When lawmakers considered a bill to effectively outlaw sea-level science, some news outlets adopted the ‘he said, she said’ model of reporting on scientific controversy.

North Carolina legislators became a subject of national mockery in June when they considered a bill that would have outlawed preparations for projected — and accelerated — sea-level rise.

Stephen Colbert lampooned the bill in a five-minute segment on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. Bloggers excoriated the proposal in Scientific American and the Huffington Post, and at Grist, Jess Zimmerman called the bill “crazeballs.”

But as commentators snickered at the state’s expense, many local and national news reporters studiously presented “both sides” of the controversial bill. In some cases, their reporting positioned dubious scientific claims alongside the work of career scientists, without providing a clear evidence-based explanation.

In doing so, some reporters may have left readers unsure of whether lawmakers were taking a cautious approach to scientific uncertainties — or putting coastal dwellers at risk.

What Does The Evidence Say?

Tidal records show sea levels along the North Carolina coast rising at a slow pace. A tidal gauge in the port city of Wilmington shows that sea levels increased about two millimeters a year between 1935 and 2002, or about eight inches per century. At the northern Outer Banks town of Duck, where the land is slowly sinking, measurements show that sea levels are rising at a rate of close to 17 inches a century.

But scientists looking into the issue expect sea-level rise to accelerate around the world during the 21st century as land-based ice sheets melt and rising temperatures cause oceans to warm and expand. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that seas could rise by 0.6 to 1.9 feet. Many scientists view this projection as overly conservative, and more recent studies predict a global sea-level rise of two to 6.5 feet by 2100, according to a report by the National Research Council.

In North Carolina, a panel of scientists and engineers drew on those projections and in a 2010 report said the state should plan for 39 inches of sea-level rise by 2100.

Rise of A Sea-Level Controversy

Soon after the science panel issued its projection, the coastal-development group NC-20 denounced the report as faulty science (see related story on the controversy). Imposing regulations to account for rising waters, NC-20 members said, would stymie the coastal economy and send insurance rates soaring.

Writer Kirk Ross, in a story published on the website of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an environmental advocacy group, broke the story this May that the state’s Republican-led General Assembly was considering the idea of legislating the sea-level problem away. House Bill 819 would have prohibited coastal cities and towns from taking accelerating sea-level rise into account as they plan new development.

Instead, the bill said, state and local regulations would be based only on projections from historical sea-level data — so regulators would plan for as little as eight inches of rise over the next century.

After the measure attracted national ridicule, the state House unanimously rejected the bill. In early July, both chambers of the General Assembly passed a watered-down version imposing a four-year moratorium on sea-level regulations and ordering a new scientific study of the issue.

On the One-Hand-This, The-Other-Hand-That Studies …

By mid-July, reporters for two North Carolina papers and several national papers and wire services had produced at least 22 stories about the sea-level bill. The Yale Forum reviewed stories about the bill that appeared in two of North Carolina’s metro dailies, The (Raleigh) News & Observer (where this correspondent interned in 2008) and Wilmington’s Star-News. The Yale Forum also analyzed stories distributed nationwide by North Carolina-based reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times, and one story for U.S. News & World Report by a D.C.-based intern.

In writing the news stories, reporters largely played it straight, taking a pass on making jokes while delivering solid information about the status of the bill as it worked its way through the legislature. Yet reporters took a variety of approaches to handling competing claims about how much sea levels might rise by 2100.

In eight of those 22 stories, reporters positioned the scientific claims of sea-level skeptics alongside the work of career scientists, with no clear explanation of who might be right.

In a story for the Los Angeles Times, for example, David Zucchino framed the controversy as a “he said, she said” debate. (Zucchino, like this correspondent, has taught at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Zucchino wrote that “Stanley R. Riggs, an East Carolina University geologist and one of 19 scientists who made the 39-inch projection, said the bill represents ‘a criminally serious disregard for science.'”

Zucchino also listed the sources the state’s science panel had relied on to obtain its 39-inch projection: tide gauges, satellite altimetry, storm records, and geologic data.

But readers also learned that others had developed their own estimate of how much seas will rise: only eight inches. The bill’s supporters derived this prediction from “tide gauges and carbon dioxide levels,” and also from “studies that project no or minimal sea-level rise.”

NC-20 chairman Tom Thompson, economic development director for coastal Beaufort County, told Zucchino that the 39-inch prediction is “dishonest statistically” and that climate change is “‘a phobia’ pushed by environmentalists.” Zucchino’s story did not offer an explanation of how Thompson justified those characterizations.

Nor did the story elaborate on or contest Thompson’s claim that seas would only rise eight inches, even though there is a scientific consensus that sea-level rise will accelerate during the 21st century.

Some Stories Point to Scientific Consensus

Among those 22 stories reviewed, 12 contained at least a kernel of information to help readers understand the scientific context of the controversy. Like the Los Angeles Times story described above, many of the stories described dueling studies and pitted scientists against less-credible sources making scientific claims. But 12 of those stories included one or more sentences on where the balance of scientific evidence lies.

