By Tom Yulsman (originally posted at CEJournal, Dec. 20, 2011).
As anyone who used to read CEJournal probably knows, I went into semi-retirement from blogging last spring. The time commitment played a role. But so were doubts I harbored about what I was contributing to move conversations forward on issues like environment and energy. But as the year draws to a close, a breach of journalistic standards by Grist has gotten me out of the rocking chair.
In their eagerness to toss red meat to their readers, Grist and Mark Hertsgaard, author of its story about the “Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future” conference, accepted uncritically the idea that Rajendra Pachauri jokingly advocated that climate change deniers should be rocketed into space. When it was shown that Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, never said such a thing, Grist sort-of kind-of corrected its story — but not its screaming tabloid headline.
So forever more, Grist’s readers and countless other climate activists, will think of Pachauri and the IPCC as being on their ‘side.’ Climate change skeptics will be confirmed in their false suspicion that the IPCC is a hopelessly biased activist organization, rather than a policy-neutral scientific assessment body. Pachauri and by extension the IPCC have yet again had some of their credibility chipped away. And thus the cause of climate change mitigation Grist and Herstgaard so passionately advocate for has been undermined.
It all started with the post last Friday, in which Hertsgaard wrote about a panel discussion at the climate conference organized by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Participating on the panel were Gov. Brown, Pachauri, and Virgin Group Chair Sir Richard Branson. According to Hertstgaard’s original account, at one point:
Pachauri joked that [Richard] Branson could give climate deniers tickets on the aviation mogul’s planned flights into outer space. “Perhaps it could be a one-way ticket,” Pachauri said, smiling, “though I’m not sure space deserves them.”
Video of the episode shows that Pachauri did joke about sending other people into space — federal bureaucrats whom Gov. Brown had said were blocking state efforts to expand use of renewable energy.
That was reflective of what Andrew Revkin feels is Pachauri’s habit of wading too far into policy waters. And it prompted him to write this at DotEarth Monday:
I believe it’s time for Rajendra K. Pachauri to take a new approach to discussing climate change or leave the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after nearly a decade in that position. There is an unavoidable and counterproductive blurriness to the line between his personal advocacy for climate action — which is his right as an individual — and his stature as the leader of the panel, which was established in 1988 as “a policy relevant but policy neutral organization.”
Revkin did a good enough job dissecting this issue, so have a look at his post for more details. I’d like to tackle the journalism issue.
Grist’s eagerness to publish a headline that would make the New York Post proud is evidence of something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: the impact of the democratization of communication on public discourse about controversial issues like climate change. By now it’s almost cliché to point out that everyone can have the equivalent of their own printing press and television station, thanks to WordPress, Youtube and the like. At the same time, journalists working at conventional media outlets have been thrown overboard by the thousands — and none more than science and environmental journalists.
As Revkin has pointed out, science and environmental journalism constitute a shrinking slice of a rapidly expanding pie of communication. Over the long run, that expansion — that democratization of mass communication — could be an amazingly good thing. But right now, the shrinkage of conventional journalistic reporting potentially creates significant problems.
Here’s why: Whether you’re an opinion journalist or a news reporter, you must be guided by the single, overarching principle of verification. And our job as journalists, whether we’re advancing an opinion on a blog or telling a good story, is to be skeptical, open to the truth, and to go wherever our reporting leads. But that’s not necessarily true of activist bloggers who see their job as winning the argument.
Both approaches are essential in a democratic society. But I see a growing imbalance between activist argumentation and journalistic verification, with the former winning out more and more. And with the fragmentation of media into hyperpartisan niches, people can gravitate to activist messagers with whom they resonate, such as Grist, while never having to consider the often more nuanced, more complex — and sometimes more uncomfortable — factual truths.
I first got a heads up about the Grist story when Andy emailed me about it, along with a copy of his Tweet about it on Friday:
When I clicked on the link, I came to the story, which had this headline:
New approach to climate deniers: Launch them into space!
According to the first version of the story, published on Friday, Dec. 16, it was Pachauri who made that provocative statement during the panel discussion with Gov. Brown and Branson. And based on Revkin’s Tweet, it was apparent that he was getting ready to write a column suggesting that Pachauri should step down.
The head of the IPCC saying climate change deniers should be launched into space? It doesn’t get any more provocative — or troubling — than that.
Revkin told me that over the ensuing weekend he had been in touch with Hertsgaard and Pachauri (as well as Felicity Barringer of The Times, who moderated the panel), to figure out what had happened. Pachauri denied making the statement attributed to him. And by late Sunday night, Grist issued a weak correction, clarifying in the text that Pachauri did not, in fact, say that climate change deniers should be blasted into space.
But as I write this, the original headline still remains. It has not been changed. And that is outrageous.
What actually happened at the conference?
The video posted on Gov. Brown’s official website shows what was said and by whom. At about 50 minutes in, Gov. Brown talks about federal housing regulators who, he said, were preventing states from implementing certain policies to encourage homeowners to install renewable energy technologies. Pachauri responds by pointing out that the “building sector is the largest sector for reduction in emissions.” Branson chimes in, saying of the regulator at Fannie Mae that “somebody needs to shake him.”
