophist community disavowed it. It began, “It is, I promise, much worse than you think”, and grew from there, rather like that film producer who wanted to start with an earthquake and build up to a climax. The article’s wide distribution created a school of thought that it’s more than OK — admirable, in fact — to ignore mainstream forecasts of merely nasty warming and focus on the most extreme, and unlikely, predictions about the death of the planet.
In Chandler’s words, young Wallace-Wells (in his 30s) came fresh to the warming story and was “quite shattered” at the perils in store. That made him “quite damning of my generation of journalists, accusing us of not going hard enough, not telling the story with enough impact, not pushing the limits more. And I think he is right, I accept some of that,” she told the Melbourne University gathering.
Her rationale for not having written, when an Age journo, in Wallace-Wells’ apocalyptic fashion, is
what we were up against in the newsroom in terms of the level of inertia and disinterest, and really a push to make us always look at the minimum (forecast) and look at data in terms of what is the most likely or most certain prediction, which is not necessarily the worst one.
We never really got the chance to explore the realm of actions that probably would have helped the public begin to get a better understanding why we’re in the mess we in now.
Fact check: the human race is thriving as never before, on every conceivable indicator, thanks partly to one degree of warming. She continued,
But certainly we were very much corralled to only tell the story around the most certain and therefore often least damaging predictions.
Only in climate alarmist science can predictions be “certain”. Beyond that, I was surprised The Age subs’ desk was a bastion of reactionaries bordering, one gathers, on climate denialists. Chandler continued
He [Wallace-Wells] just let rip with a really quite devastating snapshot of where we are going. It stirred up controversy around whether he was pushing it too far and too bleakly and whether it would just turn people off. Some leading scientists questioned the approach he took, but a lot of them have come around in a sense [Good grief!]. There is now this increasing tension over whether by subscribing to too catastrophic a narrative you are just feeding inertia and excuses for doing-nothingism. There is really a keen a balance at work there.
Chandler’s “keen balance” is an echoing and updating of a famous and sinister quote from the IPCC’s Stephen Schneider:
On the one hand we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, which means that we must include all the doubts, caveats, ifs and buts.
On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we have to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination.
That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This double ethical bind which we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.[iv]
I’ll now put in some asides about Wallace-Wells before returning to Chandler’s speech. His piece opens with a horrific illustration of a fossil skull wearing sunglasses, caught in mid-scream about intolerable heat. The article also features a fossilised skeletal hand reaching in death-throes for a water bottle. The precede reads,
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.
One can almost pity Wallace-Wells for his ignorance of both science and history. He writes of his father, born in 1938, “Among his first memories [was] the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic Air Force of the propaganda films that followed, films that doubled as advertisements for imperial-American industrial might.”
Typical section headings in the essay are “Permanent Economic Collapse – Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.” and “Climate Plagues – What happens when the bubonic ice melts?”. If there’s a Nobel Prize for purple prose, Wallace-Wells earns it:
And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. Wallace Smith Broecker… calls the planet an ‘angry beast.’ You could also go with ‘war machine.’ Each day we arm it more.
Of all Wallace-Wells’ fancies, the biggest is his claim that climate scientists are so reticent and conservative that they won’t come out with climate’s ghastly truths. “Climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings,” he writes, a line I’m seeing everywhere these days in the corrupted media. Wallace-Wells ought to bone up on our leading catastrophist, Will Steffen of ANU. For example, this from Steffen’s 2018 “Anthropocene” paper – nothing reticent here that I can see:
The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.
Wallace-Wells even laments that there aren’t enough novelists setting their plots in a climate-ravaged future. (What! The shelves at Readings in Melbourne’s green-voting Carlton sag with this great cliché of today’s third-rate novelists.) Wallace-Wells ends his essay on this note: “The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.”
I liked President Trump’s witty tweet about Greta Thunberg’s “People are dying” speech, that would apply perfectly to Wallace-Wells, e.g.: “He seems like a very happy young boy looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Addressing the evolution of green-washed newsrooms, Chandler also cited with approval Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan. According to Chandler, that columnist in 2018 called on “the best and smartest minds in media” to tell the IPCC alarm story “in a way that will create change”. As to news organisations less inclined to toe the apocalyptic line, her recent retweet of a plea by Malcolm Turnbull’s boy, young Alex, that readers boycott News Corp papers might be seen by some as reflecting a lack of concern for the employment prospects of Advancing Journalism graduates at a time when newsroom jobs are scarce and growing moreso.
I’ll again digress to background Ms Sullivan, who says, (my emphasis), “Journalists need to find ways to make [global warming] compelling, engaging and interesting, and bring it home to people so they understand and want to act about it.” In other words, it’s propaganda time, hacks! Sullivan isn’t even furtive about it. Her WaPo piece was headed, “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.” Her arguments read more like comedy, “By 2040 — only 22 years from now — the world will be in deep trouble, according to the unassailable expertise of the UN’s experts.” Einstein’s expertise was assailable and Isaac Newton likewise, but IPCC people are “unassailably” smarter. Click here for a backgrounder on Joelle Gergis, a current IPCC lead author, if you are interested in “the unassailable expertise of the U.N.’s experts.” Gergis’s effusion only last Friday: “Failing to adequately plan for the known threat of climate change in a country like Australia should now be considered to be an act of treason.” (Hmm. Dear Joelle, The US federally has the death penalty for treason, but Australia has given up capital punishment and treason is now just a matter of life imprisonment. Do you think our Prime Minister should be put on trial? Regards, Tony.)