A story for The News & Observer, for example, included a scientifically dubious claim by NC-20 chairman Tom Thompson: “To say 39 inches in 88 years is just so far outside the historical realm, it’s just impossible,” Thompson told the paper.

But reporter Bruce Siceloff noted that an acceleration in sea-level rise had “been predicted by several national scientific societies and other scientists.”

Similarly, a passage from a story in the Star-News described two opposing claims about sea-level rise. Reporter Patrick Gannon wrote that the state’s science panel “recommended that a sea level rise of 39 inches, or 1 meter, be adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by the year 2100 for policy development and planning purposes.”

The story then quoted state Senator David Rouzer, who said that other, unnamed scientists dispute the 39-inch projection and that “state policies shouldn’t be based on the ‘thinking of massive global warming’ by one group of scientists.”

In this story, the reporter did provide some context for the two claims, acknowledging the state science panel’s view that “there is consensus among scientists that the rate of rise will increase this century and beyond at least in part because of global warming and the melting of polar ice caps.”

Reporting Controversy in Context

In a handful of stories, reporters provided details about the scientific context of the sea- level controversy.

In a News & Observer story reporting on a USGS study that found that sea level rise has accelerated along the East Coast, for instance, reporters Bruce Siceloff and J.N. Miller wrote that “Global sea level is projected to rise 2 to 3 feet or more by the end of the 21st century, but will not climb at the same rate everywhere. Differences in land movements, strength of ocean currents, water temperatures and salinity can affect sea-level highs and lows.” Their story did not include any information or quotes contesting such claims.

In another News & Observer story, headlined “Numbers in sea-level debate not so simple,” reporter Kerstin Nordstrom described the origins of two numbers that figured prominently in the sea level controversy: eight inches and 39 inches.

Nordstrom explained that the eight-inch figure was based on historical data from the southern part of the coast. “Since the ocean rose eight inches during the last century, legislators would require that governments assume a rise of eight inches during the next century, at least in that part of the state,” she wrote. “The future will look like the past.”

She went on to explain that the science panel had opted for an estimate of more than eight inches because of “the widely held idea that a warming atmosphere will accelerate the rise in sea level over the next century.”

Readers learned from that story what causes sea-level rise: sinking land, melting glaciers, and expansion of ocean waters in a warmer atmosphere. The story also explained, through quotes from geologist Stanley Riggs, that the science panel at first had predicted a range for how much the sea could rise by 2100, between 20 and 55 inches. But, Nordstrom wrote that “the state requested a single number, so the panel somewhat begrudgingly chose 39 inches.”

Nordstrom’s article clearly and accurately described the scientific context for the sea-level debate. But her story was a rarity in a sea of “balanced” stories about the controversy.

News Balance as Bias?

Some scientists and media researchers have criticized American journalists for taking a “balanced” approach to coverage of science, giving equal weight to each side of a controversy without sufficient regard for the preponderance of evidence.

Amid such criticisms, most journalists at major U.S. newspapers in recent years have moved away from “balanced” coverage in stories about climate change science, as University of Colorado media researcher Maxwell T. Boykoff has documented. His research shows that by 2006, the proportion of climate news stories with a “false balance” had dropped to about 3 percent of coverage (see related story).

More recently, Boykoff and colleagues have demonstrated that between 1989 and 2009, most journalists at major newspapers have accurately reported scientific predictions about sea-level rise.

There are some concerns in journalism circles that all that could change as communities begin to make controversial decisions about whether to retreat from the coasts or to continue investing in shoreline infrastructure …. and as metropolitan news outlets continue shrinking their news and editorial staffs and rely more and more on general assignment reporters. As communities make their sea-level decisions, more lawmakers and interest groups are likely to invoke the imprimatur of science, as they have in North Carolina, to claim “the science” supports this or that view of future sea-level rise.

An unknown involves whether there will be a vigilant and watchful news media to provide the public an independent arbiter concerning the future of their coastal resources.

Additional Reading

Not surprisingly in these days of deep staff cuts at metro dailies, much of the in-depth reporting about the North Carolina sea-level controversy emerged outside of daily newspapers.

  • The Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham, N.C.-based independent media organization founded by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, dug into campaign finance reports to show that the real estate industry has been generous to lawmakers who supported the bill to stop sea-level regulations.
  • The Independent Weekly, an alt-weekly headquartered in Durham, examined the people and organizations behind NC-20, the interest group supporting the bill.
  • WRAL.com, the online affiliate of the Raleigh-based television news station, took a look at the scientific credentials of John Droz, a leading critic of the prediction that seas could rise by 39 inches. WRAL.com reported that Droz “has yet to publish a single peer-reviewed article in any credible journal.”
  • In a Q&A format, New Scientist discusses the basic evidence for sea-level rise, explaining why some studies show a deceleration in sea-level rise.
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