How Ditching “Both Sides” Made Me a Better Climate Reporter

February 5, 2022

Future historians will point to the rise of lazy “both sides” journalism as a major contributor to both the climate crisis and our slide into authoritarianism. Just watch any program on CNN. They always go to the “panel” with the guy/gal that’s there, being paid, to lie to you, and call it “balance”. It’s not about informing, it’s about the fight – entertainment. Recently departed Jeff Zucker and other cable execs adherence to this dictum is a good part of what brought us Trump.
I swear, if the COVID virus could talk, it would be booked solid to tell its side of the story.

I discussed this with Emily Atkin last year, and she had choice words. Now Sammy Roth of the LA Times has a worthy contribution.

Sammy Roth in the LA Times:

The third weekend of August 2020 was a hectic time for California. 

Wildfires raged, smoke filled the air, and power shortages had forced state officials to order rolling blackouts, meaning hundreds of thousands of homes lacked air conditioning during a brutal heat wave. That Monday, I scrambled to cover the fallout, writing about one state agency blaming another for the power shortfall. The next day, I hurried to report a piece on clean energy technologies that could help California keep the lights on, hoping to offer solutions during a bleak moment. 

By Wednesday, I was mentally and physically exhausted. So I wrote about that, too.

In that week’s edition of Boiling Point, I discussed climate despair and my strategies for coping with it, in hopes that readers feeling similarly fatalistic would find it useful. I described what it was like for me personally living through those hellish few days, and offered some Jewish wisdom from an ancient rabbi that had helped me keep perspective: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

The next summer, during another period of intense heat and fire, I hiked Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail. The mountain peaks were obscured at times by wildfire smoke, but the landscape as a whole — brimming with wildlife, alpine lakes and deep canyons — helped remind me why a safer planet is worth fighting for. In the next edition of Boiling Point, I once more urged readers not to lose hope, writing, “The future is not preordained. It’s not written. We can still stem the climate crisis.”

There was a time when I would have worried about words like these undermining my credibility as a journalist. Here I was expressing my own fears, and my own desire for climate solutions. Wouldn’t that make me look biased? Wouldn’t I be better off sticking to the facts, explaining the scientific consensus in a traditional, third-person newspaper voice and leaving the politics to climate activists?

After eight years writing about energy, I’ve come to see my responsibilities in a different light.

In the same way that journalists ought to be comfortable denouncing systemic racism and pushing politicians to tackle homelessness, we need to get comfortable decrying the horrors of the climate crisis and demanding solutions.

An unprecedented body of research shows global warming is an existential threat to human civilization as we know it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year that much of the damage from rising greenhouse gas emissions is “irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets, and global sea level.” And the more the planet warms, the greater the suffering. If journalists don’t communicate that reality, and state unequivocally the need for immediate climate action, we’re not doing our jobs.

It’s great that so many reporters have ditched the damaging “both sides” approach to climate coverage — quote a denier on one side and a scientist on the other. But acknowledging that carbon emissions are heating the planet isn’t enough anymore, if it ever was. We have a responsibility to tell stories that prompt businesses and government to reduce emissions, quickly and dramatically. 

We can do that by holding politicians and industry accountable when they fail to act, and by using plain language to describe the political and economic realities — without worrying about bad-faith critics.

That’s why I’ve written again and again about the far-too-slow pace of California’s climate plans. It’s why I’ve explored energy technologies from geothermal to hydrogen to pumped storage. It’s why I partnered with Floodlight and the Guardian to reveal that a firm hired by the natural gas industry had paid residents of a heavily polluted community to lobby for gas-fueled trucks. 

It’s why, after a major oil spill in Southern California last year, I wrote that the incident “offered a stark reminder that the damage to human health and the natural world from powering society with fossil fuels is far greater than just a warming planet.”

I’ve been transparent with Times readers about where I’m coming from — that I find climate change very scary, and that I care about speeding up the clean energy transition. This hasn’t hurt my credibility or my ability to tell these stories. On the contrary, it’s helped me do my job better.

Almost every day, I hear from readers who are grateful to see climate coverage that resonates with them. Boiling Point in particular has been a powerful tool for blending fresh reporting, timely analysis and personal reflection. I’ve never received a greater volume of positive feedback than I did after writing that newsletter about climate despair. One reader thanked me for “a much-needed dose of wisdom and humor.” Another wrote, “As we opened the windows to our house in the Bay Area this evening for the first time in many days, I read your reflections to my family. I wanted them to hear your words as we struggle to come to terms with what it means to live with climate change.”

One Response to “How Ditching “Both Sides” Made Me a Better Climate Reporter”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It’s not about informing, it’s about the fight – entertainment.

    There’s a related aspect of national news coverage you might recognize: If there’s a major problem to be fixed, it’s up to the Democrats to fix it. Nobody mentions the Elephant in the room as to why the problem is so bad. Often an article about legislation to address a clear problem only describes the vote counts within the Democratic caucus. The fact that zero Republicans supported it isn’t mention. They’ll also note that it’s Biden’s failure if he doesn’t to convince Republicans not to stonewall.

    Murc’s Law
    The widespread assumption in the media that only Democrats have any agency or causal influence over American politics.

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