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Bias in Reporting?

November 14, 2009

Roger Pielke Sr. has a post up on his blog in which he charges that the news media have a bias in their reporting. As evidence of this, he links to three climate-related press releases that came out on the same day, one of which records record high and low temperatures, the other two of which point to land use changes and their impacts on climate.

His post is interesting for what it intimates, but I think he’s overstepping by suggesting that there’s a media bias. At least, what he offers as evidence isn’t strong enough to support such a claim. There are three related questions here, none of which he addresses. First, is this actually bias? Second, if so, what is this bias privileging? And third, is there anything problematic about this bias?

For instance…

On the first question, I can think of several other explanations that help me understand why some articles are getting more press than others. One is that the question about high and low temperatures (surface or otherwise) is more interesting to more people — much like the horrific story of the chimpanzee that ate a woman’s face — so the media may be more likely to might pick it up. Another is that NCAR has more sophisticated public relations machinery than Georgia Tech or Purdue. Yet a third is that, notwithstanding the sophistication of the public relations machinery, the press releases may simply have not been distributed in the right way. Many, many good ideas don’t get picked up by the press. Many, many good books don’t make it out onto the market. Many, many good musicians, artists, actors, academics, thinkers, businesspeople, products, ideas, patents, stories and on and on don’t make it into the limelight. These missed successes don’t have much to do with bias. They have more to do with bad packaging, branding, promulgation, promotion, uniqueness, and other such factors.

On the second question, it’s unclear to me what the alleged bias might be privileging. Is it that the media privileges surface temperature data over their causation? That it privileges CO2 and GHG causal explanations over land use explanations? That it downplays land use questions due to some inherent objection to GHGs? Or due to some bucolic and romanticized view of land? Or due to lack of information? Or is it that it privileges information that comes from institutions with a bigger and more impressive sounding name? (No offense to Purdue and Georgia Tech, but NCAR is clearly the heaviest hitter in the climate arena.) I’m only getting started. There are many more questions.

On the third question, is this alleged bias problematic? In other words, we can understand a bias either observationally and descriptively — as in, it is descriptively the case that A has a bias for Y things over Z things — or we could understand the bias normatively and prescriptively — as in, it ought to, or ought not to, be the case that A has a bias for Y things over Z things. If we understand it descriptively, then we run into the problem that we cannot observe bias. We only ever observe behaviors, which may or may not indicate bias. The fact that A continues to publish Y things over Z things is not necessarily evidence of bias. In order to demonstrate bias, we need to identify salient features of the issues in question and determine whether the selection of Y over Z things makes sense. And that raises our prescriptive concern. If we understand the charge of bias prescriptively, then we run into the problem of justification, partly nodded at above. There are indeed times to when it makes sense to privilege Y things over Z things, as when an issue is more salient, or more interesting, or sexier, or easier to understand, or will sell more papers, or fits with a given narrative, all tied up in a tidy deferential package to the question of what it is that the media are in place to do.

Whatever the case, we need much more information to levy a charge of media bias. Citing three press releases and stating that the “news community clearly has a bias in its reporting” won’t cut the proverbial mustard.

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19 comments

  1. How very modest of RP Sr not to mention that he is one of the authors of one of the “neglected” studies. He is such a shy and retiring chap; perhaps this explains the lack of sucess of his press releases?


  2. […] News Reporting UPDATE: November 14 2009 There is a very informative discussion of my post at https://cruelmistress.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/bias-in-reporting/.  The issues that are raised in that post are valid; hopefully, my post will encourage a rigorous […]


  3. Like with Pielke Jr and the number of press stories on the paper that found no change in hurricanes vs Mann’s hockey stick of hurricanes.


  4. I think it’s fair to say that stories of “it’s worse than we thought” are far more likely to attract media attention than “it’s not as bad as we thought”. Sensationalism is top dog and it’s simply not possible to sensationalise non-disaster scenarios. It’s just news.


