Early news story on climate. From the August 30, 1884 edition of the New York Times.
Early news story on climate. From the August 30, 1884 edition of the New York Times.

By Evan

As with many people, I always had a ritual of sitting down to read or watch the news in the morning. This has been something I have done for the past 13 years, when I was in my first year of university (showing my age here). Whether newspapers, TV news programs, or news websites, I usually spent an average of one hour a day absorbing the events of the world.

One day back in August, I decided, no more. I think that the constant load of bad news had led me to have a negative viewpoint in life. Since that day, I have not read news websites or newspapers, and I no longer turn on the news while having breakfast in the morning, opting instead to listen to the great radio station, ABC Dig Music (seriously, it is one of the greatest music stations ever).

How have the past couple of months gone? Without the distraction of the news, I have had an extra hour of productive time. Instead of news, I can instead spend the time browsing through the latest Science or Nature, for instance. I am spending more time exercising (health of body, health of mind). During this time, I have not felt that I am missing out on anything important. If there is a major news event (i.e. the US government shutting down, or an Australian politician staying something really stupid), I have more than enough friends to inform me.

This has got me thinking, what has happened to the news and how it has been reported in the past decade? The advent of widely accessible Internet has put a lot of pressure on investigative journalism. Reports on major news stories happen so quickly that it is no longer possible for print media to be the predominant source of information in society. The proliferation of blogs and other forms of social media communication has also forced major media companies to pander to an audience that advertisers can justify paying for.

This has led to the transformation of news into “newpinion” (a word I just made up now). News no longer represents some neutral account of events. Writers of news now have to pander to a wildly opinionated audience that either fully supports some extreme, or completely opposes it. At first, it was largely tabloids that were responsible for newpinion, but recently also become the focus of state media like the ABC. Maybe it has been going on longer than this, but I have just completely been blinded. Who knows. All I know is the last time I went back to Canada, and watched CBC News Network (formerly Newsworld), it basically was a 15 minute loop of the current top 3 or 4 stories, interrupted by opinion shows. I’m pretty sure it used to be better.

Of course, this is an earth science blog, and nothing has been front and center in the global news more than climate change. The IPCC Report was formally released this weekend, and with it a stronger stance that the observed global warming during the past century is largely caused by human activity. Yet, during the formation of the document, many of the biggest headlines have been trying hard to cast doubt on the conclusions of the report. Most of these articles are written in the form of “newpinion”. For instance, I searched Google News for a random article on the IPCC, and came across this ABC News report. The headline reads “IPCC faces criticism ahead of report’s release”. In this report, they interview a scientist who says “yep, things are going the way the IPCC report says, but as with any big document, some mistakes crept in”, an descenting engineer who literally says “science is actually about diversity of opinions and then testing those opinions” (really?), and a writer who says that the IPCC authors are being “bitchy”. The real distraction in all of this is that there is no focus on the actual finding of the report, but rather that some people’s opinion of it. It is disappointing to read this piece, especially since few climate scientists would object to the rather cautious reporting of the IPCC. It goes far further than this. Here are some of the headlines I got off Google News with a simple search of “IPCC”:

  • Climate change ‘scientists’ are just another pressure group
  • Hide: Climate panel leaves me cold
  • Top Scientists Confirm: Humans Suck
  • Let’s be honest – the global warming debate isn’t about science
  • Global warming sceptics using media campaign to discredit IPCC
  • Not so global warming after all
  • Networks Embrace IPCC Report’s Fraudulent Warnings
  • The IPCC needs Obama’s team of spin masters to survive their latest report
  • Meteorologist Eric Holthaus’ vow to never to fly again draws praise, criticism
  • Climate deniers in their own universe
  • Liberal media huddles to re-hype global warming
  • IPCC report makes US meteorologist cry – and give up flying

And so on. Most of these headlines come from legitimate news organizations. When I look at how news is reported, I feel very comfortable with my decision to stop paying attention. Investigative journalism has now largely been supplanted by opinion, reformations of wire stories or pure fluff. This serves as a challenge to well intentioned scientists wanting to have a go at publicizing results. The great irony is that the best way to do this is likely to go the opinion route and get bloggers aboard. In all likelihood, it is impossible to convince those who would read something like “Liberal media huddles to re-hype global warming”. Preaching to the choir? Yes, but what else can be done? The only other option is to ignore the news, with the realization that it may not really matter any more.