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Attacking 'Attacks' In The Climate Change Community


Demonstrators march in a climate rally in Los Angeles, California in 2013.
David McNew, Getty Images
Demonstrators march in a climate rally in Los Angeles, California in 2013.

Last week, All Things Considered aired a piece by NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reporting on investigations into the work of so-called "climate skeptics" — scientists who doubt that climate change is a serious problem or that humans are causing it. The piece raised the broader issue of whether advocates on both sides of the climate change debate are trying to undermine scientists with whom they disagree.

Boston, Mass. listener Brad Johnson took Brumfiel to task for claiming, in Johnson's words, "that 'liberals and environmentalists' are subjecting scientists who reject the consensus on climate change to 'hacking, hate mail, and even court action'. That claim is not supported by the story, which describes a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request and Congressional letters of inquiry, neither of which are hacking, hate mail, nor court action. NPR should issue a retraction."

Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple made a similar point in a blog post calling the equating of the tactics being used by both sides in the climate change debate "a breathtaking lunge for equivalence," and asking "whether NPR is really vouching for the proposition that 'attacks' on both sides of the debate are comparable. And whether NPR, a journalism outfit, really views the filing of a FOIA request and the publication of its results as an attack."

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Wemple also picked up on a change in the online, written version of the story. As first posted, the story said the climate skeptics faced "hacking, hate mail, and even court action." The story later was changed to refer to "hacking, investigations, and even court action." Wemple implied that this language switch was a violation of NPR's standards against "silent" corrections, or corrections that are made without being acknowledged.

Brumfiel and his editor, Alison Richards, talked to me about the story, or perhaps we should call them "stories," since the online and on-air versions varied in substantial ways. The radio version was more measured than the online version, saying the climate skeptics faced "investigations," whereas the online version spoke of the "attacks" against them. And it was the online version that both Johnson and Wemple are complaining about.

Brumfiel said he took note of a Feb. 22 report in The New York Times — based on documents uncovered via a FOIA request — that laid out the corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry supporting work by scientist Willie Soon, who rejects human causes for climate change. When Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, from Arizona, followed that up by requesting funding information from seven other climate change scientists, Brumfiel started his reporting into the matter.

Scientists from both sides of the climate issue — not all on the record, Brumfiel said — expressed concern that the ongoing debate about climate change is moving from questioning the science to questioning the personal backgrounds of the scientists themselves, though several added that the probe of Soon's undisclosed funding appeared to be in the public interest.

The issue is also explored in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, which is not referenced in Brumfiel's piece, but was in his mind, he added.

In all, Brumfiel contacted about 15 people or organizations and talked to many of them, even if all the reporting is not explicitly referenced in the online and on air pieces. Both he and Richards stand by the story.

"I don't have a problem with the way it was framed," Brumfiel said. His intent in the online story, he added, was not to equate the reaction to scientists on both sides, but to first remind readers "of the tactics the right had used" before shifting to those being adopted by the left.

Which leads to the so-called "silent" correction. Brumfiel and Richards said it wasn't a correction. The change was made about an hour after the piece went up, when some readers took to Twitter to complain. Brumfiel said he saw the tweets, and changed the language — subbing "investigations" for "hate mail" — for clarity's sake, so that the body of the story was better reflected by the introduction. "I had failed to see how it might be misunderstood," Brumfiel said.

He and Richards equated the change to clarifying copy or on-air mispronunciations, say, between the East Coast and West Coast feeds of a show, and therefore they felt no correction was warranted. Richards called the change "quality control."

I agree, mostly. The change wasn't a factual correction, and didn't need to be recorded as such. NPR's content management system, however, does allow for an "update" to be noted, and they could have taken advantage of that option.

My take on the broader, more important issue of equivalence? The language in the introduction of the online version of the story in particular could have been much more precise, as could the framing; the word "attacks" is problematic. Brumfiel acknowledges that he could have written the introduction differently. But I don't believe he was striving for equivalence. The broader point of Brumfiel's story is a valid take. In today's political environment, all sides of important public policy questions often seem more interested in disputing the credentials of opponents than in debating the underlying facts.

One final note: Brumfiel said he mispronounced the name of scientist Eric Steig in the radio version of his piece.

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