Why It's Called News

Bud Ward has a nice dispatch on the AAAS session I wrote about last month, including this revealing back-and-forth I had wanted to follow up on:

Another exchange involving an audience member “” in this case Peter Gleick, the head of the Pacific Institute “” also helped illustrate fundamentally different approaches distinguishing the media and the science community.

[Seth] Borenstein had noted in his prepared remarks that through December 2010, NOAA recordkeeping had indicated 311 consecutive months in which world mean temperature, land and ocean, had been warmer than normal.

That has been the case for each month since February 1985, Borenstein said “” the month that actor Mel Gibson was named People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” and Minolta had introduced the world’s first auto-focus single lens reflex camera.

Borenstein said he had been eager to see if a cool January 2011 might end that 311-month streak, which he said would provide a strong “record-broken” peg for a story.

Gleick, a respected water resources expert, wasn’t buying it. “Why isn’t 312 straight months a story?” Gleick asked. His question prompted comments of approval from a number of climate scientists in the audience.

Borenstein’s response: “It is the equivalent of planes landing safely every day.” He schooled the audience that more of the same isn’t news for most editors and reporters. What makes news is breaking that mold, not simply sustaining it yet again, he explained. Again, it was an exchange that helped illuminate some of the differing thought patterns that distinguish scientists and journalists.

39 Responses to “Why It's Called News”

  1. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    To extend this message: since anthropogenic global warming is settled science, it would be professionally irresponsible of journalists to report new developments that add evidence because it’s an old story. However, when a single anomalous datum disagrees with the general picture, it is journalistically responsible to report the anomaly because that’s new.
    To the news-reader, this means lots of attention to isolated anomalies but no attention to the overwhelming majority of data that support the scientific consensus.
    Put this together with the well-known psychological phenomenon, the “availability heuristic,” and you can see how the general public that gets its information from news media can fail to understand how solid the evidence is that human activity is changing climate. The public sees stories about things at odds with AGW (these are new), but very little about things that support AGW (that’s old).
    Yes, I’m exaggerating for effect, and it’s perhaps not the business of the news media to educate the public in basic science, but the rules of the news business mean that if the public gets its information about climate exclusively from news media, then it will get a distorted picture that exaggerates doubt.

  2. NewYorkJ says:

    Claims of scientists behaving badly, or someone “disproving” global warming certainly seem more compelling than “it’s still warming” and “it’s still human activities”.  And there’s certainly no shortage of those willing to make the catchy claims.

    The measure Borenstein is talking about isn’t particularly interesting.  “Normal” is whatever the base period is, and the likelihood of being below that for a given month is dependent on that, the short-term climate influences like ENSO, and what is being measured (satellite record being more sensitive to ENSO swings).  Although I think UAH moving their base period up 10 years to 1981-2010 is defensible enough, it can potentially be misused by journalists seeking that “below normal” story.  Human activities have rapidly changed what is defined as “normal”, much more quickly than slower natural changes.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    Perhaps you read past Bud’s explanation for Seth’s reasoning (which Seth discussed):

    “Borenstein said he had been eager to see if a cool January 2011 might end that 311 month streak, which he said would provide a strong “record-breaking” peg for the story.”

    During the exchange, Seth further elaborated why this would be a good hook for the story–because it would give him a news reason to write about those 311 consecutive months.

    Again, it’s vital that people understand how daily journalism works (I’m not talking about enterprise or investigative stories), but the majority of  stuff that people read and tune into every day.

  4. grypo says:

    This reinforces the idea that the current make-up of the media is somewhat useless in reporting the problem that faces the public.  This exchange highlights that even though the press has done a better job at representing the correct balance within particular stories, the small amount of contrarian stories will get the lion-share of the attention.  Do you think that is accurate based on this exchange?  I’m not trying to downplay the importance of media for other venues, just this particular story.

  5. Gaythia says:

    It probably won’t work to ask the media how well they think that this journalistic model works for the rest of the world, but perhaps it would help if we focused their attention on contemplating just how well they think it works for themselves.

  6. grypo says:

    Actually, strike what I just said.  I need to think this through a little better.

  7. Keith Kloor says:


    I think if the media universe wasn’t greatly expanded in the digital age, I would be pretty frustrated by it. But if you look at my blogroll, many are blogs that expand/process/draw attention to those spot news stories, adding context to them, and even helping to facilitate wider discussion.

    Personally, I’d like to see more reporting-centric blogging, as well, but that’s a different story. (For example, see what Julia Whitty does at the MoJo’s Blue Marble. I’m a big fan of that.)

