Times' Revkin addresses critics' questions of objectivity in journalists' climate reporting

With some critics accusing journalists of bias when reporting on climate change, science reporters are fervently defending their objectivity. During today's OnPoint, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin discusses challenges facing science reporters. He addresses Hollywood's influence in bringing climate change into the mainstream. Revkin also discusses his book "The North Pole Was Here" and talks about his experiences reporting from the North Pole.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining me today in Washington is Andy Revkin, reporter from the New York Times and author of the book, "The North Pole Was Here." Andy thanks for coming on the show.

Andrew Revkin: It's my pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've recently written that global warming, covering global warming, feels like breaking news. How did that come to be?

Andrew Revkin: Well, just as anyone who's read a magazine or turned on the TV lately has seen, there's been a spate of coverage recently. It's not the first time there's been a burst of news on this. Back in 1988, when I first wrote a cover story for magazine on global warming, it was another burst of interest. Very different at the time, it was the burning of the Amazon and record hot temperatures here is that kind of woke us up. Now it's sort of the melting of the Arctic and record hot temperatures and strong hurricanes that have got everybody kind of percolating.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've written in your book about how the New York Times covered global warming, there's headlines in there. But the New York Times has been covering global warming, in some respects, for quite a long time.

Andrew Revkin: Yeah, when I did this book I went back through all of our clips, right to 1851. We have searchable databases now going back to 1851. And it was fascinating what you pulled up. There was a story about a lecture given in New York City about the theory that there was a hole at the North Pole and South Pole, that literally -- the Hollow Earth theory. And this was a seriously discussed issue, just about -- actually, almost 100 years ago.

Darren Samuelsohn: When did the New York Times actually write about man-made contributions to climate change? When do you think was the first time?

Andrew Revkin: Well, the first story I could see was in 1956. There was a series of stories by a guy whose name is -- who actually predates Walter Sullivan, who kind of has been defined as our pioneering science writer, but this is before him. This was the year I was born. And there were stories written then, that he wrote then, that just could be written today. The same issues are there. He was saying fossil fuels are cheap and abundant. We'll keep burning them until it's costly to do so and, for the moment, it's not.

Darren Samuelsohn: The policy players have changed, obviously, but you're saying the scientific debate, in some respects -- the debate has largely been sort of like a Groundhog Day.

Andrew Revkin: Well, it's been this ---yeah, just -- I've been talking, even today, at a meeting on journalism and science. And there are aspects of this I just keep coming around and coming around. The science has built steadily and relentlessly over time, but the nature of the science hasn't really changed that much. In fact, the projections of the next hundred years really haven't changed in 30 years, sort of 3, 5, 7 degree warming globally.

Darren Samuelsohn: What do you think that the Vice President, former Vice President Al Gore's movie has done for the climate debate? Has that got more Americans talking about it than ever before?

Andrew Revkin: Probably, numerically, yes, maybe. Whether it's changed the discourse, meaning getting people to shift -- you know, to think about what to do about it, I don't know. That's more of an open question. In fact, the movie is mostly about the science, which is -- the primer part of the movie is probably serving a valuable purpose there. But I think there's just a few minutes at the end about what to do about it. And some people have criticized it for not going in that direction more. When I interviewed Gore about it, you know, he said, well, there's a whole other sequel to make.

Darren Samuelsohn: "An Inconvenient Truth," part two?

Andrew Revkin: I don't know, yeah, we'll see.

Darren Samuelsohn: Would you give Laurie David credit for also bringing this issue to the forefront for public attention?

Andrew Revkin: Well, there's four forces of nature, earth, air, wind, fire, and Laurie David, as far as I can tell. She's this dynamo and I think she probably had a big role in making that film happen, more so than Gore himself in a way.

Darren Samuelsohn: Explain, what does it take to get a story about global warming in the New York Times?

Andrew Revkin: Well, you're up against every possible kind of hurdle. A newspaper is biased toward stuff that happened today, war, you know the latest thing in Lebanon, earthquake, the tsunami. I wrote about it last week. And we're biased against things that are laden with uncertainty or that are sort of prospective. And global warning is kind of the antithesis of news as we've known it, through the 20th century at any rate. I think it's fairly typical of the kind of thing we're going to have to consider in the newspapers and in the media generally in the 21st century, which we're well into now. But we're still sort of stuck in our 20th-century mode, that an environmental problem is Exxon Valdez. A drunken ship captain runs a tanker onto a reef in a pristine ecosystem. That's news, but the slow doubling of a greenhouse gas that could raise temperatures, raise sea levels, change climate patterns profoundly, could, conditional, in ways that are unpleasant. That's the harder to get into a newspaper.

Darren Samuelsohn: Was the longest amount of time you've ever had to fight to get a story into the New York Times?

Andrew Revkin: More than one year.

Darren Samuelsohn: And what was that?

Andrew Revkin: Well, actually I haven't gotten it in yet, but I'm working on a set of stories on -- essentially on inevitable disasters of various kinds. The idea really percolated after the tsunami of 2004, so that's getting to be a while.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've written about James Hansen's, the censorship, the muzzling of him. Why have you focused on public officials who are not allowed to talk to the press?

Andrew Revkin: Well, I kind of, part of my beat, besides covering the science of climate for a long time, has been, almost unwittingly, it's not like I wanted to do this, but I'm sort of the truth police. And it's not just when someone on, let's say, the industry side of the issue tries to sort of fiddle with the facts. But earlier this year I wrote a piece sort of critiquing the argument that this was a here and now catastrophe, which has been made by a lot of people in the media and some of the documentaries. So if I see science, the body of understanding that's built up over a long period of time, being torqued in some way or another, in an intentional way to push it away from where the understanding is, that's something I write about.

