Media Observers Applaud L.A. Times Policy on Climate Letters to Editor


Calling it ‘healthy,’ ‘a no-brainer,’ and ‘ethical,’ media watchers generally praise the Los Angeles Times decision to no longer publish letters to the editor that outright deny a human role in global warming.

Open the Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages, but don’t go there in pursuit of letters to the editor claiming there’s no evidence humans play a role in global warming.

It’s not for a lack of such letters. Paul Thornton, the L.A. Times’ letters editor, wrote in an October column that the newspaper receives plenty of letters claiming that global warming is a hoax or a liberal scheme.

But Thornton said the L.A. Times simply will no longer consider publishing them.

“I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page,” he wrote. Citing the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which offered a 95-percent level of confidence that people are contributing to global warming — Thornton argued that continuing to deny human involvement in climate change “is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Also see:
A Note from the Editor on the L.A. Times ‘Letters’ Policy

Thornton’s column won praise from environmentalists and accusations of censorship from some climate skeptics.

In recent interviews with The Yale Forum, most media watchers and scholars argued that the approach is ethical and that other news organizations should adopt a similar policy.

“Flat-out statements of untruth, I think, don’t deserve protection,” said Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. “And in fact, I think the policy is healthy — if they tailor it properly, that is, if it’s properly discriminating — I think it should actually be emulated by the other papers.”

The Role of Facts: No ‘Flatly False’ Letters … But …

Many major newspapers print letters to the editor skeptical of climate science. Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog, reported recently that The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, The Washington Post and The New York Times have each published at least one letter in 2013 questioning any human role in global warming.

In interviews with Mother Jones, the editors of major newspapers said they have a range of approaches to letters skeptical of climate change.

Brian Gallagher, editorial page editor at USA Today, told Mother Jones that his paper won’t print letters that are “flatly false.” On the other hand: “Sometimes the 5 percent is right,” he said. “You have to give people who believe the 5-percent opinion their say.”

Gitlin, the Columbia professor, said in an interview with The Yale Forum that it can be dangerous to censor dissenting opinions. He said newspapers probably should print a “very carefully tailored” letter questioning climate science.

“Obviously, free expression is the default position. I mean, one should bend over backward to open it up,” he said. “Expression of opinion needs to be safeguarded and cherished — but that’s not the same thing as making up facts.”

So why not evaluate letters on a case-by-case basis rather than issuing a ban?

Gitlin noted that all bans require case-by-case interpretation unless they’re as simple as “Do not use the phrase ‘so-called climate change’” or “Do not say scientists are divided on the causes of climate change.”

“For more complex statements, some case-by-case reasoning is required,” he said. “But the general principle should be: No denial of facts.”

For example, Gitlin said he would ban letters claiming that creationism is a science, but not letters claiming that creationism is true because the Bible says so.

“So statements like ‘there is no sign that human activity has caused global warming’ or ‘global warming is not taking place’ — those are both untruths,” he said. “They are, I think, legitimately excised. That to me is pretty much a no-brainer.”

Nor would the L.A. Times see a need to run a column saying the paper would no longer publish letters claiming aliens exist or that women are inferior, said Alexis Sobel Fitts, assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. And she said the L.A. Times policy still leaves room to publish letters that question climate science without denying a human role.

“This is just a very narrow step toward stopping a debate which isn’t happening in the scientific sphere,” Fitts said. “It’s not even that courageous a decision.”

The Specter of ‘False Balance’

Several observers expressed concern that by printing letters that deny the scientific consensus, newspapers give too much weight to well-debunked scientific claims.

Because an op-ed page has limited space, Fitts said, a newspaper might have room to print only one letter from a climate scientist, even though a thousand scientists might share that same point of view. If the newspaper prints a second letter denying climate science, that creates false balance, she said.

“If it’s not a debate that’s taking place in the academy, in science, then there really shouldn’t be room for that same debate to happen in an op-ed page, because it’s misrepresenting,” she said.

James Gerstenzang, a former L.A. Times reporter who now is the editorial director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said it doesn’t serve readers to create false balance on the matter of climate change.

