David R. Henderson  

NY Times' Non-Reporting Reporting

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If you want to see a great example of a purported news story in which the reporters try to bias the story one way, check out today's New York Times story on Climategate.

I preface this by saying that I am no expert on climate change. My point is not that those who think it's happening, that it's manmade, and that it could cause serious problems are wrong. My point, rather, is that this news story is a case study in how to write things if you want to bias the discussion.

Here are the opening grafs [short for paragraphs], with my comments following:

Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming "unequivocal."

This is the first graf. Normally, reporters are taught to use the first graf to say the most important thing. News, as the term suggests, is about what's new. The NYT has reported many times that the UN panel finds the evidence for global warming "uneqivocal" or other synonyms. That's not news. In a normal news story, the UN panel's view would be reported, but it would be reported as a reaction to the facts. Yet that's the first thing reported. Obvious motive: get the reader to think, going in, that, whatever else he knows or thinks he knows, one thing he knows is that there's no real controversy.

But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

Tell the reader that the various critics are attacking the science. How do you attack the science? Well, by being unscientific, of course. But aren't some of the critics themselves wearing the mantle of science? Well, yes, but let's not deviate from the script here.

The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world's foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.

Finally, in the third graf, we get to the news item. This might be news to New York Times readers who read nothing else. But, as pretty much everyone who follows the blogosphere knows, it's not really news.

Sidebar: This reminds me of two lines in the latest 30 Rock [at about the 11:40 point].
Jenna: You've got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.
Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

Notice someone interesting, though. The most important fact the New York Times sees fit to tell about the files is that they were stolen. Now, I have a problem with theft too, but at this point, is that the most important thing about the files? Newspapers often report using information that their sources stole. Do the reporters tell us what the files actually say? No. Notice also that it does introduce the idea that the files have led some to question the scientific basis, but instead of quoting scientists who question it, it refers only to a government, and a not very reputable one at that. These guys are good.

The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.

Notice the emotive words: "complicate," "ensnared," "difficult," "abandon hopes." Who wants to take the side of people who complicate things, make things difficult, and cause people to abandon hope?

In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed -- the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data -- undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.

Finally, in the fifth paragraph, which, in my local newspaper, the Monterey County Herald, didn't show up until you turned to the continuation of the story on page 11, they give us more specifics. Moreover, although it finally gives us some idea of the upset, it doesn't let the facts stand alone. The reporters lead in by telling us that an array of scientists and policy makers say it's no big deal. It's also true that an array of scientists and policy makers say it is a big deal. But the reporters don't report that. Also, nowhere do the reporters report that scientists at East Anglia University threw away their data.

Yet the intensity of the response highlights that skepticism about global warming persists, even as many scientists thought the battle over the reality of human-driven climate change was finally behind them.

The quick impression a reader will get from the above graf is that none of the skepticism exists in the mind of scientists.

On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated.

This graf is beautiful. The reporters undercut the importance by emphasizing that foes of GHG restrictions are using the Climategate information and that they take daily aim. So this latest info is simply grist for their mill. Actually, I think the reporters are right on this one. But some of the skeptics and "foes," at least, are taking aim with scientific arguments, a fact that the reporters avoid.

I could go on. The remaining grafs are in the same vein.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Tom West writes:

As someone who believe that AGW is probable (although less so after ClimateGate), I think your takedown of the NYT article is spot on and beautiful example of how to bias an article.

I'm bookmarking this one as an example for my kids on how to look for media bias, even when the bias is in their favored direction.

Eric writes:

USA Today's front page story today on climate change also looks like it would be perfectly at home in a liberal opinion magazine. So far, I haven't seen USA Today report on climategate at all (it could have been buried somewhere or I could have missed the day). Instead of giving page 1 to the most important climate story of the last ten years, the headline reads "For them, climate change summit is God's work" and proceeds to discuss religious involvement in the prevention of "climate change". Despite the fact that Global warming ranked dead last in a survey of issues considered important by evangelicals.

http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27235

Newspapers are already losing out to the internet in speed, where they can't compete. It boggles my mind that they write stories like these which alienate ~half of their potential readership.

