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April 16 2012

15:28

Why the Huffington Post doesn’t equivocate on issues like global warming

The Huffington Post wants gobs of traffic. It also want reader engagement. But there are some things it just won’t do — like equivocate on whether climate change is real.

HuffPost Science recently featured a story on former astronauts and scientists upset with NASA’s position connecting carbon dioxide to climate change. It’s not new to see sides clash on the issue, and any editor knows it’s a debate that will predictably spill over into the comment thread on a story. HuffPost Science senior editor David Freeman offered up this question at the end of his piece: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”

One problem: The question violated one of the Huffington Post’s editorial policies. Not long after the piece was posted an editor’s note replaced the question, saying in part:

We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

“The way the call for engagement was raised was as if we’re somehow agnostic about the reality of climate change,” Arianna Huffington told me.

Huffington framed the incident for me as one of editorial policy. But this isn’t a simple case of clashing stylebooks, of one outlet favoring the Oxford comma and another leaving it out. This is something more akin to a policy position: Within the editorial confines of HuffPost, issues like climate change and evolution are settled, Huffington told me. That doesn’t mean divergent viewpoints aren’t welcomed, she said — just that on certain issues the reporting won’t offer up a false equivalency.

“Where truth is ascertainable, we consider it our responsibility to make it very clear and not to — in the guise of some kind of fake objectivity, the media often pretend that every issue has two sides and that both sides deserve equal weight,” Huffington said. “That’s not the case, and that’s not our editorial stand.”

Traditionalists might find the idea of a mainstream, general-audience news organization staking out these kinds of stances in news stories radical. Huffington doesn’t see it that way, saying that traditional media spends far too much time trying to provide balance on issues that are, within certain facts and other data, settled. For her journalists, she said, that means doing reporting that assesses facts and doesn’t “pretend that the truth is supposed to be found in the middle,” she said.

“Editorially, we train our editors and reporters to basically not buy into what Jay Rosen calls the ‘View from Nowhere’ journalism,” she said. “We see our role more as doing everything we can to ferret out the truth, rather than be a kind of Pontius Pilate washing our hand of the possibility of truth.” That’s evocative of NPR’s new ethics guidelines, which make a similar distinction:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth…If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

Along with HuffPost’s internal editorial guidelines, this incident also demonstrates the value of comments and engagement to its brand. (Huffington told me the site had 7 million reader comments last month.) After all, this wasn’t about anything in the body of Freeman’s work — just his call-to-engagement question to readers.

Huffington Post standards editor Adam Rose told me they quickly added the editor’s note on Freeman’s story because they wanted to be transparent with readers about their editorial process. Instead of offering up a reworded question, they wanted to make it clear why the story had been changed. “I think it’s important that our readers know that and can trust that,” he said. “I think by being direct it develops a sense of trust with our readers who understand that we are not equivocating on the issue of climate change.”

The story’s racked up more than 3,300 comments and counting — not an unusual number by HuffPost standards but not an insignificant one either. Rose said he, Freeman, and Huffington were pleased with the quality of the conversation in the comments of the story.

This is where HuffPost’s stance on climate science and other issues has a practical element: The site is placing a marker to let readers know where it stands. Huffington says readers appreciate that kind of honesty and will reward news organizations for it. “Because we are clear about where we believe the truth lies, I believe we elicit a richer kind of response from our readers,” she said. It also helps in moving stories forward. The site already has a follow-up story to Freeman’s piece by reporter Lucia Graves that found that none of the former NASA personnel who signed the climate change letter actually worked in climate science.

Elevating the level of online comments is a fairly decent, if not constantly shifting, goal, but Huffington sees the editorial guidelines as promoting something broader. “To be able to see clearly where truth lies on on side or the other, as it happened in this particular instance, is not to abandon objectivity — it’s to, in fact, embrace a higher standard of journalism,” she said.

