Other side of the equation missing

Some recent science-related stories have fallen short when it comes to balance

by David Kopel

Jan. 19, 2003, Rocky Mountain News

If Chicken Little had been a journalist, a good editor might have told her something like: "Your story does present evidence that the sky is falling, since something hit you on the head. But I think you should look for some sources who could balance the story, or who might interpret the evidence differently." Too often, though, media coverage of environmental issues offers only dire warnings, without scientific balance or diverse perspective.

For example, Scripps Howard writer Joan Lowy reported (Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 7) that the EPA was considering a new rule restricting the scope of the Clean Water Act.

In the lead paragraph, she announced that that the new rule would "leave many of the nation's smaller waterways and isolated wetlands unprotected from pollution discharges and destruction by developers." The article was replete with dire warnings from environmental groups about the allegedly catastrophic consequences of the new rule.

In the final paragraph, Lowy noted that the EPA was "reacting" to a 2001 Supreme Court case, but she failed to give her readers a clear explanation of the court's decision. The court had ruled the Clean Water Act does not apply to isolated intrastate bodies of water. Accordingly, the EPA is legally bound to write a new rule reflecting the court's determination.

The EPA declined to comment for Lowy's story, but this was no excuse for her to refuse to offer readers even a single word in defense of the new rule.

Similarly, a Dec. 17 News article by Lowy accurately reported a press release by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies that 2002 was the warmest year on record. But Lowy didn't report that the Goddard data were based on surface temperatures, and that some scientists believe that rising recorded surface temperatures are simply an artifact of expanding urban areas, which create "heat islands" near formerly rural monitoring stations. As the Journal of Climate reported in 2002 (Vol. 15, Page 2412), satellite data from NASA show no temperature change in the lower atmosphere since 1979. Global warming theory predicts that, if global warming were occurring, the lower atmosphere would be the first place where warming would take place.

On Jan. 10, Denver Post science writer Diedtra Henderson announced that "Warming temperatures have already gnawed away at the ice reserves at the Earth's poles." Well, that's not really so clear. Last year, the Annals of Glaciology (Vol. 34, Page 435) reported that the Antarctic region where ice is expanding is about twice as big as the region where ice is shrinking.

Up at the North Pole, a 2001 article in Geophysical Research Letters (Vol. 28, Page 1039) reported that submarine sonar research showed "the thickness of the sea-ice cover has remained on a constant level" since 1986.

By deadline time, Henderson had not responded to my e-mail asking about her article. Certainly the above citations don't conclusively prove that global warming is not taking place, but they do show that the issue is very much open to question - as Henderson commendably acknowledged by explaining that scientists are unsure about the reasons behind the recent warming trend in the Earth's surface temperature.

When President Bush announced his tax cut proposal, the News (Jan. 8) offered five stories looking at different angles. News writer Allison Linn put together a balanced selection of local critics and opponents of the plan, showcasing a good variety of arguments. An Associated Press article told the main story, with a balance of support and criticism.

But two other articles, one from Bloomberg and the other from The New York Times, amounted to little more than class warfare editorials, offering one-sided criticisms that the tax cut is skewed to the rich.

Neither article offered the other side of the story - that the tax system is currently skewed against the rich. The top 5 percent of taxpayers make 35.3 percent of the income and pay 56.5 percent of all federal income taxes, while the bottom 50 percent of taxpayers make 13 percent of the income and pay about 4 percent of federal income taxes, according to the Tax Foundation.

"Sex abuse for nuns is next issue for church" headlined the Post (Jan. 5) in reprinting part of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story. The truncated article reported that "about 40 percent of all U.S. nuns have suffered some form of sexual trauma." The full Post-Dispatch article explained that the 40 percent was the lifetime rate for any incident with any person (e.g, a student who had an affair with a high school teacher years before she became a nun). According to the full article, the percentage of nuns who had been sexually exploited in their religious life was 12 percent, which included everything from being pressured for dates to (for about 5 percent of nuns) some kind of genital contact. This 5 percent figure is quite different from the 40 percent impression created by the abbreviated story in The Denver Post.

Kudos to the Post for its Jan. 5 article looking back at the 2002 economic forecasts offered by its panel of experts in December 2001. The experts were mostly wrong, as the Post forthrightly acknowledged.

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