Climate Change: Journalism & Advocacy

Posted on by Mark Nykanen

The British newspaper, The Guardian, has come under fire for launching a worldwide campaign to draw serious attention the perils of climate change. Who’s upset? Big Oil? Big Coal? If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re undoubtedly correct on both counts. But the potshots I’m referring to are coming from the journalism profession itself, those mandarins of the mainstream who don’t believe news reporting should ever take a position. They prefer that it teeter somehow on a narrow— but always pristine—balance bar of neutrality that bears little resemblance to what actually takes place in newsrooms. Having spent almost two decades in that business in print, radio, and network news you’ll have to trust that I speak from experience.

I started in the early ‘70s in what was then called the underground press, a term that quickly morphed into “alternative weeklies.” I worked for New Times Weekly, which would later become the biggest chain of alternative newspapers in North America, eventually taking control of the granddaddy of all alternative weeklies, New York City’s Village Voice. Arguably, all that growth wasn’t necessarily good news consumers, but that’s a story for another day.

Back when New Times Weekly was run out of a crowded office only feet away from the odoriferous deep fryers of a fish and chips joint, I was investigating the utterly foul conditions behind the bars of the Arizona State Prison in Florence. I dug into other aspects of the correctional system in the Grand Canyon State, but the hellhole for men in Florence dominated my coverage. It was advocacy journalism. I advocated that prisoners not be tortured by angry guards. I advocated for rehabilitation over brutal punitive measures. I slipped into the prison six times undercover to report on the place. My work was banned from the prison because—according to testimony of an assistant warden to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—my work represented “a direct and immediate threat to the security of the institution.” Heady stuff to hear at age twenty-three.

A federal court eventually oversaw efforts to reform the state’s correctional system, though prisons in the U.S. remain a largely unspoken and unaddressed nightmare. My point is that at its heart what we think of as investigative journalism is advocacy journalism: it exposes wrongdoing; by implication, if nothing else, it urges that the wrongdoing cease.

Advocacy journalism was a natural outgrowth of the activism of the ‘60s and beyond. I continued doing investigative work, eventually ending up at NBC News, as mainstream as it gets then and now. I was a member of a two-person investigative team during most of the seven years I spent there. We chose the vast majority of the stories we did. That was why we were hired: we were good at digging into wrongs that often had been overlooked. The stories we chose to do were, by nature, the first step in the advocacy process. Did we choose to report about the beneficent nature of large corporations? No, we chose to report that large corporations often used their powerful influence on the federal government to hide their responsibility for environmental poisoning. One of those reports was credited with forcing the resignation of the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency within forty-eight hours of broadcast. Even the Reagan administration had its limits.

What The Guardian is doing is far more important because it is bringing the considerable resources of one of the most powerful newspapers on earth to covering “the biggest story in the world,” in the words of its outgoing editor Alan Rusbridger. Fear not, he has not been ousted for his advocacy; he is taking a key position overseeing the news corporation’s considerable financial trust. The Guardian, in other words, is taking climate change seriously. If you listen to the paper’s podcasts on its project you’ll hear reporters and editors debating just what the warming should be called. My preference, btw, is climate chaos because the warming makes a fool of predictability when it comes to so much of the weather we, as a species, have come to expect.

Critics of The Guardian argue that its role should be to report only on the changes we’re witnessing, and most definitely not to join hands with to urge divestment from fossil fuel companies, as the company is now doing. By its actions, though, the paper is underlining the existential challenge that we all face. Yes, a minuscule percentage of scientists disagree that humankind has a role in the changing climate, but their numbers are dwindling and their positions, in some cases, have become striking portraits of equivocation, not unlike the absurd political dance performed by all the Republican candidates for President. History will not be kind to their shenanigans, nor should it be, because as many Nobel Prize winners in the sciences have stated, “There is no debate on climate change.”

But to read much of mainstream news coverage, there remains a vestigial attachment to the non-existent state of neutral or so-called balanced reporting. Thankfully, we no longer debate whether slavery is good, although “responsible” voices once did precisely that. In another decade, at most, climate change will achieve a similar status for reasons that we are only now beginning to contemplate in earnest.

Kudos to The Guardian for recognizing the gravity of the warming and, more important, for taking action based on that understanding. Here is the link to The Guardian’s campaign. It’s easy to lend your name to it. Nobody’s going to ask you for money, and the paper will keep you informed of its steps.

The link to the paper’s climate change coverage, which I think is among the best in the business these days:

And here’s a link to The Guardian’s aforementioned podcasts. Do take a listen to those actually working on “the biggest story on earth.”

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