Bob Murphy writes:

Wow that is stunning. You even noticed a few things that had escaped my eye, David. The casual reader would have no idea of what those files contained.

mark writes:

Had the same reaction, even though I am a strong believer in the global warming thesis. This was a particularly egregious abandonment of journalistic principles. Loved the 30 Rock quote, btw!

SydB writes:

"Normally, reporters are taught to use the first graf to say the most important thing."

This may be true in a basic sense, but in practice, no. Look at the adjacent article "Secret's Out" in NYT. They start with a more general statement to set the ground, then the important statement is in the following "graphs." I think if you actually look at this from an unbiased perspective you will find this more true than not.

" How do you attack the science? Well, by being unscientific, of course."

Not true. Science always attacks science. It's the way science works.

"Finally, in the third graf, we get to the news item."

No. The import of this present article is the United Nations meeting in the presence of the controversy. Therefore the article sets the frame just about right. The NYT already reported on the climate emails.

" Now, I have a problem with theft too, but at this point, is that the most important thing about the files? "

Oh come on. How are they going to provide all the details of the file in one sentence. They mention the emails, which were stolen. That sets the stage.

"Notice also that it does introduce the idea that the files have led some to question the scientific basis, but instead of quoting scientists who question it, it refers only to a government, and a not very reputable one at that."

The article is about COUNTRIES attending the United Nations. Therefore that is a key issue. What do the COUNTRIES attending the summit think. Are there other countries you have in mind that have expressed such sharp skepticism as Saudi Arabia has (now and in the past)?

"Notice the emotive words: "complicate," "ensnared," "difficult," "abandon hopes." "

The sentence is factual and accurate.

"The reporters lead in by telling us that an array of scientists and policy makers say it's no big deal. It's also true that an array of scientists and policy makers say it is a big deal."

Can you provide a balanced view of those who think it not a big deal versus those who do?

"Also, nowhere do the reporters report that scientists at East Anglia University threw away their data."

Do you think particle physicists have all their data from the 1980s, data that has been used to help us believe the truth of the standard model of physics? Do economists have all their raw data from all the papers they've published 30 years ago? This is ridiculous. Of course they don't.

"The quick impression a reader will get from the above graf is that none of the skepticism exists in the mind of scientists."

That's because most of the skepticism exists in the minds of people who don't understand the science. So the sentence is true.

"The reporters undercut the importance by emphasizing that foes of GHG restrictions are using the Climategate information and that they take daily aim. "

It's entirely accurate. For example, you've spent a lot of your time analyzing this article, yet there are many many articles you could analyze on topics such as economic reporting. But you're focused on global warming. The attention and political pressure on the scientists is enormous. The sciences of evolution and global warming are both under attack from those with ideological axes to grind.

You prove the political true in your very lengthy analysis.

Greg Ransom writes:

You do know that the writer of this "news" story is friends with the former head of the climate research group at UEA, right?

And that his correspondence is PART of the emails released by the hackers?

And he is shown to be a propaganda conduit for the views and misinformation of the UEA scientists in those emails?

The NY Times and its reporters are PART of this modern day Piltdown Man story.

History will not be kind -- if non-leftist history exists in the future.

DaveL writes:

"Also, nowhere do the reporters report that scientists at East Anglia University threw away their data."

They threw away their copies of the raw data they got from various meteorological agencies. Presumably you throw away your old issues of The New York Times when you no longer need them, too.

RL writes:

I think the NYT was right to focus on the stolen nature of the emails. I remember that was their main concern during the Pentagon Papers episode...

Matt C writes:

I only skimmed, but it looked like they left out the part where the CRU guys were conspiring to delete data that was requested under the U.K. freedom of information laws.

I see this very damning information left out of many articles on the climate emails. When it's left out, I know the author is trying to spin the issue.

I think that all of the data and all of the code used to generate any part of the IPCC reports should be made public. The climate research community should not be allowed to just publish graphs and conclusions any more without their data and methods being open to the public.

All of the data, all of the code.

Silas Barta writes:

Thanks so much for posting this, David_Henderson! This is exactly the kind of thing I mean when I talk about media bias, and why so much of the debate misses the point by talking about leanings of journalists. It's the framing of the story -- which you have identified here -- that gives it the bias.

