Can Newspapers Stop Global Warming?

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?

Allen Reynolds

What a crock! Newspapers are supposed to, like, report the news. Not get bills passed. The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act failed because it was a disaster and even congress wasn't stupid enough to further kill the economy.

That newspapers turned into advocates, pushing a particular partisan viewpoint on climate, politics, etc. is one reason for their demise.


This is a reach. A huge reach.


"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:..."

Sorry, too late, journalism is now just another profit centered industry that is beholden to the business interests which spend on advertising or own the media outlets or sponsor the media...

Example: If reporters were really independant and editors interested in printing real stories, they would report on the sham presidential debates run by a partisan group with business sponsors which have turned the presidential debates into a big infomercial for both the two business funded political parties. "journalists to referee our public debates" - just ask the media talking heads who were the "moderators" at the debates about "real debates".


Newspapers & global warming are connected. With the decline of newspapers we've seen the globe cool down. Since newpapers kill trees which are necessary to pull CO2 out of the air, their demise means more trees & less CO2. Causal or pure coincidence? You be the judge.


I have always thought a lot of the difficulty in reporting technically complex issues is made up of a) the reporter has a limited basis of understanding (even scientific trained reporters can not be expert on all areas) and b) the media need to give equal time to opposing views. I recently saw a report on MMR vaccine and autism and once again, equal time was given to the scientists who had examined thousands of patients over years to say there was no correlation and the mother of one child with autism who was SURE that the vaccine was responsible for her childs problems.

Eric M. Jones

I hear the telegraph has fallen on hard times too. And they don't even teach kids Morse code. What's the world coming too?

Regarding Global Warming....two things are true:

1) Science is not a matter of getting everyone to agree. Really it isn't. Honest! Why this has become a political debate is beyond me.

2) In the words of Dr. David Deutsch, it is too late to prevent a global-warming disaster. In fact it was too late to stop the global-warming disaster even in the 1970's when the best scientific theory said that atmospheric polution was going to cause a new ice age that would kill millions.



Amazing that this guy is bemoaning the fact that newspapers aren't trying to push HIS OWN subjective viewpoint over all others. "Why can't the press be my personal advocate?"


I thought you guys were supposed to be economists. Think about the incentives.

Newspapers prosper by keeping people glued to the news. They do this by stoking anxiety, not by allaying unfounded fears of environmental doom. So if anything, it's in a paper's interest to inflate the perception of dangerous climate change, not to reduce it.

The media is mostly one big cheerleader for the alarmists, and give almost no credence to actual climate scientists.



I think this is an anecdote of a much larger problem: pop media is a bunch of noise and journalism is virtually kaput. Engaged journalists keep the public informed. That, in turn, keeps politicians honest and important issues at the forefront.

David Rasmussen

Most newspaper writers, like jurors, are generalists. No special training required. Some argue that for sophisticated cases like patent law, juries of our peers do not do us justice. Certainly, it takes a very special newspaper to hire trained science writers, trained economics writers and the like.

The influence of accurate writing, nonetheless, may be small, as the ultra-wealthy employee noise machines (and Congress members) to shout down all reasonable arguments perceived to threaten the status quo and their wealth/prestige/power. The power of the press seems to belong to those who own the presses.

But, as the Internet evolves, and as print media dies down, it is unclear whether those who own the presses will have more influence or less influence. One could equally imagine a highly engaged "Facebook" electorate or something out of a George Orwell book.

This ultimately leaves me optimistic, as George Orwell novels have seemed to carry the decade so far.



@3 When wasn't journalism a profit-centered business? The term "yellow journalism" was coined in 1897.

When it comes down to it, journalism is still about story telling (albeit nominally non-fictional stories). No matter how objective they try to be, the story will always colored by their own viewpoint, limited by the information they choose to include and the manner in which they present it. Unless they're writing about journalism, they generally won't ever be experts in what they are reporting on, because it's not what they do. They rely heavily on the information they are given, and since it undoubtedly will not always agree they rely on their own gut for how to edit. (If even the experts can't agree, how is an outsider supposed to get to the absolute truth?)

Add onto that the attention span of your average reader, and their predisposition to commit to news sources that tell them what they already believe along with the explosion of different news sources they have to pick from, and now try to convince me that in-depth, knowledgable, and complete reporting on any subject is achievable.



What?! What?! What?! Newspapers are supposed to referee debates among the scientific and economic communities about something as complex as global-warming and what to do about it? This makes no sense.

You might as well say the same thing about the debate among theoretical physicists and cosmologists about string theory. The debate is way, way, way over the head of the people who work at newspapers. The fact that this issue is particularly relevant and pertinent to the public is irrelevant.

If you want to be informed about an issue like this one, put down your newspaper immediately and pick up a magazine like Scientific American. Better yet, pick up a book written by an actual climatologist who has done actual *gasp* research. Better yet, read a peer-reviewed journal article about that actual research.

The notion that the public has to be informed about the essentials to these debates is preposterous. And the idea that newspapers could provide it is laughable.

I don't care how many times you've seen An Inconvenient Truth, if you haven't spent the last ten years of your life analyzing diffusive heat transport and nonlinear albedo feedback, then YOU ARE NOT INFORMED ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING. Nor are the rest of us.



"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."

Even if you accept the premise -- which is ridiculous -- how about the fact that short-term costs are obvious while long-term facts are not. There is far more consensus on the costs of addressing alleged climate change than the benefits, with long-term forecasting at the mercy of computer models of dubious accuracy. In fact, that's the whole point, that it makes little sense to sacrifice economic growth in the short term for dubious benefits.


No wonder newspapers are fighting to survive. This arrogant attitude by the journalistic elite about what the news really means has sent many of us seek out alternate sources of news. Where have the lost newspaper readers gone? For answers, look at the ratings for talk radio and Fox News (as they say on Fox, “we report, you decide”).

All is not lost; newspaper journalists did a great job presenting the case for electing Obama President.


Why would I trust a journalist to evaluate science?


Pooly got it the wrong way round.


Newspapers do not exist to inform the public. They exist to sell newspapers. They do this by reporting "news" stories that say exactly what the readers want to read. The only difference between The New York Times, and The Enquirer, is the target audience.

If you want to read un-biased reporting that accurately covers all aspects of a story, newspapers (or any other "news" media) are the last place to look.


"...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...."
The reason the bill didn't move is the floor managers couldn't get enough Senators to put their names to the thing.
Most folks understand that the price of coal-fired electricity would have to rise two to four times for wind/solar to be competitive. That was the purpose of L-W.
Upon being sworn in, most politicians come to believe that the most statesmanlike, the most patriotic, thing they can pursue is their own re-election.
Today I linked to a CJR post suggesting that newspaper websites go dark for a week. My first thought was how many truly awful essays would be written that week.
Looks like it's already happening.
Now I'm torn between using the phrases arrogant twaddle or errant drivel.


Eric Pooley

Fire away, but since many of the points made here are addressed in my paper, I'd invite anyone who's interested to read it rather than simply responding to this necessarily brief and incomplete summary. Cheers.


Honestly!!?? Journalists need to be climate activists!!??
I have lost a lot of respect for freakonomics after reading this garbage