With so much noise and misleading information out there, how can we make sure what we read is reliable?
In the era of Trump, journalism has become a fragile and imperiled enterprise. When we can’t tell “fake news” from actual events or “real news”from satire, the whole project of democracy is on shaky ground. But I haven’t caved to cynicism yet. As a media studies scholar once upon a time, I learned a thing or two about how to critique the news. And while that task has become exponentially more taxing in recent times, with the explosion of false stories going viral on social media and audiences willing to jettison critical thinking or a belief in facts, it’s still possible to vet a news story. I invite you to see how it’s done.
Here’s the backstory: I posted this article, a Jan. 9, 2017 story from the New York Times Science section entitled “Human-Driven Global Warming is Biggest Threat to Polar Bears, Report Says,” two days ago.I added this personal note along with it:
“I read an article like this and I wonder what conservatives think. Do they care about polar bears? Are they willing to support what this report encourages, to save them? Do they regard them as a necessary casualty of fueling the global economy, warming Arctic be damned? Coming face to face with polar bears in the wild was one of the most wondrous experiences of my life, and I want to ensure their future. But a story like this gives me little hope, especially in the face of this incoming administration. Why do so many conservatives seem not to be troubled by a situation like this?”
A conservative friend of mine responded with a link to this rejoinder from the Washington Times, an article titled “Polar bear conservation group blasts Obama admin’s climate-change alarmism.”
So: are polar bears in trouble? How do we know which stories provide valid information? Can we know? Is it a fruitless enterprise to follow the news anymore, any news? Has the ghost of Orwell come to haunt us permanently in 2017?
What follows is my response to the article my friend shared, which can serve as a template for how to determine what counts as valid news reporting. Partisan positions aside, these analytical tactics apply equally well no matter what the potential bias of the source may be. What matters most in the quest for reliable information is that we set our partisan blinders aside at the outset and question everything we read, in the manner below.
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For the sake of polar bears, I wish the Washington Times article were accurate. I work for a nature travel company, Natural Habitat Adventures, whose leading product is polar bear tours to Hudson Bay, and we’re rolling out a new trip to see polar bears on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea this summer. As I research these trips to write about them for our website, blog and other materials, I have learned a lot about the plight of polar bears. And it’s important to me, as someone who cares deeply about the welfare of all creatures on our planet, that we get the facts straight. I still believe in facts, and I believe we can uncover them. But it can be a labor-intensive process. That’s why it took three hours to produce this analysis of the Washington Times story.
But I hope it will be a tutorial for anyone interested in how to vet a news story, because the article provides an excellent example we can dissect to determine whether it is reliable. In fact, this would be a perfect case study if I were teaching a media literacy class at the University of Colorado right now, where I was formerly a faculty member.
First, I would ask students to consider the publication itself. Does it have a discernible political slant? If so, what position might we expect it to take in presenting a given issue? It’s the Washington Times we are looking at here, so we can expect that no matter the topic, it will have a staunchly conservative point of view.
BUT: a political slant doesn’t automatically mean the information is invalid. There can be well-sourced, factually grounded reporting that takes a particular stance. What’s at issue is whether or not the sources and data presented are credible. And that’s not just a matter of “opinion,” as some would have us believe. We really can sift through whether something is real news or fake news, or, more accurately, “legitimate” news, though it can take some determination.
So, let’s take this one on.
This Washington Times story relies solely on the comments of Dr. Susan Crockford, identified as in the headline as a “polar bear zoologist” who founded a website called Polar Bear Science. Sounds legit on the face of it. But this is where we as news consumers get into trouble. We need to unpack all of this further.
First, let’s take a look at Polar Bear Science. Though the Times calls it a “polar bear conservation group,” it appears to be a webpage that is the work of a single individual, Dr. Crockford. (And we need to look further at “Dr.,” if she has a Ph.D., where it’s from and what it’s in.) It’s readily evident that her site, which contains links to her publications, many of which are commentary pieces, is geared toward advocacy that questions human-caused climate change and, by default, any notion that polar bears could be in danger from an Arctic warmed by greenhouse gases. I don’t find any research on the site from anyone other than Crockford, compared, say, to Polar Bears International, a conservation-focused organization that includes links to the work of numerous polar bear scientists on its staff and elsewhere around the world. And despite the Washington Times’ headline, it doesn’t look like Crockford has personal scientific expertise with regard to polar bears. Red flag right there.