“You don’t want to put in facts that aren’t facts, and you don’t want to put in material from people who are deliberately and intentionally wrong,” he said.

Bill Adair, creator of PolitiFact and professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, likened the L.A. Times policy to NPR’s revised ethics handbook. That document, released in 2012, emphasized being “fair to the truth” and said that when the balance of evidence weighs heavily on one side of a controversy, NPR should acknowledge it.

“That was another moment where a news organization said the most important service we can do to our readers is to give them accurate information, and we can actually do a disservice if we allow voices to misrepresent what science is saying,” Adair said.

Editors often strive to print letters reflecting the diversity of opinions in their community. But on the issue of whether human activities are contributing to global warming, the media watchers said, the debate no longer is productive.

“There has been a thorough airing of all sides of the climate debate for many years. But at some point, you have to acknowledge what scientists have found,” Adair said. “Now it’s time to move on with the conversation.”

Journalism Ethics and Transparency Questions

Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said news organizations have a perfect right, legally and ethically, to cease publication of climate-denying letters.

The key, she said, is to be open about rules related to letters and online comments — especially as news transitions more and more to online distribution.

“A lot of news organizations are still trying to figure out where they fit on that spectrum, whether they are going to continue to curate letters the way they did in the old media, or whether they’re going to be a free-for-all online,” she said. “They should be transparent about their policies, upfront about them — not mislead people about what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do.”

Gerstenzang of the Safe Climate Campaign said the L.A. Times’ policy is in line with decades-old newsroom ethical standards.

“The ethics of good journalism aren’t changing,” he said. “It’s more a matter of sticking with the traditional and conventional and historical standards of good journalism — of getting it right and not misleading the reader.”

So, should other news organizations adopt similar policies?

Yes, said Adair of Duke: “Others should follow the L.A. Times’ lead.”

Others no doubt won’t see things exactly the same way: it is, after all, an issue involving climate change, so ongoing disagreement is likely to be part of the landscape for some time.

A Note from the Editor
on the L.A. Times ‘Letters’ Policy

The L.A. Times action raises interesting, and in some ways troubling, questions about journalism/climate change practices.

The move restricting some climate “denier” letters to the editor deserve to get the water cooler buzz going in serious newsrooms around the country. And also in journalism classrooms.

There’s no question that responsible editing should entail a goal of keeping flat-out untruths out of the newspaper, not only in news copy but also in columns and even letters to the editor. That’s the goal notwithstanding it’s being ultimately unachievable as an absolute.

The L.A. Times does well to respect that practice in its Letters policy, where so many are far less scrupulous. If one could only see what passes for “science” in the rambling letters pages of so many of this nation’s weeklies…But I digress.

Whether achieving that ultimate goal necessitates doing it proactively and in advance of receiving and reviewing submitted letters is a different question, one going beyond the merits of the goal itself.

Why not just carry out that “no-untruths” approach on a case-by-case basis, rather than issue a blanket doors-closed ultimatum? And if the latter indeed is justified in the case of climate change…what makes this issue different from any other science issue in the news — evolution and creationism, vaccines and autism, smoking and cancer, warmer water expands, others?

Keeping known untruths out of Letters to the Editor? Hooray! Shouldn’t that be a universal objective for responsible media? If so, are there other examples where leading papers have taken such a preemptive approach? Or do they do it instead on a case-by-case basis, as when the potentially offending letter arrives?

And if they’re doing so preemptively only on climate change…what makes this issue so different, so unique? Is it just the volume of mail the subject generates — okay, call it spam in many cases — that makes it impractical to handle on a case-by-case basis?

Those floods of incoming for sure can be burdensome. But there must be more to it. What goes here?

Bud Ward

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Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail:, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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8 Responses to Media Observers Applaud L.A. Times Policy on Climate Letters to Editor

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. ”

    Milton, Areopagitica.

