Global-warming panel asks, ‘Can we act in time?’

May 5, 2007

May 5, 2007 — The Shorenstein Center contributed to the Kennedy School’s annual spring conference on May 5 by hosting a panel discussion titled “The Role of the Media in the Discussion of Global Warming.” The panel fit into the larger theme of the conference, titled “The Looming Crises: Can We Act in Time?” The two-day conference was designed to explore areas where change is critical to avert large-scale public crises.

Panelists included Bill Blakemore, correspondent for ABC News; Robert Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis; Cornelia Dean, senior science writer for the New York Times; Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday; and John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and director of the Kennedy School’s program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy. Shorenstein Center Director Alex Jones served as moderator.

Panelists devoted a significant amount of the discussion to debating the merits of journalistic objectivity in the media’s coverage of climate change, including what Blakemore called “the balance fallacy.” He emphasized that giving equal weight to opposing views is important in reporting on opinion-based issues, but not on event-based stories such as global warming. Blakemore attributed the media’s even-handedness toward the subject to the fact that “We were too afraid as individual journalists to decide for ourselves what the scientists were saying.”

Holdren expanded on that point, adding that there is no credible evidence to support the skeptic’s view of global warming. The issue received such balanced treatment, he explained, because skeptics can say a preposterous thing in one sentence that takes an academic expert three paragraphs to rebut. The bottom line, according to Holdren, is that “climate change is a difficult sell in an environment where sound bites are paramount.”