  5. In my own backyard, our (solitary) newspaper (that takes most stories from McClatchy or AP feeds) seems to report ONLY the “it’s worse than we thought” articles mentioned by DaveJR. There’s been no story I could find over the last 10 years on the ‘other side’ – perhaps suggesting that hurricanes weren’t as bad as feared or any of the multitude of ‘denier’ stories – whether peer reviewed or not. They do occasionally tolerate letters to the editors from skeptics, so I’ll give them that much.

    Even ONE article arguing that the hockey stick is severely wounded – or that NOAA’s temperature records don’t show a significant recent warming would be a breath of fresh air!


  6. From what I can tell, skeptical positions are disproportionately represented in the media on the high-end. The nature of most of the skepticism, from what I’ve been able to tell, rarely takes on the whole body of work in climate science. Usually it relates to some small facet of the literature. And yet, there it still is, appearing again and again in news reports and on opinion pages.


    • Ben –

      What the alarmist propagandists continually conflate is the issue of warming (of whatever source) with catastrophic warming. If you say “there is no evidence that suggests alarm” they reply “what? you don’t think it is warming”

      So, the real issue with media bias (which is not supported by RPs post) is whether stories that suggest “alarm” are mis-represented. It is foolish for anyone to pretend otherwise, since even ardent supporters of AGW “concern” like Mike Hulme, lament the media bias toward alarm. For example, there is nothing in the hurricane data that suggests alarm. However, one would never know that from the media treatment of the topic.


      • Why does it have to be catastrophic to be warming? And what, ultimately, is ‘catastrophic’ anyway? In medical parlance, there are catastrophic events that prove devastating for a single individual — not necessarily resulting in death, but sometimes in severe incapacitation. If that’s what it is to be catastrophic, is it not feasible that even the slightest movement in the climate will qualify as catastrophic?


  7. Tom, re the sea turtles, under natural conditions they’d have a lot of time to shift their beaches. Also, it’s been at least several million years since their present beaches could have presented a temperature problem, noting that much before that those beaches didn’t even exist.

    I think there are fundamental problems with the way our media handle climate change, but at this point in time it’s hard to pin science reporters with much of the reposnsibility for that. To borrow Andy Revkin’s blah-blah-blah-BANG metaphor, I think we could use a bit more bang-bang-bang-BANG.

    To list just one example, the measured poleward expansion of the atmospheric circulation has been pinned to anthropogenic causation. This got… no coverage. The fact that the whole circulation is shifting has gotten very little coverage, notwithstanding some quite terrible consequences for key agricultural zones (mainly from movement of the dry sub-tropics).

    On the one hand this is quite unamazing: An elementary school-level understanding of physics is enough to comprehend that a warming atmosphere will want to expand from warm to cold (both upward and poleward as the warming progresses). On the other hand, and let me put this in terms that even a hard-bitten, cynical news editor might be able to understand:

    WE’RE MOVING THE WHOLE F’ING ATMOSPHERE!!! WAKE UP!!!

    Here in the U.S. Southwest, modeling studies have shown a relationship between Arctic warming (accompanied by sea ice decline), relating both to the shift in circulation. Regional model results are by definition uncertain, but even so these got a bit of attention when they came out a few years ago. So, last Tuesday, out comes the smoking gun paper finding a clear correlation betweeen drought here and episodes of Arctic warmth over the last 20,000 years. IOW, considering this along with the results described above, as it warms more we’re going to go into a permanent drought regime, and this gets… almost no coverage.


  8. Especially for CentralCoastGuy, here’s yet another deep wound to the “hockey stick” to add to all the others:

    ‘”At no time during the last 14 thousand years was there a period of climate warming and loss of ice as large and regionally synchronous as that we are now witnessing in the Antarctic Peninsula(.)”‘

    And just a few days prior to that we had Yarrow Axford’s lake study that Tom posted about. The hits just keep on coming. There was little or no discernable press activity on this one, either, BTW.


