NY Times' Non-Reporting Reporting
By David Henderson
If you want to see a great example of a purported news story in which the reporters try to bias the story one way, check out today’s New York Times story on Climategate.
I preface this by saying that I am no expert on climate change. My point is not that those who think it’s happening, that it’s manmade, and that it could cause serious problems are wrong. My point, rather, is that this news story is a case study in how to write things if you want to bias the discussion.
Here are the opening grafs [short for paragraphs], with my comments following:
Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming “unequivocal.”
This is the first graf. Normally, reporters are taught to use the first graf to say the most important thing. News, as the term suggests, is about what’s new. The NYT has reported many times that the UN panel finds the evidence for global warming “uneqivocal” or other synonyms. That’s not news. In a normal news story, the UN panel’s view would be reported, but it would be reported as a reaction to the facts. Yet that’s the first thing reported. Obvious motive: get the reader to think, going in, that, whatever else he knows or thinks he knows, one thing he knows is that there’s no real controversy.
But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.
Tell the reader that the various critics are attacking the science. How do you attack the science? Well, by being unscientific, of course. But aren’t some of the critics themselves wearing the mantle of science? Well, yes, but let’s not deviate from the script here.
The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world’s foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.
Finally, in the third graf, we get to the news item. This might be news to New York Times readers who read nothing else. But, as pretty much everyone who follows the blogosphere knows, it’s not really news.
Sidebar: This reminds me of two lines in the latest 30 Rock [at about the 11:40 point].
Jenna: You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.
Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.
Notice someone interesting, though. The most important fact the New York Times sees fit to tell about the files is that they were stolen. Now, I have a problem with theft too, but at this point, is that the most important thing about the files? Newspapers often report using information that their sources stole. Do the reporters tell us what the files actually say? No. Notice also that it does introduce the idea that the files have led some to question the scientific basis, but instead of quoting scientists who question it, it refers only to a government, and a not very reputable one at that. These guys are good.
The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.
Notice the emotive words: “complicate,” “ensnared,” “difficult,” “abandon hopes.” Who wants to take the side of people who complicate things, make things difficult, and cause people to abandon hope?
In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed — the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data — undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.
Finally, in the fifth paragraph, which, in my local newspaper, the Monterey County Herald, didn’t show up until you turned to the continuation of the story on page 11, they give us more specifics. Moreover, although it finally gives us some idea of the upset, it doesn’t let the facts stand alone. The reporters lead in by telling us that an array of scientists and policy makers say it’s no big deal. It’s also true that an array of scientists and policy makers say it is a big deal. But the reporters don’t report that. Also, nowhere do the reporters report that scientists at East Anglia University threw away their data.
Yet the intensity of the response highlights that skepticism about global warming persists, even as many scientists thought the battle over the reality of human-driven climate change was finally behind them.
The quick impression a reader will get from the above graf is that none of the skepticism exists in the mind of scientists.
On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated.
This graf is beautiful. The reporters undercut the importance by emphasizing that foes of GHG restrictions are using the Climategate information and that they take daily aim. So this latest info is simply grist for their mill. Actually, I think the reporters are right on this one. But some of the skeptics and “foes,” at least, are taking aim with scientific arguments, a fact that the reporters avoid.
I could go on. The remaining grafs are in the same vein.