Darren Samuelsohn: Did you see the Clinton administration torquing science when it came to climate change?

Andrew Revkin: Well, I only wrote one story. See, I was covering, I wish I had, it's like an experiment, you know, you need a control. And I wasn't covering the Clinton administration. I wasn't covering global warming for the paper through the, I took on the beat at the Times in 2000, right as the changing of the guard was happening. I did write one story in '97 or '98 that was a "Week in Review" piece assessing what was and wasn't happening there. And it was relatively critical as well. So I think I would've done the same thing for them. And there's been a lot of discussion about how little was done under that administration. In a way, they got a free pass on this issue for long time.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think the media has started to hype the issue too much in terms of the Time magazine cover story, "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid?"

Andrew Revkin: My sense is maybe it's an overcorrection from a lot of years of being equivocal about it and being apt to use the crutch of balance. You know, something happened in science today related to climate. So-and-so says it's important, so-and-so says it's not. That, I think, did interfere with coverage for a long time. And now I think if anything, there's been a tendency to say, well, all of the uncertainty is gone. And it's clear cut that this is a catastrophe unfolding. And my sense of the science, after writing about this for nearly 20 years, is that's not so easy either. The basics are clear cut, more carbon dioxide, warmer world; warmer world, less ice; less ice, higher seas. That scenario is hard to dispute, but when you get into how this will affect grape growing in the Sierra Nevada's or something, then it gets tougher, so all the things that matter to us are the tougher parts of the questions.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think we will see more journalists connecting the dots between a heat wave, a drought, a hurricane with global warming going forward, based on what the science says?

Andrew Revkin: So far, most of the coverage I've seen of whether this extreme event is our fault, has been careful enough to say it's a statistical issue. In other words, you can't link a particular heat wave, even the one out West right now, around the United States, to human caused global warming. It's the kind of thing you can expect more of in a warmer world. I've seen coverage that basically follows that pattern and I think that's the right way to go.

Darren Samuelsohn: And your book now, the "North Pole Was Here," what made you pick the North Pole and what were you looking to find out?

Andrew Revkin: Well, I started my whole science writing career focused more on things like tropical coral reefs and rainforest. I love warm places. But all of the significant change in climate, the most significant changes in climate, the most measurable changes have been in the Arctic. So I had to kind of buy, go to my Cabela's catalog and buy all of this insulated stuff, layers of underwear, and head north. And I've been north three times to the Arctic in three years. And I got the chance to go to the North Pole, not just to go to North Pole, but because scientists are trying to answer one of the little data points we don't have in this whole picture of what's happening in a warming world, is what's happening in the Arctic Ocean. And we even forget there's an ocean under that ice up there. And I didn't forget it at all, because when you're standing there, on that 14,000 foot deep ocean, the ice under your feet is vibrating and chugging and cracking. And scientists are out there trying to do hard work in these conditions. And I was trying to do a portrait, in the book, of science, the process of science, how we learn things and then the value of the ideas once they're learned.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are all the scientists up there doing experiments with global warming in mind or are there other issues that they're out there working on too?

Andrew Revkin: The team that I was with is focused mainly on climate, not just the question of whether humans are driving change, but literally, the basic questions of what's happening in the different layers of that deep ocean that's more like a giant lake than an ocean because it's so hemmed in by land. And we just don't know a lot about it. So they're just trying to get the first consistent database at a place that's been impossible to do anything for the longest time.

Darren Samuelsohn: How has working on this book and taking the trip influenced your reporting for the New York Times?

Andrew Revkin: Well, you know, initially I went on the trip to report for the New York Times. It was a series of stories and I did a Web, an interactive Web thing from the sea ice and filed pictures and blogged. And the book idea came after I got back. In a sense, you know I could've written a book for grown-ups just as easily on this issue and I think the book really plays for everybody. But I feel the one element I haven't been doing, and I kind of feel irresponsible in my career, is writing for children. Because you can't confront the climate problem, responsibly, without dealing with the fact that it's affecting more than one generation. You know, we're essentially shaping our children's climate according to many experts. And so they're part of the conversation. So now I'm contributing, I've broadened my journalism to include them.

Darren Samuelsohn: Your book has caught the attention of Senator Jim Inhofe's staff, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. It was listed among several journalism outlets, I guess you could call them, Tom Brokaw's Discovery Channel documentary and the Associated Press's coverage of Al Gore's movie. Saying that there's questions about objectivity in the press and that there's a love fest in the media about global warming. How do you respond to Senator Inhofe questioning your objectivity?

Andrew Revkin: Well, the book is very much science driven. It lets the scientists speak and show what it's all about. It's, by far, the least inflammatory book out there on this issue and there's no spin, it's a no-spin zone. I don't believe in spin. In fact, I've worked hard to kind of cut that away, parse that away and see what we really know and don't know and need to know. And the book really lays that out. It's a portrait of the once and future Arctic.

Darren Samuelsohn: Senator Inhofe is one of the most outspoken critics of the science, a skeptic or denier, what have you. How do you deal with skeptics when you're doing your reporting? Do they get any say whatsoever in your stories?

Andrew Revkin: Yeah, well it depends on the story. If I'm writing about science I talk to scientists who are publishing peer-reviewed work in the field I'm writing about. If it's about what's happening with Greenland's ice, I talk to people who understand the dynamics of glaciers and ice sheets in that part of the world. And that if I'm talking about policy questions in a story, what do we do about it? How dangerous is climate change? How much is too much? Then I reach farther out, and I would be more apt to quote someone from, let's say, World Wildlife Fund and someone from the Cato Institute or one of the groups that shapes the industry position. Because they are, that's where that discourse broadens. The science stories, if I'm writing about an assessment of a new research project, then I talk to scientists alone.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. It's in bookstores now. Andy, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Andrew Revkin: It's my pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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