Journalists Examine Teapot Tempests as Real Glaciers Melt

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Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR)

Journalists Examine Teapot Tempests as Real Glaciers Melt

Curtis Brainard of CJR's Observatory blog (1/29/10) complains about the lack of coverage of what he calls "Glaciergate":

Almost two weeks ago, the Sunday Times, a British newspaper, "broke" the story that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had made significant errors in its 2007 report on the impacts of global warming....

The report stated that there was a very high likelihood that glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2035 if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Three days after the Times published its article, the IPCC essentially admitted that this was an error (while glaciers in the region are melting, they are unlikely to vanish that quickly) and apologized (pdf) for the "poorly substantiated" claim.

In the days after the story first broke, the New York Times and the Washington Post each ran one print article about the Himalayan glaciers error. The Christian Science Monitor, now published online, produced one piece, and the Associated Press and Bloomberg sent a couple of articles over the wire.

Unfortunately, that's about it. Meanwhile, outlets in the U.K., India and Australia have been eating the American media's lunch, churning out reams of commentary and analysis. Journalists in the U.S. should take immediate steps to redress that oversight.

But the New York Times never reported the IPCC's claim that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 before publishing the debunking article. The Washington Post mentioned it in a story (11/22/09) that focused on the Indian environmental minister's rejection of the claim. The Christian Science Monitor had one piece (11/5/99) on melting Himalayan glaciers that quoted a source saying "the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high"--but this was not a quote from the IPCC report, which wouldn't appear for another eight years, but from the International Commission on Snow and Ice, which was part of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences.

None of these papers, then, thought that the IPCC's statement that the Himalayan glaciers would likely melt by 2035 was in itself worth mentioning, let alone basing a story around. So how much effort should the same papers spend reporting on the withdrawal of this claim? That depends on whether you think melting glaciers, or scientific misstatements about melting glaciers, are the bigger threat to humanity.

You see the same emphasis on science process trivia over the actual phenomena scientists are studying in a British Guardian story headlined "Leaked Climate Change Emails Scientist 'Hid' Data Flaws" (2/1/10), which is no doubt getting a lot of U.S. traffic today via a link from Drudge. In the fifth paragraph, the story reveals that contrary to the implication of the headline and subhead ("Key study by East Anglia professor Phil Jones was based on suspect figures"), the story actually has no bearing on the reality of climate change:

The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change, and other studies have produced similar findings. But they do call into question the probity of some climate change science.

And how do they do that, exactly?

Wang was cleared of scientific fraud by his university, but new information brought to light today indicates at least one senior colleague had serious concerns about the affair.

So essentially this story reveals that before a scientist was cleared of suspicions of scientific wrongdoing, he was suspected of scientific wrongdoing. Stop the presses!

That a respectable paper like the Guardian would trumpet this as an important scoop--and that a media watchdog like CJR would be calling for more in this vein--is a testimony to how deeply the "Climategate" hackers have distorted the discussion over the most important environmental issue of our lifetimes. See the brand-new issue of Extra!: "'Climategate' Overshadows Copenhagen: Media Regress to the Bad Old Days of False Balance" (2/10) by Julie Hollar.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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