  8. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Keith. Yes, I saw that, but it’s significant that there’s no hook for the 311 months without the anomaly. The response to Gleick says that as long as ALL the data falls in line with the AGW story, there’s no story there.
    What I’m worried about here is that the way people assimilate new information, the reader is likely to walk away remembering the single anomalous month more than the 311 preceding months. Similar to the way that a news report of a fatal shark attack may mention how rare shark attacks are compared to ordinary drownings or fatal car wrecks on the way to or from the beach; but when the reader puts the paper down, it’s the shark that sticks in his mind.

  9. Keith Kloor says:


    I understand your point, and certainly it’s not as if a single anomalous month is the only way to write about this story. But it is the fresh hook for that particular story, which I have to stress again, didn’t sound as if it would have been the emphasis for Seth’s would-be the story. He made clear that it was merely an entry to discuss the 311 preceding months. So if that’s the focus of his story, I’d say there’s a good chance readers would walk way understanding that.

  10. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    One more thing, to clarify: Just because the rules of the news business make it difficult for the news to present an accurate picture of climate science doesn’t mean this is the fault of the news media.
    Rather, the lesson I take away is that scientists who would like the public to understand the state of science more accurately ought to look at different venues for communicating with the public. Journalism is what it is and demanding that it be something else is mostly futile.

  11. Sashka says:

    @ Jonathan (1)

    We all expect that the sun rise tomorrow morning and every day thereafter. I hope we all (including mass media) agree that this is not an interesting piece of news. However if the sun does NOT rise one of these days I assure you it will hit all news wires and front pages. You know why, right? It’s because such a hypothetical event would clearly prove that we actually don’t understand something that we thought we did. So, if you believe that AGW is a settled science I don’t see what you find wrong in the picture. I am exaggerating for effect, you know.

    That said, the evidence that climate change is anthropogenic is very scarce. Therefore I actually agree that new pieces of evidence should be published. For good or bad there is nothing to report though.

  12. Michael Tobis says:

    It is very hard for me to understand Borenstein’s response, not only because 311 warm months really does constitute a story. I simply don’t buy it.

    I think Borentein’s analogy is completely unconvincing. It is nothing at all like “airplanes landing safely”. It is more like “gasoline prices up again”, which, though perfectly obvious, gets lots of press. Even people who expect gasoline prices to keep rising talk about it and read about it.
    The idea of a “news hook” is irritating enough when so many crucially important factors in our future are based on gradual shifts and especially on gradual deterioration. But the gasoline price example shows a double standard about it too. We can imagine villains in oil price scenarios, but global warming is everybody’s fault; or at least the fault everybody likely to be consuming journalism.
    So maybe the trouble is that a for-profit press cannot afford to offend its clientele. I can’t really imagine how to build a stable institution for deflating wishful thinking in the broad public unless we build far more successful institutions for public education first.
    But you guys are clever. If you need a news hook you can always come up with one. I don’t buy that you are at the mercy of the elements when it comes to this. I think you just, like everybody else, want the issue to go away. Which of course it stubbornly won’t do, because of facts.

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    Whatever you say, Michael. You’re free to go reinvent the role of the press.

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    Tobis, you have a weblog. You have an audience. You have a message. Be the change that you want to see. Compete in the marketplace of ideas.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    ‘the trouble is that a for-profit press cannot afford to offend its clientele.’
    MT, this is the one of the central themes of Chomsky and Herman’s  thesis in Manufacturing Consent. a good marxist read if you’re into that sort of thing 🙂

    Keith, would you care to indulge me and offer your thoughts on how the media is constrained in the manner in which it covers climate change, in particular as a result of it being a largely for profit enterprise? You touch on some of those constraints (i.e. needing a peg), but I’m curious if you think that the corporate ownership of the media plays any role in how certain topics relating to climate change are covered (or not).  For example, is the energy industry a big owner/ad buyer in media markets etc.).

  16. Eli Rabett says:

    More blame the victim.

  17. Paul Kelly says:

    Until recently NBC and MSNBC were owned by General Elecctric, a major energy industry player. You may remember a couple of years ago, NBC had a Climate Change Week, Global warming was emphasized throughout the network’s programming, including sitcoms. G.E. is still the largest corporate lobbyist. Its CEO has a close relationship with the administration.
    Fox parent ompany News Corp, considered by many a tool of the deniers, just announced it is carbon neutral with a plan to reduce carbon emissions 15% in the near term.

  18. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Thanks for that Paul.  From a Chomskian perspective I think that who owns the outlet is less important than who pays for it.  But this is far from my own area of expertise, and I haven’t spent much time looking at the relationship between advertising buys and climate change coverage in the MSM, so it really is an area where I don’t have strong opinions one way or another (hence the question to Keith)

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    So Keith, why isn’t it the churnalist’s job to tell the public why planes land safely every day?  Oh, Eli knows, it might provide useful information to the public.  Shock.  Horror.