Dr Rajendra Pachauri, D.Sc. (Hon) UNSW chaired the IPCC from 2002 to his abrupt resignation in 2015. I assume he qualified as ‘unassailable’. He continues to have his trial delayed involving charges of sexually harassing and outraging the modesty of a young woman working for his private think tank. He denies the charges. The deferrals in India’s labyrinthine court system have lasted more than four years. Eventually there might be an unassailable verdict one way or another on this climate paragon, much feted by Australian academia.[v]
Sullivan finished her piece,
In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will creates [sic] change. We may be doomed even if that happens. But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.
This exciting prose set off a project by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation magazine, “Covering Climate Now” which saw 360 media groups sign in 2019 for their journalists to spruik the September UN climate talks. In Chandler’s words, “to devote all the effort they could and energy and time into putting this story finally front and centre. Of course there was plenty to report on – UN talks, climate strikes around the world and, of course, you had Greta.”
Then came Chandler’s big reveal – though who she refers to as “we” is enigmatic:
In the aftermath of that [New York talks] we are now beginning to think as an industry about how we gear up and re-gear our newsrooms to get past the structural problem we have had in the past covering this [climate].
This is the only story in many ways. It is THE story, it must be at the core of every part of the news desk and news agenda and the way we consider stories, the way we structure our stories and roll them out. This was a beat covered by environment and political reporters, now it will also have to be covered by business, sports and health reporters.
There’s been substantial rethinking within journalism on how we do a better job, and The Guardian’s enunciation of changing the language to ‘global heating’ and ‘climate emergency’, following the science in that regard, has helped lead the way on that.
To fill you in on The Guardian‘s editorial policy, last May it changed its style guide on climate. These style guides are the ‘bibles’ of reporters. A sub-editors’ job includes ridding reporters’ drafts of style violations. The Guardian’s style guide now reads, with its own emphases:
is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation; use climate emergency or climate crisis instead to describe the broader impact of climate change. However, use climate breakdown or climate change or global heating when describing it specifically in a scientific or geophysical sense eg “Scientists say climate breakdown has led to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes”.
“climate science denier” or “climate denier”
The OED defines a sceptic as “a seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions”.
Most “climate sceptics”, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so denier is more accurate.
In the The Guardian’s own story about its style-book change, environment editor Damian Carrington quoted his editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.” The story was illustrated with a pic of more than 20 fat polar bears feeding on garbage, with a caption, “The destruction of Arctic ecosystems forces animals to search for food on land, such as these polar bears in northern Russia.” Every sceptic cum ‘denier’ knows The Guardian’s meme of imperilled polar bears is itself garbage. Bear numbers have soared, probably quadrupled, in the past decade to about 40,000.
Last week, “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” and “global heating” notwithstanding, The Guardian UK was spruiking its CO2-spewing holiday packages: “Guardian Holidays have a wide range of products. From making pizza on the Amalfi Coast, surfing in Portugal or orangutan spotting in Borneo, Guardian Holidays’ new range of family adventures are sure to keep every member of your family entertained.”
Chandler has lifted the media curtain so we can glimpse the third-tier journos backstage scurrying about on their activist business while pretending objectivity.[vi]
No wonder 40 per cent of Australians don’t trust traditional media.
Tony Thomas’s hilarious social history, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and on-line here
[i] Melbourne University in 2018 was rated top university in Australia and 32nd in the world. (THE Rankings).
[ii] MSSI quoted Greta: “This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. This is not something you can just like on Facebook.”
[iv] Discover magazine, October 1989
[v] If you argue that Pachauri’s sexual urges were irrelevant to his role as IPCC chair, this is a message he allegedly sent in mid-October, 2013 to the 29-year-old female staffer at his TERI think-tank: “Here I am sitting and chairing an IPCC meeting and surreptitiously sending you messages. I hope that tells you of my feelings for you.” The IPCC meeting was the 37th Plenary Session, at the Sheraton in the seaside resort of Batumi, Georgia. It was attended by 229 politicians and officials from 92 countries, plus the usual conservation and activist hangers-on and free-loaders.
In 2013, Pachauri dropped in on the Albert Deakin Research Institute (ADRI) at Deakin University — ADRI falsely calling him the “Nobel Peace Prize-winning panellist”. ADRI’s tribute to Pachauri began: “Dr Pachauri’s gentle and unassuming demeanour is testament to his life’s work: it seems only appropriate that one must assume such a persona when acting as something of a figurehead for sustainable futures.”
[vi] The Australian’s environment writer Graham Lloyd is an exception, doing a fine job reporting all sides of the climate debate and adding his own analyses.