But let’s see what we can find out about Crockford’s credentials. Her Polar Bear Science website says she is a zoologist and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She also runs a consulting company called Pacific Identifications that analyzes bone and shell fragments for biologists and archaeologists. Here, she is identified as an evolutionary biologist with a specialty in skeletal taxonomy. Judging from the impressive client list on the company’s website, this is a viable organization and Crockford is indeed an expert in identifying skeletal animal remains. That would explain why she is an adjunct (limited, part-time) faculty member in the Anthropology department, which checks out on the U-Vic website.
It took some digging, but I found out the focus of her Ph.D., which she received from U-Vic in Interdisciplinary Studies (Anthropology/Biology) in 2004. Her dissertation, Animal Domestication and Vertebrate Speciation: A Paradigm for the Origin of Species, examines the role of thyroid hormones in vertebrate domestication and speciation. I learned that she has spent almost 20 years studying the history and evolution of dogs.
But Susan Crockford is not a polar bear expert. She is not a scientist who has made a career doing research on polar bears. She is not a tenured faculty member nor affiliated with any scientific organization that studies polar bears. She has not written about polar bears in refereed academic journals. She says on her website that “polar bear evolution is one of my professional interests,” but I see nothing that indicates she has credible expertise. She may know a great deal about how dogs have come to be, but she is not a leading or even viable source when it comes to understanding polar bear biology and how they are adapting to a changing Arctic.
Indeed, further sleuthing (simply via Googling her name and university affiliation) reveals that Dr. Crockford is a recipient of funding from the Heartland Institute, a conservative/libertarian think tank at the forefront of efforts to deny human-caused climate change, and which has been decried as anti-science by the respected science journal Nature.
The Heartland Institute has received extensive funding from Exxon Mobil specifically designated to influence public opinion and policy on climate change issues. Crockford has been a speaker at the institute’s International Climate Science Coalition, though she declined to respond to a 2012 inquiry by the U-Vic student newspaper that uncovered the monthly payments she receives from the organization. And the university did not pursue any conflict-of-interest concerns since Crockford holds a “non-remunerated appointment as an adjunct, a professional zooarcheologist associate,” according to the Anthropology department website. She is not even a professor, but an unpaid, loosely affiliated consultant.
So we have another red flag flying high when it comes to trusting Crockford’s claims about the well-being of polar bears or Arctic ecology in general.
Crockford is looking like a source that can’t be trusted. How about the reporter who interviewed her?
It doesn’t appear that Washington Times reporter Valerie Richardson taps any other sources or delves into any additional context when presenting Susan Crockford’s position. And does Richardson herself have any expertise in determining whether Crockford is a credible source? The Times says Richardson “covers politics and the West from Denver.” A survey of her bylined stories on the Times’ website indicates that she writes on a wide gamut of topics. That shouldn’t necessarily disqualify her, but she is not a science specialist, and her journalistic judgment in this story is profoundly flawed. Furthermore, Richardson’s LinkedIn profile indicates she has been at the Washington Times for 29 years. It doesn’t appear she has diversified her journalistic background beyond that single, arch-conservative outlet.
Compare Richardson’s background with the credentials of Erica Goode, author of the New York Times story I cited at the top of this post (“Human-Driven Global Warming is Biggest Threat to Polar Bears”), to which Crockford is responding, calling it “fake news.” Goode’s background as a science writer is extensive, running the Science and Society section at U.S. News & World Report before coming to the New York Times, where she was named Environment Editor in 2009, launching a new department covering environmental issues. Goode has also been an American Association for Advancement of Science Mass Media fellow and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. As a specialist in science reporting with an advanced degree in science, Goode is likely to understand and present scientific information more reliably, including choosing credible sources.
So basically, we are being asked by the Washington Times, relying only on Susan Crockford’s account, to believe that she is a more capable analyst when it comes to the condition of polar bears than career biologists with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service who spend entire careers in the Arctic closely monitoring the species. Now, unless one is a complete captive of pre-determining ideology, one must concede that Crockford’s assessment that the just-released FWS report calling climate change the biggest threat to the polar bear’s survival is “sensationalized nonsense” is itself nonsense.
But what about Crockford’s claims? Is there any credence to them? She contends we aren’t seeing any problems for polar bears and indeed, their population is stable, and they are adapting just fine, despite relying for millennia on sea ice from which to hunt their dietary staple of seals. Even though it’s clear she is unqualified to weigh in on this subject, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, for the sake of this exercise, and consider her claims.