  20. Eli Rabett says:

    Tell you what Keith, put Fuller on moderation and Eli will not complain.  The fact that you let him pollute the environment is a pretty clear indication of your motives and methods.
    [This makes no sense. I let your comments appear on this blog. Others might say the same, that I’m letting you “pollute the environment.” In any case, I tend to be a free speech absolutist. I only moderate for civility, like anyone who edits a letters to the editor page.//KK]

  21. Tom, Keith (#13, #14) Don’t mind if I do.

  22. TimG says:

    There were 360 consecutive minutes of sunshine in New York today. That is not a story. What if there was 1440 consecutive minutes of sunshine in New York today? It would be the lead headline across the globe.

    331 months of temperatures above average is only news if one buys into the ‘climate can’t change without an external forcing’ narrative.

    I also find the complaints about the MSM to be bizarre. For the last 5 years the MSM has done nothing but spew AGW propoganda. The pro-AGW bias has only moderated only slightly since climategate.

    The trouble with this obvious pro-AGW bias is it undermines the credibility of the MSM among informed people on every topic. A useful media must be sceptical of all claims an never take experts at their word.

  23. Tom Fuller says:

    Why isn’t it a profesoor’s job to explain the natural and normal workings of every day life? Too many cute grads to pursue? Too many grants to chase?
    Can’t go giving those kids useful information, of course. Let the companies that hire them train them.
    Now where’s the cooking sherry?

  24. Paul Kelly says:

    Eli looks for a churnalist to whip up some sweet climate butter, for no hoppers in the hutches know how to tell the story. Decades of international reports and global conferences, thousands of climatologists employed by governments, millions or billions spent on university research and no one can put it into words.

  25. Jay Currie says:

    “331 months of temperatures above average is only news if one buys into the “˜climate can’t change without an external forcing’ narrative.”
    Indeed. There have been several decades of warmer temps at various points in the instrumental record. They were not news then and they are not now.
    Seth reveals all we need to know about his journalistic ability when he hopes for a cold January so he can run a warmist story based on not a whole hell of a lot.
    But keep churning. You’ve lost the political fight but you might win over at AP.

  26. Jonathan Gilligan +3

  27. bluegrue says:

    Tom Fuller: <i>Why isn’t it a profesoor’s job […]? Too many cute grads to pursue?</i>
    Keith Kloor: <i>I only moderate for civility</i>
    Thank you, for clearing up your standards of civility.

  28. grypo says:

    Keith, do you think that the current make-up of the media will lead to contrarian stories getting the most attention?  If so, even though this balance has been better represented within the stories themselves, the overall picture will be incredibly flawed.  I’ll echo MT’s statement:
    The idea of a “news hook” is irritating enough when so many crucially important factors in our future are based on gradual shifts and especially on gradual deterioration.

    Is it not worth it to have the world’s largest mouthpiece echoing this?  Is the media’s biggest story that it needs a “hook” to tell the important stories?  And ‘no’, to your next question, I don’t know how to fix that.

  29. Keith Kloor says:

    The MT’s and grypo’s live in an imaginary world. Let’s be clear about something. You can’t have a story every day about global warming on the front page of the NYT. That’s not realistic. But as I said to MT some months ago in a comment at Real Climate, there are literally dozens of global warming-related stories every day–and they can be read in the NYT, the Guardian, and various other newspapers and blogs–internationally, nationally, and locally.

    And for the same reason that only a core group of Glenn Beck fans (though apparently in the millions) will tune into his conspiracy rants daily, only a core group comprised of MT’s and grypo’s will tune into global warming stories that emphasize apocalypse, or even a story about the 331 day of record-breaking temperatures, and the 332 day,and the 333 day…

    For the rest of us, it is the equivalent of this that becomes part of the background.

  30. grypo says:

    You arguing a strawman.  I asked a fairly specific question about story balance.
    “only a core group comprised of MT’s and grypo’s will tune into global warming stories that emphasize apocalypse”
    The stories should revolve around certain elements that humans as a whole value that are at risk, why they area at risk, and possible options.  The reason Beck is wallowing is because he does not have decades of science that back up his deluded conspiracy scenarios.  If the media would like to pretend that these two situations are comparable then this is a much larger problem than I thought.
    For the rest of us, it is the equivalent of this that becomes part of the background.

    Funny how there is a Congressional battle being covered extensively about reducing the national debt.  If this is just background noise, I’ll take it!

