They could study this in journalism schools: NYT v WaPo on climate emails

By James Fallows

This is a long post, but likely about the last one for several days, so it all evens out...

I am trying to avoid gratuitous NYT/WaPo comparisons, because like all publications they are trying their best in difficult conditions. I subscribe to both and wish them both well. But their respective front-page stories on the same subject -- two days ago in the Post, and this morning in the NYT -- present a very interesting contrast. Both stories are about the leaked/stolen emails from the University of East Anglia and what they may say about the basic science of climate change.

Let's start with the story in today's NYT story. The added emphasis is from me:

In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril


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."

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.

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.

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.

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.


On Saturday, also on its front page, the Washington Post reported the same story this way:

    -- In e-mails, science of warming is hot debate

Stolen files of 'Climate-gate' suggest some viewpoints on change are disregarded

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, December 5, 2009

It began with an anonymous Internet posting, and a link to a wonky set of e-mails and files. Stolen, apparently, from a research center in Britain, the files showed the leaders of climate-change science discussing flaws in their own data, and seemingly scheming to muzzle their critics.

Now it has mushroomed into what is being called "Climate-gate," a scandal that has done what many slide shows and public-service ads could not: focus public attention on the science of a warming planet.

Except now, much of that attention is focused on the science's flaws. Leaked just before international climate talks begin in Copenhagen -- the culmination of years of work by scientists to raise alarms about greenhouse-gas emissions -- the e-mails have cast those scientists in a political light and given new energy to others who think the issue of climate change is all overblown.

The e-mails don't say that: They don't provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle.

But they do raise hard questions. In an effort to control what the public hears, did prominent scientists who link climate change to human behavior try to squelch a back-and-forth that is central to the scientific method? Is the science of global warming messier than they have admitted?

The two stories are worth reading in full, and side-by-side. I won't belabor all the contrasts and implications but will make this point: A very frequent criticism of the mainstream press is that reporters are hesitant to say, "This is true, and that is false." Instead, they usually feel safest in the "critics contend" zone, "neutrally" reporting what each side says. Eg, "Critics contend that the health-care reform bill will require the elderly to face 'death panels'; Administration officials disagree."

In this case one big-time paper, the Post, sticks with "critics contend," while the other presents a contrast between "decades of peer-reviewed science" and politically-motivated opposition. Moreover, the NYT presents the controversy as something that might get in the way of deliberations in Copenhagen; while the Post presents it as a scandal in which "wonky" emails may not constitute "proof" that climate change is a "lie or a swindle" but still justify introducing "lie" and "swindle" as possibilities.

Not to overdramatize, but: in a way the papers are betting their reputations with these articles. The Times, that climate change is simply a matter of science versus ignorance; the Post, that this is best treated as another "-Gate" style flap where it's hard to get to the bottom of the story. While I don't claim to be a climate expert, the overwhelming balance of what I've read convinces me that the Times's approach is right. For now, I'm mainly noting the stark contrast. (Thanks to S. Corneliussen for tip.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/12/they-could-study-this-in-journalism-schools-nyt-v-wapo-on-climate-emails/31342/