Newspapers are disappearing faster than alpine glaciers, and a new paper by journalist-turned-public-policy scholar Eric Pooley suggests the two may be related.
Pooley’s paper argues that newspapers have failed as referees of the public debate on preventing climate change, reporting junk economics and good economics with equal weight. In these muddied waters, Pooley suggests, it’s harder for the government to push sound policy to stop global warming.
As an example, he points to the failure, last year, of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. The bill was the most serious climate-change-prevention legislation ever to make it to the Senate. It failed, Pooley argues, in part because journalists emphasized dubious claims about the short-term economic costs of reducing carbon emissions over the long-term costs of doing nothing. More rigorous reporting might have sussed out those differences and translated into more public support for climate change action.
So why don’t newspapers do better climate reporting? Editors are devoting ever fewer resources to solid climate reporting, meaning fewer journalists can stay on the beat long enough to develop the nuanced scientific understanding necessary to report fairly and accurately. And with newspaper revenues shrinking, money for good environmental reporting will be even scarcer.
Why does that matter?
Print journalism has been in decline at least since newspapers began experimenting with online journalism in the early 1980’s. But whether print news survives is beside the point. The real value of newspapers, James Warren writes in The Atlantic, is as institutions that train and support professional journalists to referee our public debates and help us make sense of the complexities of modern life:
A very shrewd journalist-entrepreneur I know, Steve Brill, asks that one just imagine walking into a library and seeing the pages of all the books scattered on the floors and stairwells. To be sure, editors are human and subjectivity plays a role, but a newspaper places those pages — and thus the news — in some sensible order.
We’ve written before about how aggressive newspaper reporting can keep members of congress more accountable to their constituents — and more likely to break with party doctrine under scrutiny of their positions.
Engaged newspapers can keep local politicians honest. But can they shape better environmental policy and help stop global warming?