(Yes, I'm the same Silas Barta that make the joke about M. Friedman's critics that you liked.)

SydB writes:

I'm not convinced that scientists should be forced to release the source code for models. A better approach is to have multiple modeling groups that operate on the raw data and then output results can be verified. The basic theories and data as inputs should result in similar outputs. Before requiring those in the global warming community to release their source code to the public, I'd ask those to verify whether this is standard practice in the science community. I'd think not.

As far as the pentagon papers, it's ironic that a PhD economist stole them from the pentagon. The judicial system threw out the case against him and the supreme court 6-3 decided the information should be published.

Daniel Klein writes:

Excellent, I love this kind of criticism.

Two things to improve it.

Treat the NYT article title:

In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril

Give the names of the reporters you criticize:

By ANDREW C. REVKIN and JOHN M. BRODER

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear All,
Don't have time to respond to all above. Some highlights, in no particular order:
Dan Klein,
Good point. Should have done it. I normally do, but forgot to.
RL,
Love your humor.
SydB,
I don't see the irony. But, BTW, I did favor this particular "theft": I'm not even sure whether it's theft to use your own money to copy government documents. At least how I remember that section of Ellsberg's book, Secrets. I lost my autographed copy in my fire.:-( Another BTW, I took a lot of heat from one of my UCLA mentors, Jack Hirshleifer, for appearing on the same stage at Berkeley with Ellsberg when we were both opposing the Iraq war.
Silas Barta,
You're welcome.
Matt C,
Thanks for filling in that important fact I left out.
DaveL,
I don't think of data as being like old copies of NYT. But, then again, as my post shows, I don't have a high opinion of NYT.
Greg Ransom,
Wow! I had no idea. I will check this out.
Tom West,
Thanks. I know you have been one of my critics and so I particularly appreciate this.
Best,
David

SydB writes:

In the private sector, making copies of what are commonly referred to as trade secrets is illegal and would be referred to as theft of trade secrets. Though different in the public domain, the information taken was not public.

I'm not arguing against that particular act, but I think it can be referred to as a "theft" of sorts.

Eric writes:

Here is the response of the NYT public editor to the conflict of interest of author Andy Revkin.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/opinion/06pubed.html?_r=1

SWH writes:

Actually, as demonstration of bias goes, I found the NYT article unnewsworthy. In general, it is difficult to report on controversy without creating, in some minds and from some perspective, bias. A reader with intelligence understands this and filters and moderates for himself. Readers without sufficient intelligence for this cannot be helped anyway.

Matt C writes:

SydB said:

I'm not convinced that scientists should be forced to release the source code for models. A better approach is to have multiple modeling groups that operate on the raw data and then output results can be verified.

And why is this better? It accomplishes the goal of keeping the methods secret and only available to insiders, but for most of us that is not important. Is there any other intent here?

Before requiring those in the global warming community to release their source code to the public, I'd ask those to verify whether this is standard practice in the science community. I'd think not.

Maybe it should be, for publicly funded research. It is now practical in a way that it was not prior to the Internet.

In any case, climate research is special. There are literally trillions of dollars at stake, and there is solid evidence of dubious competence and criminal dishonesty by very influential people.

The only way to put global warming conclusions on a trustworthy footing again is to release all of the data and all of the code, so that people with hostile intent can reproduce the results from the bottom up, and then criticize them.

I can understand why climate scientists don't want to do this. I wouldn't, if I were a climate researcher. But if they don't, no reasonable person will believe what they are doing is science any more.

Walt French writes:

Regards the issue that the emails were stolen: the provenance of the emails indicates that they were communicated to the public for a political purpose. This is confirmed by the interpretation subsequently put onto the emails by those who received them -- Fox bloviators and such noted climate scientists as Sarah Palin have gone to their pulpits and into print (the colorful WashPo) totally misstating the contents as well as the reasonable interpretation of them.

Although the NYT elected not to get into the he-said/she-said side of the content, I think it's appropriate to note that the BS claims made by friends of the thieves have done a lot to drown out reasoned discussion of the issues. In fact, maybe that IS the news.

Seems like the NYT nailed it, without getting all argumentative.

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