Photo illustrating story clouds issue

Brown cloud not the result of CO2 emissions

October 20, 2007, Rocky Mountain News

by David Kopel

Climate change is in the air, but the Rocky Mountain News'local coverage of the topic has room for improvement. Consider the ridiculous photo chosen to illustrate the Oct. 16 story, "Local activists urge stronger CO2 controls."

The picture showed the brown cloud over Denver in 1996, with the caption "A brown cloud of pollution obscures the Denver skyline in 1996. Though significant improvements have been made since then, activists say problems remain."

In fact, carbon dioxide - the subject of the story - does absolutely nothing to cause visible air pollution, such as the brown cloud. To the contrary, catalytic converters on automobiles reduce emissions of particulate matter (which help cause the brown cloud) by breaking complex molecules to tiny CO2 molecules. The only connection between the pollutant-heavy brown cloud and CO2 is that reducing the former gets you more of the latter. (The Rockydid the right thing by issuing a correction on Friday.)

The article explained that activists want the state to regulate CO2 from "the oil and gas industry." So by way of background, the article noted that "Last year, state air pollution regulators began forcing oil and gas producers to reduce emissions such as nitrogen oxide and other volatile organic compounds . . . "

In fact, nitrogen oxide is not a "volatile organic compound." It's not "organic" because it doesn't contain carbon.

Not every reporter who writes on the environment will know the basic facts from high school chemistry, but for writers who don't (including the author of this one in the Rocky, and me, too), the editing process should include review by someone who does.

Thanks to reader Douglas W. Steinshouer for the tip on the caption.

Another climate change article in the Rockyhad a problem that any reporter should have addressed. An Oct. 11 piece reported on a climate change plan endorsed by three Colorado mayors. According to the article, the recommendations include that the state adopt: "strict CO2 emissions - reducing standards for cars, a move which would boost new car prices by about $900 but save $1.88 billion in reduced fuel costs, according to the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization."

What a strange way to report data. The article never specified a time period for the $1.88 billion savings. I asked Stephen Saunders, of the RMCO, who explained that the savings was for a 10-year period.

The extra individual cost ($900) for a new car was juxtaposed against total social savings in fuel costs ($1.88 billion). It have been better for the article to compare apples to apples, and also include the estimated individual savings. Saunders led me to a report by the California EPA which claimed (without providing any supporting calculations) that increased fuel efficiency would make up for the extra car payments (presuming a five-year car loan), so that a car buyer would net several dollars in savings per month.

A front-page story in the Oct. 8 Denver Postreported on Republican pessimism about Bob Schaffer's Senate campaign against Mark Udall. Strangely, the article said nothing about a Ciruli Associates poll that had been released a few days before, showing Udall with 36 percent of voter support and Schaffer with 35 percent. The poll had been reported in the Oct. 5 Rocky.

On Oct. 10, the day after the announcement of the Coors-Miller beer merger, the Rockyran eight articles analyzing the merger from various angles, including the impact on consumer prices, the background of Miller's South African owner, and the effects on local beer distributors. An insightful analysis argued that Coors was repeating the same mistake it had made in its merger with Molson: trying to address its own slow growth by merging with another larger, slow-growing company.

The Post,in contrast, offered only three articles which skimmed the surface of the complex business issues.

An excellent article in the Post on Oct. 12 offered a retrospective on the last time a capital sentence was carried out in Colorado - the 1997 execution of Gary Davis for the vicious murder of Ginny May.

"Public support for death penalty slips slightly," was the headline for the continuation of the article, giving undue emphasis to a single paragraph in a lengthy story that was filled with poignant interviews of people involved in the case, and extensive background about the issue in Colorado.

As the story did report, polling shows a decline in death-penalty support from 80 percent in 1994 to "about a two-thirds majority now." Yet the 69 percent figure in the recent Gallup Poll actually indicates a slight increase in recent years, and a higher level of support than has been the norm since Gallup began asking about the question in 1936. The 1994 level was part of a record peak in the 1990s, when public fears of crime had become intense.

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