Is struggling press self-censoring?

Firefighters in Colorado work a night shift fighting the Pine Gulch Fire that burned from July through September 2020. (Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons)

Terms like ‘climate change’ become a lighting rod

A rural newspaper publisher says that merely mentioning the phrase could trigger a mass exodus of readers that might eventually kill her paper. That’s a risk she’s not willing to take. 

By Jesse Remedios
Special to BU News Service

Over the course of six months in 2020, Colorado endured its three largest wildfires in history. The top two – the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires – burned 208,913 and 193,812 acres, respectively. Experts agree that climate change creates conditions ripe for major wildfire outbreaks, and scientists say Coloradoans should expect more summers to come like 2020.

But some journalists are intentionally leaving that climate context out of their wildfire coverage. Their reasoning? The term “climate change” might offend their readers.

While major outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post can afford to be less concerned with their immense readerships’ sensitivities, journalists on the outskirts of big media markets – with thin staffs and tight budgets – may be self-censoring. 

On Aug.15, 2020, as his state was ablaze with the first record-setting fire of the year, the Pine Gulch fire, Colorado College journalism instructor and Columbia Journalism Review correspondent Corey Hutchins put out a poll to his Twitter followers. He noticed that there was some strong enterprise reporting on the relationship between wildfires and climate change. Breaking news stories, however, often left climate out. So, he asked journalists why “in your Colorado wildfire story was climate change not mentioned?” 

He expected most people would say it was an oversight. Instead, three-quarters of his (unscientific) poll’s 65 respondents answered: “Might ‘make it political’.”

“I was quite surprised to see that it was actually intentional,” Hutchins said in a phone interview.

Hutchins said he didn’t put too much stock in the votes. He doubted they came from 65 actual journalists. But one strikingly honest comment from a rural newspaper publisher put some weight behind the tally. 

“If we mention climate change, we immediately lose the attention of readers, to their detriment and ours,” Niki Turner, publisher of the Rio Blanco Herald-Times in northwest Colorado, wrote. “If we mention it, people literally turn away and won’t listen to anything else we say. It’s a terrible position to be in.”

Hutchins said Turner’s comment illuminated some of the pressures facing rural journalists. And in the Twitter replies, which came swiftly and passionately, he noticed a stark urban-rural journalistic divide. 

Turner received back-up from Erin McIntyre, co-owner of the Ouray County Plaindealer, a weekly newspaper based in southwest Colorado. She wrote that the small Colorado towns of Meeker, Grand Junction, Rangely and Montrose are “all places that would likely happen.” On the other end of the spectrum was Quentin Young, editor for the Denver-based nonprofit digital publication, Colorado Newsline. Young said, “Suppression of facts readers don’t want to hear is always the greater detriment, to them and the news source.”

Many journalists and experts would agree that concealing the truth, to any degree, is a dangerous game. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in their book, The Elements of Journalism, “Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.” With an issue like climate change, this obligation is especially pressing. Millions of lives are at stake. The United Nations has warned that we have about a decade left to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of a climate crisis. But only slightly more than half of Americans believe that human activities are the primary culprits behind global warming – they are, according to scientific consensus

So, do we really have time to coddle readers by downplaying our planetary crisis and collective ability to do something about it? 

One needs to look no further than the administration of Donald J. Trump to see the human cost of cultivating a culture of truth-suppression. In 2020, under the strains of a different global crisis, that cost had amounted to 250, 542 lives lost to COVID-19, according to the Trump Death Clock, a project which seeks to tally the fallout from the president downplaying the crisis. 

And yet, Turner’s comment points to the tricky reality many small-town journalists around the country face in making everyday news judgments. For her, there isn’t such a clear-cut difference between suppressing and publishing facts, she said in a phone interview. Instead, the question is: “How do you present information to your audience in a way they can receive it?”

To be clear, Turner is not a climate denier. Far from it. She recognizes how climate change affects her region in a variety of ways and wants her paper to cover those developments. But, she said, she also knows her readers.  

Rio Blanco County, where Turner lives and works, has a population of roughly 6,666 people, according to the 2010 census. That’s small enough that Turner might awkwardly bump into the subject of a recent story at the grocery store. Turner described the area as “very energy-friendly as far as natural gas, fracking and oil go.” She often drives by yard signs proclaiming, “Coal keeps our lights on!” In the past, Turner said that the mere inclusion of the phrase “climate change” in the Herald-Times had triggered volatile comments, letters and office visits from people who “just immediately throw their hands up and say this is ‘fake news.’” 

The numbers back up those impressions. Just 62% of Rio Blanco residents say global warming is happening, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. That’s 10 points below the national average. And only 48% believe human activities are causing the climate to change – nine points below average. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump received nearly 83% of the vote in Rio Blanco.

Turner has never noticed an actual dip in subscriptions due to climate coverage, she said. However, she does believe that too much of it could definitely lead to things quickly spiraling out of control. 

Here’s the worst-case scenario: “Climate change” is mentioned. Her largely conservative readership gets angry and stops reading. Those readers then miss out on vital news. Business owners pull out advertisements, costing the Herald-Times crucial revenue. That forces Turner to cut back on circulation, which causes even more residents to miss the news. Eventually, the paper could go under. And, if that were to happen, Rio Blanco County would lose what Turner said is the area’s only true source of local news.

