Tag Archives: journalism

Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:

The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.

Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.

After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.

About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”

Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”

“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”

Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.

There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.

For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.

The Press Has Always Been a Guest in the President’s Home

Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.

It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.

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Why Quotas Still Don’t Work for Journalism

Imagine you work in an industry where accuracy and precision are hugely important. Your work is scrutinized by an ever-growing field of critics eager to catch any misstep, and if you get something wrong it has the potential to do people serious harm.

Your job often requires making dozens, if not hundreds of calls to obtain or even just verify a single fact. You spend your days wheedling information out of people who don’t want to provide it. You pore through mountains and mountains of documents which may only include one salient fact buried deep in a dense bog of data. Often these documents are difficult to find, or require the assistance of lawyers to access — lawyers you personally can’t afford and your higher ups may not want to pay for.

Now imagine this industry is failing at being a viable industry.  People in a different department than you are supposed to be responsible for that aspect — business, finances, the bottom line — but your department creates the product that is being sold. When “innovators” are brought in to come up with dynamic ideas, they pin them on you. There’s nothing to suggest the product is broken or failing, and everything to suggest that the means by which money is made from the product is the problem, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the innovators. They have figured out how to track how your product is consumed — do we have the metrics on that?  — and so they are going to use that information to suggest changes to how you do what you do.

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Where Have All The White House Press Briefings Gone?

The Trump administration’s combative relationship with the media is no secret, and the president’s supporters have happily rallied behind his purported distaste for the Fourth Estate — apparently not caring that, though he tweets angrily about the New York Times, his first call on issues is often to Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Over at The Atlantic, Rosie Gray describes the erosion of the traditional daily press briefing under Trump:

President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February.

The White House Press Corps has understandably balked at being told they can’t record audio or video, especially those whose medium is audio or video. CNN’s Jim Acosta, quoted in Gray’s story, tweeted:

Acosta is half-correct here. State- and city-level political reporters do experience this kind of stonewalling, and they do chafe at it. The tactic is also not limited to Republican politicians: in the Democratic haven of New York (both city and state), reporters are constantly frustrated with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to take off-topic questions, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to answer any questions at all.

And the Democrats’ great blue hope in the Congressional race in Georgia’s Sixth District reportedly banned the conservative-leaning Free Beacon from attending an event.

Gray’s piece in The Atlantic highlights the rock-and-a-hard-place status of the White House press corps, who seem unsure of how to fight back against a president who doesn’t seem to care whether or not they show up to work — and may even prefer if they don’t. But the inability to record statements from an administration that habitually impugns the media’s character, squawking “Fake News” at any story it dislikes, is troubling.

For an example of why recordings are so important, see former White House ethics lawyer (under George W. Bush) Richard Painter’s response to a Daily Beast story reporting — with audio evidence — that Kellyanne Conway made comments publicly about fighting “demographic wars.”

And of course, there’s fired FBI director James Comey’s recent, memorable response to Trump threatening to release tapes of their conversations: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” NPR has a lengthy look at presidents themselves resorting to taping conversations out of frustration with media representations of their conversations.

For what it’s worth, here’s a tip for our colleagues in Washington, D.C.: It’s pretty easy to surreptitiously use Voice Memos on your iPhone, and the District of Columbia is a one-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations (shout-out to Nixon).

(N.B.: We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight that Gray asked Steve Bannon for an explanation for the off-camera press briefings, and he texted back, “Sean got fatter,” proving that Luke Mazur’s depiction of Bannon in his foe fiction for The Awl is spot-on.)

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

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The Best of City And Regional Magazines: A Reading List

Last month, the City and Regional Magazine Association, a membership-based body of local magazines and alt-weeklies, announced the winners of its annual awards. This year, Texas Monthly, Portland Monthlyand Sarasota Magazine won overall excellence awards in their respective categories.

Local and regional periodicals fill an important space in the media ecosystem; voices rooted in the sights and sounds of a place can reveal the complexity of what’s really happening in an area. We all know by now that our time is one where the press is imperiled and the pursuit of truth is threatened. There is commercial pressure on journalists due to a fragmented marketplace, and mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations that have shorn staff sizes and budgets.  As we have said before, it is important to support their work.

In honor of the awards, we compiled a few local and regional deep cuts, including some of the winning pieces from CRMA publications. What do they have in common? A rigorous approach to the truth, a convergence of the of the personal and political, implicit — and some explicit — calls to action, and excellent writing.

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Longreads Just Turned 8 Years Old. Here’s What the Next Eight Years Look Like.

This month, Longreads turns eight years old. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the site over the years — from the Longreads Members who fund our story budget, to my colleagues past and present at our parent company Automattic/WordPress.com, and to editor in chief Mike Dang and our growing team of editors, writers, and journalists who are producing outstanding essays and reporting every day.

I’ve often used these anniversary posts to look back, but we’re undergoing some big changes this year — not just publishing more original and exclusive stories, but also funding more serious reporting from around the world. It’s time to look ahead.
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‘S-Town’ Host Brian Reed Talks Ethics in Journalism

At Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny interviews Brian Reed, the host of the popular investigative podcast, S-Town, from the producers of Serial and This American Life. Reed shares his perspective on his approach to reporting the story. He relates how he earned the trust of the people he interviewed (the story takes place in Bibb County, Alabama — a poor and rural part of the state not used to outsiders) and his thoughts on reporting on someone after they have died. Warning: the interview contains spoilers.

I did find, in general, with some people down there, the “fuck it” attitude that I talk about in the story applied to talking to me. They got a kick out of me being there and having a reporter interested in their lives. That can be a lot of things — it can be annoying and it can be overwhelming, but it can also be validating to have someone listen to you as long as you want to talk, and listening to your every word, which I would do a lot of times. Otherwise it can be fun, and add some spice into your otherwise normal day, when you have this guy with a microphone following you around, and it’s funny. I think all of those were present in these relationships.

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In 1975, Newsweek Predicted A New Ice Age. We’re Still Living with the Consequences.

Antarctica

Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)

Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.

Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?

If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…

Living In These Curated Times

Those who work with food are especially prone to thinking of themselves as curators. Chefs, for example, are said to be curating things wherever you look. There are countless internet personalities who refer to themselves as “food curators.” With a little searching, you will also encounter wine curators, beer curators, coffee curators, tea curators, spice curators, and cupcake curators.

The fantasy of curation can be extended to virtually any product category. Shops are often thought to be curated. So are rugs. And furniture. Cosmetics. Landscaping. Wardrobes. Music is eminently suited for the oversight of curators. So are TED talks. In fact, “curator” appears to be the actual job title of the chief officer of the TED organization, as it is of those who oversee TEDx events. It’s also a title of a radio producer at NPR.

At The Baffler, one of its founding editors Thomas Frank takes a close, comical look at the way taste makers select, vet, and collect various things for presentation, and parses the pros and cons, the necessity, the fantasy, and the modernity of what we call “curation.”

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