Birth of a climate change meme: Inadequate reporting followed by inept blogging

Today I witnessed (at least for me) the birth of a meme — an idea spread through a culture. It’s a common word in Internet parlance: An “Internet meme” is often considered to be a viral torpedo bent on tearing through that culture malevolently.

The emergence of this meme shows us what passes for acceptable “content” these days. The journalism business has shed experienced, competent reporters as compensation for lousy business decisions made by shortsighted media corporations. That has a cost. We reap what we sow …

A friend sent a link to a Yahoo news blog post about remarks by Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regarding Americans’ perceptions of climate change.

The post, written by one Conor Skelding, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a Yahoo intern, carries this hed: Just step outside: More Americans convinced of climate change after extreme weather

The hed provides no support for “convinced”; it is sheer opinion. It is a meme emerging from the womb, a virgin birth with no fathering fact.

The post’s lede:

Every summer it seems like a different kind of out-of-control weather pattern decides to strike. In the past month alone, we’ve experienced deadly Colorado wildfires, early-season heat waves and a wind-whipping hurricane, convincing formerly dubious Americans that climate change is actually real, according to the Associated Press. [emphasis added]

Every summer? The post mentions no other summers. In fact, it only refers to “the past month.”

Seems? That word always means the reporter’s guessing. It demonstrates that no evidence — hard data — is contained to support a point.

Decides? When did weather systems gain the ability to think? And plan?

We’ve? Why does the writer presume to speak for us all? Have we all experienced his examples? Have we all used these examples of weather to draw conclusions about climate change?

Convincing? The post provides no evidence of change in public opinion other than Lubchenco’s opinion about public opinion. No polls or surveys about American attitudes toward climate change are provided to support the claim of formerly dubious, either.

Actually? This is not an evidentiary word; its principal use is to indicate an element of surprise about an occurrence.

Real? The post does not provide a definition of climate change. Nor does it indicate the relationship (or not) of climate change to weather.

According to the Associated Press? Bullshit. This attribution to the AP, as worded, suggests that the AP has provided the evidence for all the claims in the lede. The AP did not. The AP story only quotes Lubchenco’s claim of opinion change in Americans.

The Yahoo post’s lede is at best sophomoric.

But the unbylined AP story is also complicit in the construction of this meme — more Americans believe climate change is real.

The hed on the AP story: US science official says more extreme events convincing many Americans climate change is real

Now, that’s accurate, because the hed provides the source for the claim, which the Yahoo hed did not. The AP lede is based on these grafs:

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Lubchenco told a university forum in the Australian capital of Canberra.

“People’s perceptions in the United States at least are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something first-hand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change,” she said.

Where’s the evidence for “beginning to appreciate”? Or “beginning to change”? There’s nothing in the story that suggests the reporter asked: “On what do you base that opinion?” Or: “Where’s the data that supports that claim?”

And “in many cases”? What cases? Did the reporter ask for specifics?

Near the bottom of the story, Lubchenco says her agency is experiencing a “skyrocketing” demand for data.

Did the reporter ask: “Could you be more specific?” Or: “From what level of requests to what higher level of requests? Over what period of time?”

Apparently not. Did the AP reporter speak to Lubchenco? Or was the story rewritten from a NOAA press release or a copy of Lubchenco’s remarks?

The story provides only one source on the claim of Americans’ shifting attitudes toward climate change. No other material supports that claim. Two grafs contained information on temperatures and hurricanes — but the story contained no material whatsoever on measurements of U.S. public opinion.

And a meme is born. And regurgitated with the same lack of evidence in the Yahoo post. That post concludes with this graf:

Although it’s hard to say that a specific event was caused by climate change, the phenomenon does result in extreme weather incidents happening more frequently. “Where there is more energy in a system, events such as fires, heat waves and storms” will occur more often, Tim Profeta, Founding Director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University told Yahoo News. And if such episodes lead to an increase in climate awareness, well, that’s a good thing, he says. [emphasis added]

As the number of undefined phrases increases, the support for the meme markedly decreases. Yet the meme — public opinion is changing — has gone forth with its fundamental veracity unchallenged.

One — just one — federal official has been allowed to claim that American public opinion about climate change has shifted. The AP accepts the word “skyrocketing” as sufficient evidence for the claim. The story’s released; it makes its way to The Washington Post. There, apparently, no editing of the claim occurs. An intern at Yahoo riffs inelegantly and vaguely on the AP story, adding no support for the federal official’s claim.

That’s how memes are born and spread. As of this writing, the Yahoo post has been tweeted 101 times. How often has it been retweeted? Who knows how many read the story in WashPo?

If you wonder what impacts cutting the daily print press corps nearly in half over five years would be, now you know. Shoddy, minimally sourced reporting. Dispensation of inadequately supported claims. Followed by blogging of ill-conceived substance.

Why should we accept media reports that portray Jane Lubchenco, the government’s top official in the weather business, as making a claim without providing an adequate foundation for it?

