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Less is less: New York Times reporter’s take on climate change coverage

by Anthony Raap
Oct 04, 2012


Courtesy of ISEN

New York Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis talks about the huge problems associated with global warming in his lecture "Hot Copy! Journalism in the Greenhouse." The Oct. 16 lecture at Northwestern University's Forum auditorum in Evanston is free and open to the public.

People need more information about climate change to fully understand “how much trouble we’re in,”
says Justin Gillis, acclaimed environmental reporter for The New York Times.

He says he has a beef with how climate change is short-changed in the media. He plans to explain climate change impacts and press coverage at his free public lecture at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 16 at Northwestern University.

His lecture, “Hot Copy! Journalism in the Greenhouse,” is free and open to the public and will be at the McCormick Tribune Center on the university’s Evanston campus.Many newspapers devote only a few inches to a topic Gillis feels should be explored at greater length.

Gillis’s interest in climate science began several years ago, while studying at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of a year-long fellowship in science journalism.

At the time, he covered genetics and biotechnology for The Washington Post. But as he pursued his fellowship, he became consumed with climate change.

“It just gradually dawned on me,” Gillis says. “This is the biggest problem out there."

He left The Post and joined the Times where he felt he could cover the issue the way he thought it needed to be covered.

"I was frustrated with some of the coverage I would read,” he says, adding that many stories on climate change are “just not long enough.”

To combat this problem, Gillis has tried to give readers a fuller picture of how and why our climate is warming. 

In Temperature Rising, an ongoing series for The Times, he explores the scientific underpinnings of global warming through deeply reported articles on everything from the drastic melting of sea ice in the Arctic to how extreme heat and rising ocean acidity are severely stressing the world’s coral reefs.

“What matters,” Gillis notes, “is whether readers engage with the journalism and feel that it helps them understand the world a little better.”

Polls have shown that a majority of American people acknowledge that there climate is a problem, but people widely debate whether human use of fossil fuels such as gasoline has caused the problem. The vast majority of scientists, based on worldwide research, agree fossil fuel emissions are to blame.

Gillis says the trouble he runs into is that most people don’t understand the urgency of the problem — “the idea that we are already out of time.”

Graduate student David Snydacker, president of the Northwestern Energy Technology Group, a student-run organization, proposed bringing Gillis to campus. Co-sponsors of the event include his organization, the Northwestern Energy and Sustainability Consortium, the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, and Medill.

Snydacker, who is studying materials science and engineering, says he is a fan of Gillis’s work, especially the Temperature Rising series.

“Justin does a good job of describing the science accurately without sounding panicked," Snydacker says.

Another problem science writers run up against is false balance, Gillis says. In the spirit of fairness, they often give equal weight to fringe groups and minority viewpoints.

While this may help contextualize an issue — and give the appearance of balance — it also lends credence to theories that have been scientifically discredited, he says.