At that point, Pachauri makes this unfortunate joke: “Put him on an aircraft and take him to a turbulent place.” The audience laughs, Branson pats Pachauri on the arm and replies: “A one-way ticket to space. I’d be happy to oblige.” He was referring, of course, to his Virgin Galactic endeavor, which is eventually supposed to take paying customers on flights into space. And the person who should be blasted into space? A federal regulator standing in the way of renewables, not climate change deniers.
About five minutes later, the topic of sending people to space comes up again when Pachauri says, “Those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these guys.”
In its correction to Hertsgaard’s original story, Grist says “it is not absolutely clear to whom Pachauri is referring.” That’s arguable. To me, the context makes it clear who Pachauri was talking about: those federal regulators, not climate change deniers.
Especially since Grist will not fully own up to its mistake and change the headline, what may well be remembered from this affair is that the head of the IPCC said climate change deniers should be blasted into space. And to my mind, this borders on defamation. Pachauri would be well within bounds if he took Hertsgaard and Grist to court. This sure seems to me like reckless disregard for the truth.
How could it happen? All of us sometimes hear what we want to hear rather than what was actually said. During a panel discussion with a lot of quick back and forth banter, a journalist looking for a provocative story might well hear that the head of the IPCC joke that climate change deniers should be sent into orbit. What a great headline that would make. But every journalist worth his salt knows you can’t run something as potentially explosive as that without checking it out. Aside from just getting it wrong, you could wind up libeling someone.
But skepticism and verification are the fundamental default settings in journalism not just to help reporters avoid libel. They are what establishes our credibility as truth tellers, even when we are offering an opinion in a blog or on the op ed page. For activist journalists like Hertsgaard, and their editors at publications like Grist, however, the need to win the argument and advance the agenda sometimes trumps the skeptical impulse and the drive to verify. The results sometimes are pretty ugly.
Here’s the exchange between Tom Yulsman and Scott Rosenberg, executive editor of Grist, from the comments section at CEJournal.
Posted December 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm
Hi, Tom — greetings from Grist, where I’m the executive editor.
I’m going to leave for another time the argument over whether journalism-with-a-point-of-view — the kind we at Grist and so many others on the Web practice — can also be journalism you can trust. (I passionately believe that it can, and point to the work of my peers at Salon, Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones, et al.)
I’m puzzled by your characterization of our correction of Mark Hertsgaard’s story as “sort-of-kind-of.” We made errors, we documented how that happened, and we corrected them. We told the story. As a crusader for accuracy and a more transparent corrections process myself, I believe that’s a better option than the traditional opaque list of details followed by the rote “regret the error.” I wish we hadn’t made these errors, but we did, and we’ve dealt with them.
You believe that our headline, too, was erroneous. So let’s look at that.
The headline reads, “New approach to climate deniers: Launch them into space!”
This headline is, of course, like the conversation it was based on, jocular. (The exclamation mark is a giveaway, right?)
For over a decade Grist has been in the business of covering green issues with a light heart. Our headline style is not the New York Times’. Compare NYT: “As Permafrost Warms, Scientists See a Threat”; Grist: “The World Will End in a Fart.”
I’ve now watched the video of this conversation several times, and I invite anyone who’s interested to do the same. It seems quite clear to me that, while Branson’s original joke was indeed aimed at various unnamed officials who were considered to be blocking California’s clean-energy policies, by the time Pachauri picked it up the conversation had widened. Pachauri jokes that “those who are becoming obstacles to implement what is rational” should be sent into space. A minute later, Branson is saying, “Forget global warming. If you don’t believe it, that’s fine.” At this point, they’re having a broad discussion about how to persuade people who don’t accept the reality of global warming to nonetheless embrace the goal of energy independence.
Tom, you admit yourself that this is at least an “arguable” point, so it puzzles me that you immediately jump to some very broad-brush accusations of journalistic malfeasance on Grist’s part. If I thought our headline needed a correction, I’d correct it in a nanosecond. This isn’t about “the need to win the argument and advance the agenda.” Pachauri said these things and it isn’t our role or place to mitigate them or sugar-coat them. If we placed advocacy ahead of verification and journalistic ideals, surely we’d rush to try to sweep this whole story under the rug.
Personally, I think Andy Revkin is wildly overreacting to what was at worst a misfired joke. And I’m very sorry that Grist’s errors contributed to the general confusion here. But I also feel that you’re badly mischaracterizing Grist’s work.
Posted December 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm
Scott: As my post should have gotten across, I wholeheartedly agree that journalism can have a point of view. Neutrality is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Neither is an objective outcome — which I would argue is an impossibility. But verification IS a fundamental principle of journalism. And to accomplish it requires an objective method.
It seems clear to me that neither an objective method nor rigorous verification were brought to bear on this story. And in my opinion, that makes it activism, not journalism.
As for the headline, if I had come darn near close to defaming Pachauri by attributing incendiary comments to him that he never made, I would have rewritten the headline to remove any cloud of doubt about this issue. Of course you are free to interpret what happened during those exchanges between Pachauri and Branson any way you’d like, and to write any headline you want. And the choices you make say a lot about the standards you use for deciding issues like these. As a former editor-in-chief of a magazine, my standards would have led me to change the headline, not just the story. But I’m not an activist, and I have not been since I decided long ago to become a journalist.