Journos' Biggest ClimateGate Regret: Getting Scooped, Not Getting it Wrong

November 9th, 2010 6:10 AM

Nearly a year after leaked emails from the University of East Anglia revealed scientists manipulating data to embellish the case for anthropogenic global warming, journalists are finally starting to learn a few lessons. Unfortunately, few, if any, of those journalists are Americans.

Margot O'Neill of the Australian Broadcasting Company reported last week:

[A] key BBC news manager has declared that climate science "isn't quite a settled question"; and the BBC Trust is investigating the impartiality of science reporting including on climate change and including whether sceptical views are given due airing.

O'Neill, who examined the apparent decline in coverage of global warming, highlighted the blind-faith approach many journalists had taken in reporting on AGW. That approach was shaken by the so-called ClimateGate scandal.

According to O'Neill:

Many journalists say the UEA email hacking, combined with the discovery of an error regarding the melting of the Himalayan glaciers in the 2007 report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also proved they had failed to cast a critical enough eye on climate science and that they had been far too dismissive of skeptics…

Previously, media coverage of sceptics had focused almost exclusively on whether or not they believe in anthropogenic climate change, but that is likely to change, the journalists say, because there are many different kinds of sceptics and a range of other debates. Some say they wished they had engaged credible sceptics earlier.

The revelation is welcome - better late than never, after all - but by O'Neill's account, it seems as much due to the fear of being scooped than a concern for balanced reporting.

O'Neill claims that "probably the most important reaction" to ClimateGate for journalists occurred "in their own newsrooms," where editors became angry with reporters who had unquestionably parroted claims that turned out to have been contrived.

"[W]hat is it that the journalists believe they were guilty of?" asks O'Neill.

Firstly, they missed a cracking story that was instead first pursued by the blogosphere and which proved to be, unlike many other climate change stories, a hit with the public. After struggling to find stories the public wanted to read, a tabloid journalist observed "Climategate … got a strong response; it made climate change more topical."

That was the primary regret among journalists? That's quite an admission; journalists apparently believed that getting scooped by bloggers - on a story with legs, no less - was more regrettable than running with a story for years without fulfilling the fundamental journalistic responsibility of simply asking questions.

The revelation is welcome among the journalism community abroad that ClimateGate was in fact big news, and demonstrated fundamental problems with the conventional case for AGW. Still, it is troubling that the mainstream media's failure to get the jump on the story would be considered even a remotely comparable journalistic offense to the failure of reporters - for years! - to fulfill their duty as critical observers and watchdogs.

Journalists in the United States, meanwhile, don't seem to grasp either of these revelations. So while they may still be missing part of the picture, at least reporters abroad, one year after ClimateGate, are starting to see how they got it wrong.