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Monday, April 16, 2012

Justin Gillis on connecting the (climate change) dots

There's an excellent and very insightful Q&A interview with Justin Gillis, the New York Times reporter who recently won Columbia University's 2011 Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, at the Columbia Journalism Review website.

Since I have complained previously about the Times' coverage of climate change (here, here, here, and probably other places as well), it's considerable comfort to know that Mr. Gillis has a largely similar view of what has been happening in the mainstream media on the issue. I'm really impressed with some of the things he has to say:

- "I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, 'This is the biggest problem we have—bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?'" (emphasis added)

- "One thing I’m seeing—and I see it in our own paper as well as many other news outlets—is that people are covering the crazy weather we’re having and, more often than not, dodging the subject of whether there’s any relationship to climate change. TV weathermen are dodging that subject. Print reporters are dodging the subject ... [I]t’s a bit of a scandal that there’s not enough connecting the dots for people." (emphasis added)

Hear, hear!

My enthusiasm is only tempered by a few things. First, Mr. Gillis essentially waves away a goof in one of his recent stories, which included a paragraph about "climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming ..." and in the very next paragraph quoted Myron Ebell, who is described as a "climate skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute."  This unfortunate combination suggested that Mr. Ebell is a climate researcher, when in fact he is an economist--and an economist who works for a group that has run TV ads extolling the virtues of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas associated with global warming.

Mr. Gillis's comment on this? "I suppose that in retrospect, given how much complaint there was, I wish I had made clear that Ebell is not a scientist, but an economist. I had quoted him many times before and know who he is, what he does, and what perspective he represents." But, of course, it's not enough that Mr. Gillis knows who Mr. Ebell is--that's essential information, bearing directly on Mr. Ebell's credibility, that should be shared with readers.

I noticed this reference when I read the story and was disturbed (actually, pissed would be more accurate) by it.  Joe Romm noticed it also, and wrote a post at ClimateProgress titled False Balance Lives at the New York Times, which perhaps accounts for the second thing that bothered me--Mr. Gillis taking a swing at Romm a bit later on in the CJR interview: "I think some people, like Joe Romm, would like us to send a bugler in a coat of mail around with the paper every morning playing taps and proclaiming that climate change is a problem."

Well, gosh, Mr. Gillis, if the media isn't going to do that job for us, who will?  As you have correctly said, it's the biggest problem we have, and opinion polls make it clear that the public has no idea of its seriousness.  I for one am really grateful for Joe and the folks at Skeptical Science who are keeping those of us concerned about global warming up to speed and doing battle daily with the incessant river of lies and distortions from those in denial about climate change.

Finally, my enthusiasm is restrained by the fact that the Times and most other papers continue to write about America's new-found abundance of fossil fuels with barely a whisper about global warming. I'll have more to say about this soon.

All of that being said, let me end on an up note--I appreciate Mr. Gillis and his efforts to bring more of a focus on climate change and its likely impacts, to one of the leading newspapers in America, and I wish him every success.  The work he's been doing at the Times is critical, and God knows, we need all the help we can get.

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