By Grace Krauser
In a world struggling with alternative facts, environmental journalists gathered to discuss how best to report environmental issues at the Society for Environmental Journalists (SEJ) annual conference in downtown Pittsburgh on October 6. During one panel discussion, designed to allow journalists the opportunity to ask questions to expert panelists, Dr. Shanti Gamper-Rabindran brilliantly flipped the script by asking journalists to consider their decision-making process when reporting research and alternative facts. As she asked:
In a traditional forum designed to allow journalists the opportunity to ask questions to expert panelists, Dr. Shanti Gamper-Rabindran brilliantly flipped the script by asking journalists to consider their decision-making process when reporting research and alternative facts. As she asked:
“When reading news articles, I get this sense that there is an attempt to give balanced coverage – which means you give the same amount of coverage to position A and the same amount of coverage to position B, and that’s considered balance.
I am wondering whether journalists also have a responsibility to evaluate position A and position B in a way that it’s clear that position A is not factually based and position B is factually based? How do journalists approach being fair and balanced, but at the same time, also distinguishing between fact and fiction?” Dr. Gamper-Rabindran purposefully turned the mic towards the audience, and the following discussion ensued.
Audience Member 1: As a longtime working journalist and professor, that is something we teach called “false balance.” (False balance is a media bias in which journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence supports. Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may omit information that would establish one side's claims as baseless.) I think most of us would prefer to be able to cover these things [scientific explanations] more extensively, but we are dealing with limited space, deadlines, and things like that where you can’t really parse bad science from good science as much as you might like.
Audience Member 2: I don’t report something if I can’t verify it myself. I mean – an opinion is one thing. For example, sometimes someone has made an allegation against someone; you owe them the chance to respond but it’s about an opinion. But if someone says something – a factual thing – that I can’t verify myself, then I am not going to go into that.
Audience Member 3: Most people in this room and at the SEJ conference don’t practice [false balance], and most people that do aren’t here… we and our colleagues somehow have this obligation to teach these reporters… we all have to try to bridge that gap beyond this room and beyond this organization.
Audience Member 4: For someone who has been reporting in D.C., where the story is actually an implicit political story, we are hamstrung when writing about a story in Congress. For example –when one party believes in the science and the other party does not – you can’t write a story that represents the debate without representing both sides. It is about inserting the stock lines that “97% of scientist believe [climate change consensus] and 3 % refute…” Sometimes you are stuck including information that refutes scientific wisdom because that is how you write a balanced political story.
Audience Member 5: I think that one of the really important pieces is to share what science says and how that we know it is true. Until last November, we did not think we needed to go into the background science of all the climate change. While from story to story it may vary, there was an accepted consensus that the audience understands [climate change], so we can get on to talking about the details. We threw [this kind of thinking] out the window because we were reminded that there is a huge percentage of the country that doesn’t believe [that climate change exists] … Even if we don’t talk about the 3% [of scientists] or give them credence, [are we showing] how the 97% know what they know? Why do we believe this? Why do we accept this as fact? And to drill into that as often as possible and try to get out of the bubble of people who are already convinced this is real. This issue is not getting through to a lot of our country.
The tough question Professor Gamper-Rabindran asked has troubled many climate change scientists and policy makers for years. As the conversation came to an end, it became clear there are no easy solutions or answers. The difficult dynamic journalists face in a world of instant news, fake news, and constant attacks on the media makes the SEJ conference a critical space to review specific topics, develop best practices, and strengthen reporting skills.
By drawing on expertise from the SEJ members, Professor Gamper-Rabindran created the space for journalists to express their professional boundaries and suggest solutions or alternative options on how to best craft environmental stories in ways that resonate with people who aren’t necessarily the traditional audience for environmental journalism stories.
Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is the contributing editor of The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective of Fracking and Shale Development (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). That interdisciplinary volume, which brought together leading scholars working in eight countries to examine how and why countries decide to pursue shale (or not), won early praise from global energy and environmental experts. She has participated in national and international workshops on environmental and energy policies and lectured widely at conferences aimed at academics, policymakers, and the general public; and at universities. She organized two interdisciplinary international energy and environmental conferences at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015, bringing together academics and policymakers in the US, Europe and emerging economies to discuss energy challenges. She has published a wide-range of papers on policy tools to manage industrial risks (e.g., regulation, information disclosure and corporate social responsibility programs), and on the economic and public health impacts of environmental and development policies (e.g. piped water provision, cleanup of hazardous waste sites and trade liberalization). Her multidisciplinary training in economics, environmental management and law has shaped her research approach and the graduate level courses she teaches on global issues, i.e., energy, environment, health, economic development, and sustainability. Her work has been funded by the National Research Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.