From the Washington Times article: “The polar bear was listed as threatened in 2008 as a result of declining Arctic sea ice, but its population has proved remarkably resilient, although the Fish and Wildlife Service plan doesn’t mention that, [Crockford] said.”
And this: “Studies have shown increases in some of the 19 Arctic polar bear populations. In 2013, the FWS reported the Chukchi Sea population in Alaska was doing ‘quite well,’ while the Norwegian Polar Institute found in 2015 that the Barents Sea polar bears had risen by 42 percent since 2004.”
Well, there’s some truth here, but it’s not that simple, and Crockford is deceiving by omission, by not presenting the full, more complex story — which the New York Times article does present.
If we turn to the New York Times story on the FWS report, we read this:
“Overall, the global polar bear population has remained steady, but in some areas — including the southern Beaufort Sea, off the Alaska coast — the population has declined, and the bears’ physical condition has deteriorated…The number of bears in the southern Beaufort Sea has decreased over the last decade, to about 900 bears, from about 1,500 in 2006.”
While the FWS report focuses on polar bears in the U.S. Arctic (the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea populations), other declines have been tracked in Canada, including the Southern Hudson Bay population, where diminishing sea ice is also weakening polar bears, not just in numbers but in the size and strength of those that remain. Research indicates polar bear birth rates are down, with fewer instances of triplet births, once common, which scientists believe is due to malnourished mothers. And more cubs are dying due to drowning while swimming long distances between ice floes and being cannibalized by hungry adult males.
World Wildlife Fund, the planet’s largest and arguably most respected conservation organization, states “the latest data from the IUCN [international Union for the Conservation of Nature] Polar Bear Specialist Group show that three subpopulations are in decline and that there is a high estimated risk of future decline due to climate change.”
Those three populations are a bellwether for the remaining members of the species, as scientists believe it is only a matter of time before sea ice loss will affect other populations.
An IUCN study released in 2015 found a “‘high probability’ of a 30 percent decline in polar bear numbers by 2050 due to retreating sea ice.” Research from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that monitors the extent of sea ice at its lowest point each year, in September, shows it has shrunk at a rate of 14 percent per decade from 1979 to 2011.
As reported in the Guardian, presenting the findings of the IUCN 2015 study, “Annual ice-free periods of five months or more will spread hunger among polar bears, the IUCN study said, pushing the species over a ‘tipping point,’ with widespread reproductive failure and starvation in some areas. Latest projections indicate that swaths of the Arctic could be ice-free for five months of the year or more by mid-century.”
While there are variations in the ice pack from year to year, and indeed the IUCN study found one polar bear subpopulation increasing though still reduced compared to historic numbers, there is no question that Arctic sea ice levels are diminishing overall, both in terms of their extent and depth, and the length of time the Arctic remains ice-covered. In climate-sensitive regions where polar bear hunting seasons are getting shorter, bears are hungrier, smaller, thinner and reproducing at a lower rate. There is no controversy among polar bear biologists over these facts.
The New York Times article sums it up thusly:
“Biologists agree that there will be a pronounced drop in the overall polar bear population as the Arctic ice cover continues to decrease. Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, the main staple of their diet.”
This reality does not bode well for future of polar bears, and reducing the pace at which the Arctic is warming is, in the eyes of legitimate scientists, their only hope.
This exercise I just engaged in — taking apart a news story and analyzing it in detail for credibility – is going to be ever more important in an era in which the very definition and place of journalism is being turned on its head. But the average reader is not going to be able to devote the time to do it the way I just did. Thus, a citizen’s best bet is to identify a number of diverse, consistently reliable sources and consult those regularly. Certain publications may have political leanings — the New York Times tilts center-left, for instance, while the Wall Street Journal is center-right — their reporting is generally accurate and meticulous, unlike most blogs or ardently partisan outlets like the Washington Times or Occupy Democrats or the like.
Eventually, the ability to detect B.S. —what is viable news and what isn’t — becomes second nature. But we must invest more effort in assessing our news sources if we want to keep a place for facts in the contemporary world and make decisions based upon them. Sadly, however, plenty of people couldn’t care less.
Wendy Redal holds an M.A. in Journalism and a Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she formerly taught Contemporary Mass Media, Media & Public Opinion, and Environment, Media & Culture, among other courses.