“At the end of the day… a journalist’s ultimate responsibility is to the public. And yet, by that measure, you are failing. You are failing to treat the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced like the crisis that it is. Why?”
For all of this seemingly interminable campaign season, it was the elephant in the room, the huge issue that no one—not the candidates and in large part not the media—was talking about. Until suddenly, catastrophically, it thrust itself into the campaign in a way that could even alter the outcome.
No one can with certainty “blame” Hurricane/“Superstorm” Sandy on climate change. But as I said in my on-air interview this week with our host Lisa Mullins, climate change almost certainly aided and abetted the storm’s assault, through higher ocean temperatures, rising sea levels and perhaps even the influence of a much warmer Arctic on weather patterns in North America and the North Atlantic.
It’s a connection many in the media are exploring, and that even some politicians in our climate-change-acknowledgment-averse country are raising as well. Most prominent among them, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, whose shellacking by Sandy this week led him to break his neutrality in the presidential election and make a last-minute endorsement of President Obama, largely on the grounds of the president’s stronger position on climate change. Bloomberg is popular among independents, so it’s an endorsement that could well affect the outcome of an extremely tight race.
One of the ironies of Bloomberg’s endorsement though, is that the president still isn’t talking about climate. Neither is Romney. Neither candidate seems to feel there’s any political advantage in taking it on one way or the other, still.
That’s a huge failure of political leadership. But you can’t just blame the candidates. They get to decide what they’ll say, but they don’t get to decide what they’ll be asked. That’s our job—journalists. And almost universally, the journalists who have access to the candidates these days aren’t asking about climate. Which reflects the fact that at least as much as the candidates, journalists in general—especially political journalists—still don’t understand the seriousness of the climate crisis.
There are many reasons for this. One is the sheer complexity of the issue and the paradoxical breadth and subtlety of its impacts. Another is a journalism business which these days provides little time or support for going deep or thinking big, or for reporters stepping aside for a bit to explore anything beyond the bounds of their beat. And then there’s the deep-seated journalism culture whose default approach to a topic—especially one in which the reporter or outlet has little experience—is “balance,” even if that sometimes produces a false balance that distorts the reality of a subject.
Journalism in this country has finally, largely, gotten over that last problem when it comes to the science of climate change. As the scientific and real-world evidence has piled up in the last few years, there’s a lot less of the “this scientist says this but this other scientist says the opposite so the truth must really be somewhere in the middle or we really still just don’t know” approach that plagued most reporting on the issue for years.
But a powerful cover story in this week’s Phoenix, Boston’s alt-weekly, rips into journalists for a new and perhaps even more serious failure. The lengthy piece by Wen Stephenson, who’s held senior positions at The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and NPR and PBS programs, argues that having finally come to terms with the reality of climate change, the mainstream media is still failing to come to terms with its seriousness.
“This is more than an environmental crisis,” Stephenson writes. “It’s an existential threat, and it should be treated like one, without fear of sounding alarmist, rather than covered as just another special interest, something only environmentalists care about. And it should be treated as a central issue in this election, regardless of whether the candidates or the political media are talking about it.”
It’s a bracing challenge to his own journalism community, and Stephenson pulls no punches in going after colleagues and friends in the business by name.
What’s needed now is crisis-level coverage. And you guys know how to cover a crisis. In the weeks and months — nay, years — following 9/11, all sorts of stories made the front pages and homepages and newscasts that never would have been assigned otherwise. The same was true before and after the Iraq invasion, and in the months following the 2008 financial meltdown. In a crisis, the criteria for top news is markedly altered, as long as a story sheds light on the crisis topic. In crisis coverage, there’s an assumption that readers want and deserve to know as much as possible. In crisis coverage, you “flood the zone.” You shift resources. You make hard choices.
The climate crisis is the biggest story of this, or any, generation — so why the hell aren’t you flooding the climate “zone,” putting it on the front pages and leading newscasts with it every day? Or even once a week? Why aren’t you looking constantly at how the implications of climate change and its impact pervade almost any topic — not just environment and energy stories?
…At the end of the day, I think we agree, a journalist’s ultimate responsibility is to the public. And yet, by that measure, you are failing. You are failing to treat the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced like the crisis that it is. Why?
It’s a must-read for anyone who is a journalist, or knows a journalist, or consumes journalism, or just lives in the country that bears the largest cumulative responsibility for climate change of any on the planet.
One can only hope that it makes its way onto the desks of hundreds of powerful editors and publishers around the country. And that maybe it even makes its way onto the desk of the next President of the United States.