  2. As a frequent LTE writer on encouraging action on mitigation of climate change, I applaud the LA Times approach. It is better to focus the debate on what should be done about CO2 emissions rather than the bogus argument that human involvement is a myth. However, I would hope that all media would move toward the position of a generic “no-untruths” as supported by Bud Ward so that statements like the LA Times would be unnecessary.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      People disagree about what constitutes “untruth”, and many people tend to assume that where opposition is excluded it is because the argument has been lost, and that is the only way to maintain the position without embarrassment.

      Censorship of the opposition has been tried before and it never works for very long. Either the forbidden knowledge acquires a subversive glamor, and is assumed to be much more powerful and persuasive than it would be if set out in the open, or the counter-arguments will simply be presented in other fora, and those persuaded only by the one-sided argument will be left unarmed and unprepared to counter them.

      Gazelles are fast and graceful because they live with lions. The dodo, by contrast, lived on an island with no predators. Excluding all opposition is akin to putting your animals on an island with no predators. The long-term consequences are inevitable.

      So please, do go ahead.

  3. Dan Rogers says:

    The following statements are statements of fact:

    About four one-hundredths of one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide if you go by the measurements made at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

    Those people who assert that human beings are causing global warming make that assertion based upon their belief and conviction that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that, in the atmosphere, intercepts infrared radiation emanating from the planet and converts that radiation into heat which warms the atmosphere. They are correct in that belief and conviction.

    Over the past sixty years or so, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at the Keck Observatory has increased from about three one-hundredths of one percent to its present level of about four one-hundredths of one percent.

    Other greenhouse gases which exist in the atmosphere in various concentrations and at various locations are, inter alia, water vapor, methane, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide. They also contribute to atmospheric warming.

    On a molecule for molecule basis, both water vapor and methane are substantially more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

    Warming of the atmosphere is not caused solely by the action of greenhouse gases intercepting infrared radiation and converting that radiation to heat.

    Based upon those facts, some people, including myself, think it is very unwise to conclude that global warming can be substantially affected by controlling human emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We further believe that climate change, which is most certainly taking place, can be best dealt with by making sensible preparations for it rather than making wasteful, futile efforts to prevent it from happening.

    Would such a presentation of the skeptic’s argument against carbon dioxide controls be considered printable by the Los Angeles Times?

    • John says:

      You can keep believing that. Perhaps you want to back up those beliefs with some quantitative analysis? Ask yourself what happens when water vapor in the atmosphere (humidity) increases substantially? It rains. Water vapor, controlled largely through ocean-atmosphere exchange follows temperature changes, not the other way around.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        John: What is it that I can keep on believing? That it is unwise for us to expend time and money and effort trying to control the climate? Or do you think I have misstated some of the facts?

        We are nearing the end of what we keep referring to as the “last” ice age. (It is actually the end of the present ice age.) We are remarkably well-informed about the five major glaciations that have occurred over the past two million years or so, and the present one seems to be proceeding the same way as the others, with warming temperatures and disappearing ice in the northern hemisphere. This time, however, there are sentient human beings about who have evolved the wits and the means to understand what is going on and to take sensible measures to deal with the changes which we can see coming.

        Prevention is impossible. Preparation makes sense.

  4. Rich Wright says:

    The LA Times has warned for years that dangerous man-made sea level rise is a major threat to the Los Angeles basin. I’m likely one of many who have written to the Times, suggesting that it report the historical NOAA tide station record for Los Angeles, which started in the 1920s and extends to the present. For the record, the long term rate of sea level rise has been .27 feet per century, or only about 3 inches per century.

    The LA Times could have dug deep, to inform its readers of this piece of reality, but has chosen not to.

    As the paper’s owners announce another 700 employee layoffs, it is perhaps too late to suggest that a paper that doesn’t respect the intelligence of its readers, and which doesn’t encourage a robust and lively Letters to the Editor section, is a paper with no reason to exist. The “media observers” may applaud, but the subscriber drift away to more credible sources of information.

  5. John Garrett says:

    Words cannot properly express my disgust and contempt for the blatant censorship and hypocrisy. It is an action worthy of Pravda in its heyday.