If you do a quick Google News search of “Rio Blanco County,” you’ll see her point – the Herald-Times stands alone in Rio Blanco. There are no local radio or television news stations in the county. Turner said that puts a lot of pressure on her publication, which publishes about 1,500 papers a week and has nearly 200 online subscribers. Her fellow residents depend on the Herald-Times to cover things like town council and county commissioner meetings, the type of coverage that fuels a functioning local democracy. 

At this point, she’s not willing to risk that community service to include a phrase she believes will only shut down conversations and alienate her readers, not convince them of anything.

“We have to get the news out. We have to tell stories. We have to tell the truth,” Turner said. “But we have to do it in such a way that respects our readership.”

Turner isn’t the only journalist worried about “climate change” provoking readers. In fact, 20% of environmental journalists cited a lack of audience support or a hostile audience as major obstacles in their climate reporting, according to a 2020 survey of the Society of Environmental Journalists conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. 

Though far from a majority, that number isn’t insignificant. And that’s just among environmental journalists. If those reporters are concerned, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some portion of all local journalists might also have reservations, and especially so in conservative regions. 

Turner’s concerns about the viability of local democracy also carry weight. Local papers are dying, and fast. A study on news deserts from the University of North Carolina found that a quarter of all newspapers in the United States have died in the last 15 years. 

The causes for this are varied – including shifting reader habits and the rise of predatory hedge funds – but the implications are clear. As Americans lose local news, they also lose “the only local organization working to hold government, businesses and powerful individuals accountable,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in 2019. 

Numerous studies have shown that reduced local news coverage often results in lower civic engagement – voter turnout decreases, fewer candidates run for office, corruption and mismanagement increases. Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Harris put it this way: “Democracies are complicated, and so is the nuanced and specialized coverage that only a local newsroom can provide.”

If the Herald-Times were to die, there is now a real possibility that it could be replaced by a partisan organization selling propaganda off as news, as The New York Times found is happening across the country.

Jon Allsop, a freelance journalist and author of Columbia Journalism Review’s newsletter, “The Media Today,” has covered major news outlets’ past failures to draw out connections between climate change and massive wildfires in California. But those outlets, he said in a phone interview, don’t have the same constraints as small-town journalists. He sympathizes with the dire situation facing local reporters, editors, and publishers, and he knows it’s not his place to lecture Turner. 

“If there were a sane local news environment, she wouldn’t be in that situation,” Allsop said.

Nevertheless, he’s not willing to completely condone her stance. There seems to be a “war on truth” taking place in the United States, Allsop said, evidenced by widespread denial of the science behind climate change and COVID-19. When journalists soften language to conceal the whole truth, they surrender more territory in this war, further fueling the idea that the truth is up for debate or irrelevant. Incorporating context so readers can make sense of the world is one of journalism’s fundamental responsibilities.  

“On the most basic level, journalism should be about telling the most basic truth that you can,” Allsop said. “And the most basic truth here is that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is changing, we’re in a climate emergency, and we need to do something about it.” 

While connecting a specific natural disaster directly to climate change is not an easy task, Allsop pointed out that journalists can still situate those disasters within the broader context of a changing climate. And despite America’s state of polarization, Allsop believes there are still ways to change people’s minds. He suggested showing the human costs of climate change without pontificating on the issue. In the 2020 election run-up, The Guardian recommended some other potential approaches, like quoting climate-concerned conservatives or focusing on climate solutions instead of “doom and gloom” coverage.

In recent years, many prominent journalists have addressed the importance of making climate change all the more visible to everyday news consumers before it’s too late. Nathaniel Rich, essayist and author of “Losing Earth: A Recent History,” told Columbia Journalism Review in 2019 that journalists’ neglect to blend climate change into general coverage is “one of the failures of our time.” 

Margaret Sullivan, the popular Washington Post columnist, wrote in 2018 that American journalists and news organizations require a serious “transformation” – one that keeps climate change “front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn.”

In an effort to overhaul the industry and use its power for good, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in association with The Guardian, launched Covering Climate Now in April 2019. The global journalism initiative partners with more than 400 news outlets and reaches a combined audience of nearly 2 billion people, according to its website. Members of the initiative share content and story ideas, amplify partners’ coverage and convene journalism conferences. 

But even Covering Climate Now’s executive director, Mark Hertsgaard, has acknowledged that smaller news outlets continue to face a special challenge in increasing their climate coverage: Money. “If more news organizations are going to do justice to the story of climate change, how can such coverage be funded?” Hertsgaard asked in a 2019 Columbia Journalism Review special report announcing the initiative. Hertsgaard argued that the answer is more foundations like the Knight Foundation and Emerson Collective that can foot the bill for local climate coverage. 

Increased supplemental financial backing could be a game-changer for small local newsrooms; less financial risk might spark more balanced reporting.

In Rio Blanco, Colorado, the Herald-Times is currently getting ready to dive into a series on local water issues, said Turner, the publisher. “Obviously,” she said, everyone on her team understands that climate change will play a role in that story. But at the moment, the Herald-Times is still just a small and vulnerable family-owned business, unable to jeopardize its big civic responsibilities for the sake of using a single term. So, whenever the first article in that series heads to print, reporters will carefully veil the climate context behind a term they consider a little less controversial than the c-words: “Aridification.” 

In this writer’s opinion, that doesn’t really speak to the urgency of the climate crisis at hand, but maybe we should give the paper a few points for trying. It’s not only operating under shaky financial circumstances but in a country where millions believe the truth is up for political debate. Until those structural issues are addressed, local journalists will keep walking a fine line, just trying to survive.

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