Fast-breaking developments surrounding leaks of what were portrayed to be original documents from the ‘skeptical’ Heartland Institute carry lessons for all. But only if we step back and cogitate … things not in the DNA of the 24/7 blog news cycle.

Some of the best journalism never reaches the light of day.

It involves stories that don’t make it, stories a reporter decides not to pursue, stories that get spiked between the reporter’s pen and the editor’s knife. Stories that end up on the cutting room floor. In some cases, the best stories are those that are “late” by traditional newsroom standards, let alone by the standards of the 24/7 news cycle.

Most reporters most of the time run across far more potential stories than they could possibly file. The volume of material that daily crosses their desks, their laptops, tablets, and cell phones, dwarfs what eventually makes its way to being “news.” What they consciously decide not to follow is a critical measure of their journalistic expertise.

A cliché among many in the news media is that if told their mother loves them, reporters will believe it. But only after getting it confirmed by two independent sources.

News Analysis

Verification, attribution, and authentication are critical steps in a competent reporter’s news-making process.

In the recent experience involving the leaked documents purportedly from one of the nation’s most recognizable climate “contrarian” groups, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, that term — authentication — came up often and early among serious journalists reviewing their would-be windfall.

That windfall, it’s important to remember, arrived without a single reporter raising a finger or breaking into the faintest of sweats in unearthing it: a set of 15 journalists and activists needed do no more than open an e-mail from a self-described but otherwise unidentifiable “Heartland Insider.” (Not.)

No enterprise or “deep throat” reporting. Just click and open.

Another thing to keep in mind. Some news stories are just made for TV — lots of visuals, lots of emotions. Think car chases for instance. Some are made for newspapers or magazines. In the case of the Heartland would-be “exposé,” this one was neither. It was Heaven-sent for blogs and for the 24/7 Web.

No sooner had it hit those 15 in-boxes, of course, than it ricocheted across cyberspace, echoed widely hither and fro. Serious news outlets immediately wondered about its authenticity, while at the same time experiencing the unique buzz that accompanies a seeming “scoop.” Many bloggers didn’t. It’s just not the way they work, not in their DNA, not a part of their news culture.

If true and authentic and obtained in a fair and ethical way, mind you, these documents — at least a few of them — could have provided behind-the-veil insights into one of the most prominent climate “skeptic” groups. The real nugget, it appeared to many, was that entitled “2012 Climate Strategy.” That’s the one most likely to get the headlines, most likely to include the news gems, to spill the beans, so to speak.

Only one problem here, and it’s a big one. It’s precisely that document that those inclined to value “authenticity” and best journalistic practices found most wanting.

Lessons, Painful and Otherwise, to be Learned

With that background, what can one learn from the recent Heartland experience?

Some activist blogs of course rushed quickly to post and quote. (It would be undeserved flattery to say that they rushed to “report.”) Many journalists, as one would hope but perhaps not enough, took a more studied approach, seeking to report and independently “authenticate” before giving the light of day. That did not mean that major outlets like Britain’s Guardian and The New York Times and The Washington Post didn’t proceed soon with the story, but they did so, by and large, in a way distinctly different from the approach of the instant bloggers. A.P. waited an uncharacteristically long several days before deciding, rightly or wrongly, that its independent reporting justified its story.

There’s a universal desire on the part of many journalists: Get it first. But first get it right. Some strived to do so, and their patience will pay off. Others, regrettably, put “first” ahead of “right,” inevitably compromising the latter for the former.

Their situation was not helped — who ever might have expected it would be? — by Heartland, the nonprofit group at the heart of the issue in the first place. Heartland waited hours, a century by Web standards, after the initial release before posting on its own website an awkwardly worded statement that did more to cloud than clarify the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of the leaked files. It maintained in that announcement that the group’s president, Joseph L. Bast, the presumed author of the purloined documents, “was traveling at the time this story broke yesterday afternoon and still has not had the opportunity to read them all to see if they were altered.” Huh? It did, however, say that the purported climate strategy two-pager “is a total fake,” not written by anyone associated with the group.

There followed a series of “independent” (you decide) looks into the so-called 2012 climate strategy two-pager, easily the most meaty and most “revealing” of the various documents distributed. Without that document — and without its being authentic — there was still legitimate news value in the leaked material, notwithstanding how it was made public. But that document, now dismissed as invalid, should have been declared DOA in any legitimate newsroom.

Reporting on a “myth” or a “hoax,” one might say, does society no good in coming to grips with an issue of the importance and complexity of climate change, regardless of one’s own views on the subject scientifically, economically, politically, or otherwise.

A Smorgasbord of Relevant Links

For those wanting to follow up — or is it “wallow” in — the whole tawdry affair, a series of reports and posts on the whole murky situation, some of course raising as many questions as they do providing answers:

The End in Sight? Not Hardly

Lots of clichés abound.

The beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.

Friendly fire, or shooting oneself in the foot.

With friends like this, no need for enemies.

And, of course, the always-annoying “gate” suffix … First it was “Heartlandgate,” “Denialgate,” and then came “Fakegate.” (Anyone for no more “…gates”?) And who knows how much longer that will continue?

More important issues will arise too:

  • The proper role of the traditional news media in reporting on climate and such — hopefully rare — episodes as this one.
  • The relationship between the establishment science community convinced by the evidence of the seriousness of the climate change issue and “activist” interests who support them, but who may carry their own brand of baggage.
  • The wisdom — or lack of — in Heartland’s full-throated legal threats to bloggers and media that posted and wrote on the original leaked documents. And whether those threats, real or imagined, while no doubt helping keep the story alive, have the “chilling” effect no doubt hoped for in issuing them, in particular on small news and information outlets and freelancers.
  • The question of whether any such legal proceeding initiated by Heartland, either against an individual or against an organization, could lead to “discovery” proceedings that could unmask and perhaps discomfort funders and backers.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, the impacts on public attitudes toward climate science, toward climate “skeptics,” and the ongoing dialogue on climate change science, mitigation, and adaptation.

Like it or hate it, it’s unlikely this chapter of the climate change science/policy/politics dialogue is going away any time soon. You can expect to hear lots more about it in coming weeks and months.

Just remember: Verification. Attribution. And Authentication.

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