Lord Stern: the media had ought to “reflect… very carefully” on how they “behaved”

Lord Nicholas Stern gave a lecture at the London School of Economics on 16 March (last week as this is posted, listen here). In addition to calling Freakonomics “cute,” Lord Stern defined the role for the media in the dialogue surrounding climate change, a role that needs to be more socially responsible than it has been.

Here’s what he said:

“If you look at why it is that people are more skeptical about global warming and ask them is it because they read all about the emails at the University of East Anglia or the glaciers in the Himalayas. Some of them, most of them, it’s a cold winter… so I think laying out the evidence if it’s a bad winter… explain to people they live on a planet and different parts of a planet, and have different kinds of experience and here they are, this isn’t so mysterious right?

“And this is the kind of explanation we have to do and you there on Panorama [BBC documentary TV series] ought to be doing exactly this kind of-- you’re there to provoke responsible, serious discussion not to say-- I’m not accusing you directly, let’s talk about the media. If you find someone that says the earth is round and someone that says the earth is flat, do you give them equal airtime? If policy depends on this, giving them equal airtime is deeply irresponsible. And that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to think through.

“If you find out that somebody may have been less than transparent about emails less than transparent in their academic work and may have been because there’s a report coming in about what happened at UEA, you ask yourselves the question: if that person’s work was deleted what difference would it make? … Let’s just suppose it’s deleted, what difference would it make to the 200 year old scientific argument? Joseph Fourier the great French scientist, mathematics, and physicist, who first worked out by looking at the heat stability, heat equilibrium of the earth that something was trapping the green house gases in 1820. Was he part of a conspiracy? This must be a conspiracy with a time machine!

“This is absolutely incredible that people in the media do not ask what is the relevance of the news I’m reporting for the big issue that we’re trying to understand--that’s where the irresponsibility lies-- not in the reporting-- of course these things should be reported, of course we have to have transparent discussion, that’s absolutely fundamental, very important. Yet the IPCC report is 1,000 pages, there must be 15 or 20 mistakes there. It would be an incredibly low number of mistakes in 1,000 pages. But we must open them up to scrutiny, ask ourselves where they are; let’s discuss them, put them right. But also what difference does it make to the basic policy argument about the risks we run from global warming.

“… So there’s some very big questions of how the media have behaved in all this that I think they ought to reflect on and reflect on very carefully and talk to academics who do the work to try to help that process, not just you, it’s all of us. But I found the nature of that discussion, to be rather irresponsible.”

Think before you speak is a concept we all should have been taught as children. And the media has always had a role in history as a rallying force -- the point is, sometime after the second world war (in an abstract, vague sense) the media’s role became more as provocateur, espousing less actual news and more extreme opinion. There is an argument to be had for creating a useful dialogue in airing different opinions, even extreme points of view. But it’s become sloppy, like a great big pile of loose stools. Airing different sides of the argument is no longer constructive.

In the media’s quest for page hits, provoking controversy is the easiest way to go about that. Say something extreme on your channel (webpage, etc.), direct your users to your blog to comment -- your blog that you’ve filled every available centimeter with flashing adverts-- and voila, instant page hits.

I’ve pitched social responsibility in media as a topic for many an editor and I have yet to find one that wants to have this discussion, really and honestly.

The kind of responsibility Stern is talking about may or may not step beyond the “unbiased” media paradigm. But I believe media has never been unbiased, there’s no such thing as unbiased. Even if a news story is reporting the facts-- which facts are being reported, why was the story covered at all, what makes news news and what parts of it are news worthy? Everything is a judgement call. Even considering the nature of being “unbiased” implies a judgement call.

We, the media, have always played an important role is shaping, broadly, the public dialogue on any topic. We need to think about that role again, not only for the future of the planet but perhaps more importantly, for the future of journalism.


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Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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