Time Reporter and Two Leading Scientists: Perspectives on Early Media Coverage of ‘Climategate’

The reverberations of the hacked e-mails fiasco – conveniently or otherwise characterized as “climategate” – continue to be felt deeply within the journalism and scientific communities.

In many ways, the episode that originated six months ago remains a pivotal moment for media coverage of climate change. The Yale Forum asked three people with deep involvement in, and different perspectives on,  the story to look back at how the media performed in the controversy’s initial stages, and to offer some lessons learned (see related posting).


Bryan Walsh, environment and climate
writer for Time magazine

“Looking back, we might have been slow to grasp the full political impact of the e-mails. I’m happy with what [Time] did – I think it was important to write about the e-mails in context, to try explain what they did – and didn’t – mean for the science of climate change. That’s what I tried to do in [my initial] piece.

“But maybe we should have more fully explored what this would do to the political consensus, or lack thereof, on climate action. I suspected from the start it was going to have an enormous impact and it has, but it was difficult to balance exploring that fact without appearing to give the e-mails far more scientific weight than I thought they deserved.”

Judith Curry, chair, School of Earth and
Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech

“The climategate story exploded in the internet blogosphere, and also in the U.K. main stream media. When climategate broke, the mainstream media in the U.S. was infatuated with the Tiger Woods story, and pretty much ignored climategate.

“Conservative talk radio and cable news picked up the story in a big way. The mainstream media plus representatives from key institutions were relatively silent on the issue, leaving talk radio to fill the void. They framed the story, and the result is a crisis in credibility for climate research and the IPCC in particular.

“Credibility is a combination of expertise and trust; the few defenses or explanations of climategate that were put forward by the scientists or their institutions sought to shore-up issues related to expertise, but arguably made the trust issue even worse. Appealing to their own authority [was] not only unconvincing, but the perceived arrogance further diminished the trust.

“Climategate is a complex issue and I suspect that it is a story that will simmer for a long time yet.”

Michael Mann, director, Earth System
Science Center, Penn State

(Some of Mann’s work and e-mails were directly involved in the controversy):

“I do think that many normally responsible journalists fell hook, line, and sinker for a dishonest smear campaign here, and that is really unfortunate.

“There is also a real irony in the very concept of ‘climategate.’ After all, Watergate wasn’t about the stolen information; it was about the criminal nature of the theft. What happened to investigative journalism? Where is the attempt to get to the bottom of the real crime, the stealing of personal information followed by intentional misrepresentation, cherry-picking, and distortion, and the well-funded PR campaign to manufacture a controversy out of it?

“Fortunately, some outlets have done a responsible job of covering the matter. Nature had a very thoughtful editorial on the matter back in early December. The Washington Post has done a decent job covering the story, as has the AP (particularly, AP reporter Seth Borenstein). Unfortunately, there has been far more sloppy and uncritical reporting. I think it’s a real wake-up call for science journalism specifically, but for journalism more generally.

“I also think that in time, it will be clear that little if any of the ‘climategate’ allegations have any validity at all. But the damage will have been done, and the smearers will have won.”

Note: E-mail Q&A compiled by John Wihbey.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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