  9. Sorry, the first sentence of the last paragraph two comments back should have read:

    “Here in the U.S. Southwest, modeling studies have shown a relationship between Arctic warming (accompanied by sea ice decline) *and drought*, relating both to the shift in circulation.


    • Steve Bloom –

      Nice to see you on this blog again. Last time you were busy smearing Atte Korhola to the effect that “everyone” thought he did bad work. Have you come up with some support for that yet?


  10. Tom C, first provide me with some evidence that you have some familiarity with the relevant literature beyond what you’re spoon-fed by McIntyre. Let’s start here: What major problem stands in the way of Korhola’s peat proxy being considered useful for late-Holocene temperature?

    BTW, here’s a nice fresh paper using the widely-accepted lake sediment proxy for temperature:

    http://www.clim-past.net/5/523/2009/cp-5-523-2009.pdf

    What, no Medieval Warm Period in Finland!? Quick, someone tell Korhola. 🙂


    • Steve Bloom –

      I asked you to provide evidence that Korhola was not well-regarded by his colleagues. You responded by asking me some highly specific question about peat proxies and late-Holocene temperature. This was a dodge and intended to make you appear erudite, but it is irrelevant in regards to substantiating your smear.

      I read the paper which you supplied and you mis-represented the conclusion regarding the MWP. Here is what they said:

      “These features support many earlier investigations according to which the MWP is not reflected as a clear peak in Northern Europe, but rather represents the final centuries of a longer warm period before the onset of cooling at 1000-800 cal yr BP…”

      Far from claiming that there was no MWP period, the suggestion here is that it was much longer than commonlysupposed.

      One hazard of troll-like citing of papers is that persons might actually read them


  11. And misunderstand them. Korhola, FYI, thinks that there was a distinct Roman warm period followed by a cooling followed by an MWP, and that this pattern generally continues back into the mid-Holocene. Not so, the other paper says, finding instead a relatively smooth slide from the peak of the hypsithermal down to the LIA. It also finds that the transition to the LIA in the region studied begins centuries earlier than Korhola would have it. Agreement? *snork*

    Your problem is that you don’t even know exactly what Korhola is claiming. Knowing that doesn’t make me erudite, it just means I’ve done a little basic homework. I’d suggest that you watch his presentation again, this time paying attention (or did you even watch it the first time?), but it’s clear that you’re not familar enough with the field to understand that he’s engaging in a massive exercise in cherry-picking some pretty marginal work and drawing even more marginal conclusions.


    • Wow, what big words you use, Mr. Bloom.

      Despite your best efforts to change the subject, I still want to see the evidence to support your claim that Korhola is not well-respected. My original charge was that you had made this up and could not substantiate it.

      Citing papers where different methods and authors produce different conclusions is simply part of the scientific process, not evidence of incompetence.

      In the post above you claimed that the paper’s conclusion was “No MWP in Finland”. That was clearly untrue.


      • Hey, cool. I just read that Eija-Riita Korhola has a degree in philosophy. Wonder if they read this blog…


      • I don’t think I used the term well-respected, but as long as you did answer me this: Is trashing Schellnhuber and Hansen in his presentation the sort of thing that would gain him any respect? How about the opinion piece he co-authored with his right-wing politician wife?

        Regarding incompetence, that depends on how far the disagreement extends. Pretty far, in this case. But we can’t discuss those details since you don’t know enough.

        Re “no MWP in Finlsnd,” the point is that the new paper refutes Korhola’s claim of such, although obviously it refutes a lot more than that. You’d be ahead of the game if you’d pay more attention to what the small words mean.


      • “ow about the opinion piece he co-authored with his right-wing politician wife?”

        OH, that’s sticking to the issue Steve. Outstanding. It’s OK to have left-wing leanings or a left-wing spouse I guess. What a clown.



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