What Flat Earth News means for environmental coverage

Having just finished Nick Davies’ 2008 book Flat Earth News, I’m left with the uneasy feeling that I may have come a little late to the party. The investigative journalists’ favourite investigative journalist (according to a recent Press Gazette survey) turns his pen on his own profession to demonstrate the extent of “falsehood, distortion and propaganda” in the world’s media landscape.

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Written and researched years before the nation became universally appalled at newspaper practices following the phone hacking scandal, the section on the “Dark Arts” of privacy invasion, phone hacking and refuse rummaging is eerily prescient. It really makes you wonder how we let it slide for so long, such is the wealth of evidence Davies trawls out. Perhaps even more shocking, however, are the systemic failings in the global media which create those three titular evils – falsehood, distortion and propaganda – despite the best intentions of reporters. Commercial pressure is cutting down the time reporters have to check stories for the truth. The ultimate result, Davies argues, is that cheap, unnecessarily balanced and safe stories become staple newsroom fare. Exaggeration, PR spin and official government information, however false or distorted, run rampant.

But what is the impact of this malaise on environment and climate coverage? Applying Davies’ rubric, here are five tentative suggestions:

1. The need to balance scientific findings
It’s a cliché that even non-hacks can readily quote: news should tell both sides of every story. Objectivity, balance and fairness are often held up to be unchallengeable journalistic ideals. Of course, the intention of this is admirable as, particularly on contentious moral issues, people will have quite different interpretations of events. However, the reporting of science is a little different. Articles in scientific journals are typically peer-reviewed: they’ve stood up to scrutiny already, even after the initial research. However, our lofty cliché tells us the counter argument needs to be given equal weight even if it comes from a non-scientific, climate sceptic lobby. Suddenly, that ground-breaking piece of research seems less important in the public eye.

2. Following the moral panic
Davies’ tells us that newspapers seize upon a popular outcry and channel it into continuous coverage. Following the readers’ prejudices might distort the truth, but its a good bet if you want to sell a few extra newspapers. Take this winter’s heavy snowfall across the UK. In everyday conversation, people would joke that the likes of Al Gore and those climate scientists were just plain wrong. The several inches of snow and biting temperatures were evidence enough. In an op-ed piece in the Telegraph, London Mayor Boris Johnson lambasted climate change advocates as Britain enjoyed, in his words, a “mini ice age”. Amidst all the shouting, it was barely mentioned that one cold winter means very little for global climate trends.

3. The power of PR
For me, the most shocking section of the book was regarding the ability of public relations teams to harness or throttle media coverage to suit their client’s or company’s ends. Davies cites the example of ExxonMobil who, between 1998 and 2005, spent $15.8 million on 43 front groups, who peddled scientific research in the company’s interest or gave the illusion of popular support for climate scepticism. In search for comment and controversial research, a financially stretched media is an easy target, especially if they don’t have time to check their sources. Especially after the recent Indy revelations about the Koch brothers, the power of subtle corporate PR is very real.

4. Specialist environmental teams are too expensive
Having acknowledged that covering science, and particularly the politically charged sphere of climate coverage, requires a high level of experience and knowledge to avoid potential falsehood and distortion, there is a clear need for a specialist environment team on a newspaper. However, only the Guardian and Independent provide frequent and thorough climate and environment coverage. Does it simply cost too much to hire specialists?

5. Climate change isn’t a popular topic
One of Davies’ ‘rules of production’ in modern newspapers is “Give them what they want”. That means selling stories that will guarantee high readership and thus increase revenue through sales and advertising. Unfortunately for those wanting greater climate or environment coverage, reports of the latest paper from the University of East Anglia or the extinction of a rare toad in the Amazon will never be as popular as the latest Westminster gaffe or celebrity tittle tattle. In addition, the ‘slow burn’ of environmental concerns means that incredibly important stories, like steadily worsening drought or subtle variations in global temperature trends, can never match the immediacy of less globally significant titbits of current affairs.

Have you read Nick Davies’ book? Have you seen any particularly distorted climate coverage? Then again, how can you really be sure?

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