Every big weather event provides another platform for contrarians to sow dissent and divide public opinion. On September 14th, USA Today offered climate denier Roy Spencer a venue he did not earn in order to deny that climate change is happening. As Hurricane Florence besieged the Carolinas with record rainfall, Spencer’s opinion piece threw his leaky hat into the ring. “Hurricane Florence is not climate change or global warming. It’s just the weather.” What you might describe as a global-warming induced Twitter-storm was ignited.
The previous week, the BBC had sent a briefing note to staff declaring “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.” In a piece of sage advice USA Today might heed, the BBC reminded journalists to “be aware of false balance.” At the same time, the national network admitted “we get coverage of [climate change] wrong too often.”
The BBC was admitting the repeated failure of their reporting to reflect the fact that the science on climate change is no longer a serious subject for debate. To create the impression of a debate is simply irresponsible. Some views don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Before a round-the-world yacht race, other critics of false balance have suggested, we don’t need to provide flat-earthers the opportunity to opine: “they’ll sail off the edge!”
I used to be terrified of air travel. When I first flew a long flight across the ocean I spent six months prior to take-off getting debilitating cold sweats. On numerous flights I swore to myself this would be the last one I ever took. No amount of rational thinking about statistics, aerodynamics, or divine benevolence would provide any comfort. I was in the grip of something I could not control.
I don’t know what started to turn things around. It could have been the pilot who let me sit in the cockpit for landing on a night flight (years before the enhanced security measures after 9/11), or the kind fellow passenger who told me about being shot down in helicopters in Vietnam, or simply a growing tiredness of filling my body with all that adrenaline. Whatever it was, I got over it.
As I began to free myself from my tortured mental state about flying I started to think a lot about trust. To get on a plane, you have to trust the pilots. You have to trust the engineers who maintain the aircraft. You have to trust the designers who figured out how to keep this giant machine in the air. Without trust, it would be insane to imagine safely getting from A to B at five hundred miles per hour while six or seven miles off the ground.
Trust is not just for nervous fliers. It is an essential, collective emotion that lies at the heart of a healthy society. We have to trust our food will get to us in an uncontaminated state, that the traffic lights will be correctly synchronized, that our friend will show up for the important meeting as they promised.
In the case of the debates we encounter in the media, we have to trust that those accorded the privilege to publicly advocate on both sides are driven by a genuine interest in the truth and by a responsible assessment of the evidence. Without that trust everything breaks down. The marketplace of ideas becomes a marshland of manipulation if it is not sustained by the neglected emotion of trust.
Deliberately subverting trust is one of the most socially damaging things a public figure can do. Casting doubt on the media, lying openly and repeatedly, and maliciously impugning the motives of good people is a guaranteed way of fomenting social breakdown. Fabricating false balance in reporting is another way to damage the finite storehouse of collective trust.
Climate change science is just one of the many arenas in which collective trust has been badly frayed. The guidance given by the BBC to its journalists last week – and by those who are calling-out USA Today for its attempts at false balance – are important steps to restore trust. A concerted national effort to rebuilt trust would be one of the most valuable endeavors we could embark upon today.
In the realm of climate change, reconstituting trust will sometimes involve taking a stand. Sixty academics and environmental advisors took that stand in a public letter to the Guardian in August. “We will no longer debate those who deny that human caused climate change is real,” they said. “There are plenty of vital debates to be had around climate chaos and what to do about it; this is simply no longer one of them.”
Media throughout the world should listen.
Photo by des on Unsplash