Commentary: Repeating press releases from activists is not environmental journalism

Source: Todd Myers, Washington Policy Institute, October 15, 2019

Todd Will be a featured interlocutor at the Snake River Dam Removal Debate, part the Energy Leadership Summit

Much of what passes for environmental reporting these days is little more than repeating press releases from environmental groups, whether the data they share is meaningful or not.

Last week, the Audubon Society released a report claiming that more than half of Washington’s birds are “at risk” of extinction by 2080. Coverage of the announcement asked no probing questions. Reporters did not challenge the methodology of the study, which was not peer-reviewed or published in a journal. Reporters simply took the story from an activist organization and reported it as truth.

One headline read, “Bird extinction: Climate change threatens two-thirds of North American species.” There was no indication that there was uncertainty about a projection 60 years into the future.

Every media outlet rushed to publish the story. None made time to interview anyone who might disagree. None of the media saw the study in advance or took the time to question the methodology.

Even if they did, there is no journalistic penalty for getting the story wrong. No reporter who covers the latest projection of disaster will be questioned when the story turns out to be false.

Last year, a study was published claiming, “Oceans warming faster than anticipated, giving even less time to stave off worst impacts of climate change, study finds.” Two weeks later, the study was being pulled back and has since been retracted. Some news outlets reported on the errors, but many did not.

Two years ago, the real estate website Zillow created a map showing how sea level rise associated with climate change would impact homes. Reporters simply regurgitated Zillow’s claims. There were, however, several problems. For example, Zillow’s projections were 50 percent higher than the highest scientifically projected increase in sea level. Zillow simply made up a projection. To add further embarrassment, Zillow projected that homes on Lake Washington would be harmed by increasing sea levels, not realizing they were protected by the Ballard Locks.

Reporters justify their lack of curiosity by saying, “better safe than sorry,” arguing if the worst doesn’t come true, that is a good thing. This is a dangerous approach.

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