Image by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

December 21 2011

15:20

July 21 2011

14:30

With the end of NASA’s shuttle program, science journalists are rethinking the space beat

At 5:57 this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth, and NASA’s space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what that will mean for the people employed by NASA and its subsidiary organizations. But what about the journalists who have been covering them? What happens to this very particular brand of beat journalists after the end of the shuttle launch program?

“Those of us who cover launch and mission operations certainly face quite a bit of uncertainty,” Todd Halvorson, Kennedy Space Center bureau chief of Gannett’s Florida Today, told me.

Halvorson has it a little bit better than some his fellow space journalists, whom he called the “nucleus of people in the NASA press corps.” He’s stationed in an actual trailer-type office at Cape Canaveral, and Florida Today is located right on the Space Coast. But the outlook for some of the other journalists covering space full-time looks a lot bleaker.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle laid off its full-time veteran space reporter, Mark Carreau, who had been covering the beat for more than 20 years. Carreau covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, and over his two decades on the job, spent most of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And still, “they laid him off,” said Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle science reporter who took over part of the beat.

“It said something about what the Chronicle thought of the beat,” Berger explained, “but they also laid off a lot of people in one big cut.”

In 2008, CNN laid off its space reporter, Miles O’Brien — who also covered science and technology — though Miami bureau reporter John Zarrella remains. Around the same time, Aviation Week, a NASA-and-aeronautics-junkie trade magazine, closed its Cape Canaveral bureau.

From a pure business perspective, the scale-down of the space beat probably makes sense; though there’s still much to cover in terms of space exploration itself — the end of the shuttle program is, of course, by no means the end of NASA — Atlantis’ final landing will most likely mean a plummet in reader interest in the subject of space itself. Berger, for example, who covers science as a broad beat, has been writing 50-60 percent of his stories about space in the ramp-up to the final shuttle launch, he told me. That ratio, now, will change — drastically.

“People are transfixed first and foremost by accidents,” Berger noted, “and, after that, blasting people into space. And once you get beyond that, there is not a lot of public interest in the space program.”

The space beat, in short, is losing its automatic human interest angle. Or, at least, its American interest angle. After today, with Russia continuing its space program, “launches will occur half a world away,” Berger noted — not to mention “at odd times of night.”

“Most Americans have never seen a Soviet launch,” Berger said. “The space station is really cool, but it is not particularly sexy, what they are doing now.”

Space journalism has pushed on regardless of daily breaking news about human spaceflight, Irene Klotz of Reuters pointed out. “In reality, the space launch is just one day,” she said.

At the same time, though, “it’s a different type of story now, and there’s certainly a gap,” noted MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. “There’s no two ways around that. And so it will be a challenge for people to tune into what’s been going on.”

And that will mean a challenge, certainly, to the people whose livelihoods have relied on the existence of the space program. But beyond the personal — the profound professional consequences for the reporters at outlets both national and local that have made careers of U.S. space explorations — what happens to the shape of the space beat itself?

The space and science journalists I spoke with had a few different theories about what might happen to the type of news we see about space journalism.

  • More focus on commercial enterprises in space, as NASA shifts away from public funding to encourage more private investment and innovation.
  • More stories about robotic space exploration.
  • A new policy angle as we start to learn about funding issues, rather than simply the next manned mission.
  • Attempts to get people jazzed about the International Space Station, an amazing feat of human engineering and one of the coolest untold stories out there.

In other words, not all is lost when it comes to the space beat, as these journalists were eager to remind me. The space program itself is still very much alive. NASA aims to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle — which will continue human expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit. President Obama has set a 2025 goal for a mission to an asteroid, followed by, it is hoped, missions to Mars. Our storied explorations of space are certainly not ending.

Still, for journalists like Halvorson, Boyle, and others, the launch of the U.S.’s last shuttle launch was certainly bittersweet. As Halvorson put it: “It was pretty emotional watching Atlantis blast off on the last shuttle launch. Terribly emotional. People who have been tied to this program for that many years…all feel the same way. You go about being professional and you go about your job, but yeah, it sucks.”

Image via NASA.

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