Is this what you want from your Internet “content providers”? Or would you rather have evidence to support claims made in that “content”?

7 replies »

  1. This one is odd, too. In one sense, you can argue that, as memes go, this one at least fails in the right direction. More people being convinced that hey, we’re fucking up the climate, that’s a good thing, even if they arrived at the conclusion for the wrong reasons, I guess.

    The answer to that, of course, is that if reporting (and education and general thinking) weren’t so fucked, we might have gotten to the same conclusion the RIGHT way. And a long time ago.

    It’s enough to make one cynical….

  2. I agree about the specific point of the article, regarding the lack of supporting data for conclusions. Nothing to add on that.

    A ‘sniff test’ element is the ‘skyrocketing’ demand for climate data. I don’t know what one could consider a ‘skyrocket’, but even just the background trend of increased data download (something I’m in a position to know for a more weather-oriented situation) is pretty impressive through time. The test I inadvertently conducted was to try to get some data from NCDC — the National Climatic Data Center, a part of NOAA — earlier this week. This is something I do from time to time. For a few kb to mb of data request, it’s normally ready for me in seconds to minutes, and everything requested is delivered. For this week’s requests, it was hours, and two of the three requests failed — should have been 20-50 Mb, but only delivered 2 kb. Much more than sheer volume of requests can have caused that result, but it is at least consistent with there being extraordinary volume.

    I’ll note that Lubchenco is also in the climate business. The National Weather Service is one of her responsibilities, so it’s fair to say she’s in the weather business. But the NWS also does some climate, as does the Fisheries Service (another NOAA line office) and the Office of Atmospheric Research (yet another). The latter including the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, one of the US’s major climate modeling centers. Plus the aforementioned NCDC.

    Agreed, though, that an air of plausibility and a probably more or less reliable source should not be sufficient to start a new ‘meme’.

  3. Robert: Thanks for the illumination. I wish the AP’s reporter and Yahoo’s intern had dug a little deeper … it’s not that hard to do.

  4. Nicely said! Whether a reporter is a climate change skeptic or someone who accepts the scientific consensus that global warming is a solid theory impacting the planet, that doesn’t give him or her an excuse to scream “climate change” just because it’s hot… Mainly because just six months from now if it snows that same “journalist” will surely be declaring yet another “snowmageddon” and rejecting climate science!

    Certainly, the data for extraordinary planet-wide extreme weather is easily available and could have been quoted by the reporter: The more than 40,000 US heat records broken this year, the record US fires in 2011 and 2012. The record Mississippi and Missouri river floods and tornadoes, and Texas drought of 2011. The Russian drought and wildfires, the Pakistan and Australian floods of 2010. The fact that for 327 months running the world has surpassed the average monthly temperatures of the 20th century. And then there are also the few studies showing that Americans are noticing the extreme weather and crediting it as growing evidence of climate change. And of course there are no lack of US NOAA, NASA, and IPCC scientists willing to say that these events are what the UN IPCC models projected as far back as 1990 and 1995.

    It should also be pointed out however that “journalists” are just as lazy at NOT reporting climate change when it is appropriate. For example, a study of the Colorado wildfires in June found that only 3 percent of media reports noted that extreme wildfires are a projected higher risk in a globally warmed world.

    As a journalist who knows this topic, my experience is that many reporters appear ignorant of the science, fail to understand how climate modeling works, fail to understand that an IPCC projection is NOT a weather forecast, and as a result are easily fooled by the next heatwave or by such partisan nonsense as climategate. (Though the media easily was conned by the climategate hoax, no less than nine independent investigations have cleared all of the climate scientists on all charges).

    No, no matter how you cut it, whether you are talking climate change, or health care reform, immigration, or the elections and the influence of Super PACs, the news as reported appears to be becoming shallower, less fact-based, more about rumor and hearsay and hyperbole. As journalists, we need to, and can, do far better.

  5. I disagree entirely with this article.

    First, the average Joe American DOES get influenced by what they perceive is going on with the weather. It’s just the same as how they are influenced by the blather being spewed by their cathode ray idiot box.

    Second, this is not a one off event. Record high temperatures have been blowing away record lows for years. The last time we had a year cooler than normal was in 1976. The last time we had a month cooler than normal was in the 1980’s….and I could fill pages with weather statistics that are virtually impossible to explain by random chance.

    Climate is an average of weather. And the weather has been so f**ked up that the average is off the statistical charts.

    • Jimmy, I think perhaps you misunderstood Denny’s point. His point is not that weather influences opinion, nor is it that the science or data doesn’t matter. It’s that the AP and Yahoo! News committed journalistic malpractice.

      Please, before you go ballistic on someone, please make sure you’re going ballistic on them for something they actually said, rather than something you incorrectly thought they said.


  6. “a ‘skyrocketing’ demand for data.”

    Except from the AP reporter and the Yahoo intern.