Media Coverage of the Economics of Climate Policy: A Discussion Paper

How Much Would You Pay to Save the Planet? The American Press and the Economics  of Climate Change 
Discussion Paper

By Eric Pooley 
Kalb Fellow, Shorenstein Center, Fall 2008 
Contributor at Time Magazine 

Read the paper.

Eric Pooley, a former Fortune managing editor and Time chief political correspondent, recently published a discussion paper that examines media coverage of the federal climate policy debate.

In his paper, Pooley explores the question: "How is the press doing on the climate solutions story?” Specifically, his paper examines media coverage of climate change with a focus on reporting of the economic debate over the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008. Pooley argues that news organizations should devote greater attention to the climate policy story, and reporters must help fulfill a glaring need for public education about climate change with good explanatory journalism. He argues that there is an emerging consensus among economists that well-designed climate policy would not derail the U.S. economy, and that journalists have failed to report this consensus and have given undue attention to “doomsday forecasts” produced by opponents of climate action.

"This is the great political test, and the great story, of our time," writes Pooley. "But news organizations have not been treating it that way." He goes on to add, “It is time for editors to treat climate policy as a permanent, important beat: tracking a mobilization for the moral equivalent of war.”

The paper emphasizes the enormous complexities of the issue, and Pooley challenges reporters to devote the time required to grasp and explain them to readers in a straight, understandable way.

Pooley’s analysis is based on 40 print articles that examined the cost debate published between December 2007 and June 2008 in national and regional newspapers, wire services, and news magazines. Twenty-four stories are identified as works of journalistic stenography – or he said/she said pieces – and seven are one-sided articles. Pooley finds nine articles that attempt to explain the arguments and offer conclusions “with varying degrees of success.”

“It falls to the press to be an honest broker in this debate – sympathetic to the idea that change must come, yet rigorous in its analysis of competing claims,” he writes.

Pooley argues that reporters too often played the role of stenographer, presenting the give and take of the debate without questioning an argument’s validity. Instead of being stenographers, Pooley challenges journalists to act as referees of the climate debate, “keeping both sides honest by calling fouls and failures to play by the rules.” Playing referee carries greater responsibilities and requires more time and work to grapple with complex issues and present them in an understandable and compelling way. But the details of climate policy are greatly important, notes Pooley, and reporters who operate as honest referees serve a critical role in the debate.


 

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