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Birth of a climate change meme: Inadequate reporting followed by inept blogging

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Today I witnessed (at least for me) the birth of a meme — an idea spread through a culture. It’s a common word in Internet parlance: An “Internet meme” is often considered to be a viral torpedo bent on tearing through that culture malevolently.

The emergence of this meme shows us what passes for acceptable “content” these days. The journalism business has shed experienced, competent reporters as compensation for lousy business decisions made by shortsighted media corporations. That has a cost. We reap what we sow …

A friend sent a link to a Yahoo news blog post about remarks by Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regarding Americans’ perceptions of climate change.

The post, written by one Conor Skelding, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as a Yahoo intern, carries this hed: Just step outside: More Americans convinced of climate change after extreme weather

The hed provides no support for “convinced”; it is sheer opinion. It is a meme emerging from the womb, a virgin birth with no fathering fact.

The post’s lede:

Every summer it seems like a different kind of out-of-control weather pattern decides to strike. In the past month alone, we’ve experienced deadly Colorado wildfires, early-season heat waves and a wind-whipping hurricane, convincing formerly dubious Americans that climate change is actually real, according to the Associated Press. [emphasis added]

Every summer? The post mentions no other summers. In fact, it only refers to “the past month.”

Seems? That word always means the reporter’s guessing. It demonstrates that no evidence — hard data — is contained to support a point.

Decides? When did weather systems gain the ability to think? And plan?

We’ve? Why does the writer presume to speak for us all? Have we all experienced his examples? Have we all used these examples of weather to draw conclusions about climate change?

Convincing? The post provides no evidence of change in public opinion other than Lubchenco’s opinion about public opinion. No polls or surveys about American attitudes toward climate change are provided to support the claim of formerly dubious, either.

Actually? This is not an evidentiary word; its principal use is to indicate an element of surprise about an occurrence.

Real? The post does not provide a definition of climate change. Nor does it indicate the relationship (or not) of climate change to weather.

According to the Associated Press? Bullshit. This attribution to the AP, as worded, suggests that the AP has provided the evidence for all the claims in the lede. The AP did not. The AP story only quotes Lubchenco’s claim of opinion change in Americans.

The Yahoo post’s lede is at best sophomoric.

But the unbylined AP story is also complicit in the construction of this meme — more Americans believe climate change is real.

The hed on the AP story: US science official says more extreme events convincing many Americans climate change is real

Now, that’s accurate, because the hed provides the source for the claim, which the Yahoo hed did not. The AP lede is based on these grafs:

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Lubchenco told a university forum in the Australian capital of Canberra.

“People’s perceptions in the United States at least are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something first-hand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change,” she said.

Where’s the evidence for “beginning to appreciate”? Or “beginning to change”? There’s nothing in the story that suggests the reporter asked: “On what do you base that opinion?” Or: “Where’s the data that supports that claim?”

And “in many cases”? What cases? Did the reporter ask for specifics?

Near the bottom of the story, Lubchenco says her agency is experiencing a “skyrocketing” demand for data.

Did the reporter ask: “Could you be more specific?” Or: “From what level of requests to what higher level of requests? Over what period of time?”

Apparently not. Did the AP reporter speak to Lubchenco? Or was the story rewritten from a NOAA press release or a copy of Lubchenco’s remarks?

The story provides only one source on the claim of Americans’ shifting attitudes toward climate change. No other material supports that claim. Two grafs contained information on temperatures and hurricanes — but the story contained no material whatsoever on measurements of U.S. public opinion.

And a meme is born. And regurgitated with the same lack of evidence in the Yahoo post. That post concludes with this graf:

Although it’s hard to say that a specific event was caused by climate change, the phenomenon does result in extreme weather incidents happening more frequently. “Where there is more energy in a system, events such as fires, heat waves and storms” will occur more often, Tim Profeta, Founding Director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University told Yahoo News. And if such episodes lead to an increase in climate awareness, well, that’s a good thing, he says. [emphasis added]

As the number of undefined phrases increases, the support for the meme markedly decreases. Yet the meme — public opinion is changing — has gone forth with its fundamental veracity unchallenged.

One — just one — federal official has been allowed to claim that American public opinion about climate change has shifted. The AP accepts the word “skyrocketing” as sufficient evidence for the claim. The story’s released; it makes its way to The Washington Post. There, apparently, no editing of the claim occurs. An intern at Yahoo riffs inelegantly and vaguely on the AP story, adding no support for the federal official’s claim.

That’s how memes are born and spread. As of this writing, the Yahoo post has been tweeted 101 times. How often has it been retweeted? Who knows how many read the story in WashPo?

If you wonder what impacts cutting the daily print press corps nearly in half over five years would be, now you know. Shoddy, minimally sourced reporting. Dispensation of inadequately supported claims. Followed by blogging of ill-conceived substance.

Why should we accept media reports that portray Jane Lubchenco, the government’s top official in the weather business, as making a claim without providing an adequate foundation for it?

Is this what you want from your Internet “content providers”? Or would you rather have evidence to support claims made in that “content”?


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

July 7, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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