  31. Keith Kloor says:

    grypo, if it’s stories you want that “revolve around certain elements that humans as a whole value that are at risk,” I’d say there’s strong evidence that those stories appear every day–many of them are just not global warming related.

  32. Tom Fuller says:

    Grypo (Lord and grypo both please forgive me, I cannot resist…) just because you have decades of science backing up your deluded scenarios does not make them less deluded. (And grant me chastity, too… but not yet…)

  33. Tom Fuller says:

    Tobis, as you bravely venture forth into the world of indifferent media, remember Heinlein’s parable of the brass cannon.

  34. Gaythia says:

    Back up at #10 Jonathan Gillian said: “scientists who would like the public to understand the state of science more accurately ought to look at different venues for communicating with the public.”

    My breakfast reading includes the Loveland Reporter-Herald, balanced somewhat, with the Denver Post.   The Loveland newspaper runs a telephone column, called the R-H line.  This operates like anonymous blog comments would, but is accessible to those who may not be familiar with using a computer.  This, along with its non Boulder, non Fort Collins location, makes it a frequent source of tea party rants.

    This morning, however, someone had submitted and gotten published, the following entry: “Actually, big snowstorms like the ones back East fit perfectly into the global warming model.  A colder atmosphere holds less moisture but a warmer one holds a lot more.  Melting ice caps at the poles also release additional moisture into the atmosphere.  The greater amount of moisture in the air directly equates to bigger snowfall”.

    Quite useful information, placed in a location where people who might need to know might find it.

    The R-H publishes work by columnists like Cal Thomas and George Will.  They run a limited number of AP and McClatchy-Tribune national news stories, but, as I know because I see them in other venues, they frequently edit them for length.  People who read this newspaper are probably generally not supplementing it by getting online after breakfast to read the NYT.  A good number of them probably tune into Fox or similarly oriented talk radio shows.

    I do not think that it is effective to blame the journalists for not educating the public in places like Loveland.  Certainly not for lacking full explanations (which might not have been published, even if they did exist).  But there are things that interested members of the public can do.   Scientists could help, so could experienced journalists.  But all would need to step outside their comfort zone and attempt to figure out how to access people who are outside the traditional big city media outlets.

    But we also need to understand what we are up against.

    The R-H until very recently was owned by a local CO family, the Lehmans, which owned several similar Colorado newspapers.  They recently sold to the MediaNews Group, but retain editorial control (for now?).  The MediaNews Group is apparently the second largest publisher in the nation next to Gannet.  They also own the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post.   So much for real, alternative newspaper outlets.

  35. grypo says:

    Look up the definition of delusion.  Science offers the best possible answers.  What do you base your beliefs on?

  36. NewYorkJ says:

    KK: The MT’s and grypo’s live in an imaginary world. Let’s be clear about something. You can’t have a story every day about global warming on the front page of the NYT. That’s not realistic.

    Maybe I missed it, but could you point out where ME or grypo made that claim?  That appears to be imagined.

  37. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @Gaythia, #34:
    There is more than newspapers and more than the internet. If someone wants to get a clear picture of what we know about climate change, books may be a better medium, and lots of scientists and journalists have published excellent ones that the general public can read. Some of my favorites to recommend to people who want a sense of what scientists know without the technical details include Richard Alley’s “The Two Mile Time Machine,” Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees,” and Wallace Broecker’s “Fixing Climate.”
    I started to list my other favorites by journalists and scientists, aimed at the general public, but the list got way too long to be useful here. I’ll just say that there are far more high-quality, clear, compelling, and accurate books on climate change for the lay reader than almost anyone has time and interest to read.
    When there are so many good, clear, readable books, why do so many scientists insist that the daily news is the only important (or most important) source of information?
    Face-to-face is also very good, sometimes better than internet, books, or even deadline journalism. Al Gore had a brilliant idea with his Climate Project, to educate lots of people to go give personal presentations based on his “Inconvenient Truth.” I don’t like the implementation of Climate Project because it’s so top-down and because it doesn’t seem to do any assessment of how effective it is at educating people; but putting aside quibbles about the details, this model is a great example of something others could build on.
    A viral community-education project (an expert educates a group; each member goes and starts a new group, which he or she leads until everyone learns enough to become a leader him or herself, and so on with exponential growth) might be a very practical model for getting information out on technical subjects more effectively than journalism can do.
    Think creatively and outside the list of familiar and comfortable institutions and technologies.

  38. DeNihilist says:

    and again, I ask, what is a normal temperature? If we look at the last million years, then this whole interglacial period is above “normal”.


  39. […] rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) […]

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