Does Cold Weather Induce Bad Newspaper Climate Coverage?

    When Sandy hit last fall, a number of scientists were quoted in the press voicing concern that heat-trapping greenhouse gases are contributing to bigger, more powerful storms. And while scientists can’t prove that greenhouse gases directly caused Sandy or the more current Northeast snowstorm dubbed “Nemo,” there’s overwhelming evidence that human activity has changed the atmosphere enough to alter the climate, and that one likely manifestation if this change is an increase in extreme weather events.

    But we haven’t seen as much climate-change coverage surrounding Nemo. A post from Mother Jones accuses newspapers of varying their global warming stories to suit the weather:

    Despite overwhelming scientific consensus about the long-term phenomenon, newspaper op-ed pages are most likely to opine about how climate change isn’t real when seasonal temperatures dip.

    “According to a new study published in Climatic Science, annual and seasonal deviations from mean temperatures can explain attitudes (both positive and negative) expressed in 2,166 opinion pieces between 1990 and 2009 in five major newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Houston Chronicle. (It also demonstrated that national public opinion polls aligned with temperature anomalies.)”

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    It’s an interesting observation, but there’s no reason to judge newspapers harshly for using weather as a way to make climate change newsworthy. After all, the blog post by Mother Jones happened not on a random day but during a period when the Northeast was preparing for a major weather event.

    We know that human activity is wreaking havoc on the planet’s atmosphere and ecology. But newspapers are supposed to report news daily, so they can hardly be expected to keep repeating the headline: Breaking news: Humans Messing up the Planet on a Global Scale.

    Climate change is important every day, but daily newspaper editors need some new impetus – a “news peg” as they call it, or a “teachable moment” as I like to think of it. So why not use the weather, since it puts us in touch with the fact that precipitation, wind and temperature influence human life.

    If there’s a problem here at all, it’s that misleading or wrong op-ed pieces are appearing in newspapers in any weather conditions. Like everyone else, op-ed writers are entitled to their opinions – that even includes Rick Santorum, whose byline used to appear in the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. What Santorum wasn’t entitled to do was to make up his own facts, or to mislead. In a piece I remember well, he claimed the earth is getting cooler, which it has over short periods amid a very long warming trend. His statement made me think of a patient whose weight ballooned from 200 to a dangerous 250 over a couple of years telling his doctor that there’s no problem because three weeks ago he weighed 252 so he’s actually losing weight and should therefore probably eat more to avoid wasting away.

    Oddly, I found a number of pieces, including one of mine, quoting Santorum in the Inquirer saying this: “Americans are coming to understand that global temperatures have actually cooled over the last 10 years and are predicted to continue cooling over the next 10.” (Most of the stories I found used the quote to debunk it.)When I looked up what I thought was the original op-ed piece, however, I couldn’t find that line. I did not the date was June.Here’s a similar piece that also ran in the Inquirer:

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal