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April 16 2012


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 08 2011


Mapping the Story of Climate Change

For this week's climate meetings in Durban, the World Bank released a series of maps showing the predicted impact of climate change on the world between now and 2100.

The data is dismal. If climate change continues unmitigated as it has for the past century, temperatures around the world will increase 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 -- the equivalent increase between today's climate and the last ice age. This change won't impact the world equally, with local changes varying from almost none to more than 10 degrees Celsius, depending on scenario, location and season.

All of these maps were designed using Development Seed's TileMill, an easy-to-use open-source map design tool that we've written about here before, and hosted on MapBox Hosting. TileMill is free to download and has loads of documentation to help people get started making maps. For design tips on map making, check out a blog post from Development Seed's AJ Ashton on the thinking behind the design of these maps.

Preparing for climate change

These maps tell the story of the anticipated impact of climate change, from the basics of where we'll see the biggest increase in temperature and fluctuation in precipitation levels to larger societal impacts on food security, countries' economies, and people's vulnerability to natural disasters. With these maps, the World Bank aims to not only show the urgency in preparing for climate changes, but also to target efforts to the countries and regions that will be most affected.

This map shows the expected worldwide temperature increases, assuming that global population continues to increase and regionally oriented economic growth is slower than in other scenarios.

Agriculture is expected to be one of the most affected industries, impacting countries' economies -- and only more so for ones whose GDP (gross domestic product) is made up largely of agriculture-related business. For example, agriculture is 61.3 percent of Liberia's GDP and 47.68 percent of Ethiopia's, while it's just 1.24 percent of the U.S. GDP.

Low-lying coastal areas will likely be more vulnerable to increased flooding, with countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and India at highest risk due to the huge populations that live there.

More details on the maps are available in this blog post by Development Seed's Alex Barth.

The data powering the maps is all publicly available from the World Bank, as part of its larger open data push with data.worldbank.org. This and other related climate data is all housed in its Open Data Resources for Climate Change. The World Bank is encouraging people to use this data and is hosting an Apps for Climate challenge to promote and reward this use. Check out the details, and be sure to submit your app by March 16.

October 15 2010


Last chance to VOTE for Tole-rants connect for the 2010 FACT Social Justice Challenge

Today is the final day of community voting for the 2010 FACT Social Justice Challenge. We need your support so please come VOTE. Let us start by saying a huge thank you to all the people who have already voted for the 60 seconds of Hope campaign, your support has been fantastic. 

VOTING requires a couple of minutes of your time. We wish it was easier, so here are some short directions to help make it as quick as possible:

1. Follow our link - Click VOTE and be redirected to another window where you will need to quickly register.

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October 13 2010


Karen Armstrong Tole-rants about compassion. Vote for Tole-rants Connect for the 2010 FACT social justice challenge

Voting is still open for the 2010 FACT Social Justice Challenge and Tole-rants Connect needs your help. Please spare a few moments and VOTE for 60 seconds of Hope.

The Tole-rants movement has garnered tremendous support in its inaugural year from partners such as The Council of Europe, The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Search for Common Ground, Odyssey Networks, Youth Leader Magazine, and many other inspirational organizations.

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October 08 2010


How Climate Activists Are Warming to Social Media

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world's second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce and binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

Screen shot 2010-10-07 at 10.45.42 PM.pngBy using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd name, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the "first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change."

It was a surprising success. On April 14, 2007, tens of thousands of Americans held simultaneous rallies in some 1,400 places across the country telling Congress to "step it up" and reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Their grassroots pressure likely helped convince presidential-hopeful Barack Obama to co-sponsor an ultimately doomed bill in the Senate.

After a second successful Step It Up event, McKibben and the Middlebury graduates created 350.org. Co-founder Phil Aroneanu told me that leading up to the 2009 UN climate convention in Copenhagen, "we realized there was this space to have a public show of force and show that folks really care about this issue when most of the leaders didn't really feel that."

Using a handful of foreign contacts they'd made at previous UN climate conventions, the team began planning the "International Day of Climate Action" on October 24th, little more than a month before delegates were due to meet in Denmark.

Organizing via Skype, chat, and text messaging, and via activist social networks like Change.org, the 350.org team mobilized over 5,200 actions in 181 countries, as you can see in this video:

Solar Challenge

"There might have been one person from Malawi," Aroneanu said, "and as long as we kept communicating with them and showed them how this could be a great way to build up networks in their own countries, they did the hard work of organizing and reaching out to people who didn't have access to the Internet."

In one recent initiative, 350.org set up an online petition encouraging world leaders to install solar power on the roofs of their official state residences. It has been signed by tens of thousands of people. This was combined with blog support from Change.org and others, as well as a high-profile road trip from Maine to the capital with the first White House solar panel, a relic from the Carter administration.

Although McKibben and other 350.org members were initially rebuffed in their meetings with Obama administration officials, earlier this week Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that new solar panels would be installed, making the White House "a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future." So far, leaders in India and the Maldives have also agreed to take up 350.org's solar challenge.

In an article calling McKibben one of the world's top global thinkers, Foreign Policy magazine described the 2009 Day of Climate Action as "the largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind." Yet, despite the unprecedented organizing success of 350.org and behind the scenes pressure from countless other environmental organizations, diplomats in Copenhagen failed to agree to a plan that would reduce CO2 to that magic number. A half-year later, a much discussed climate bill also died in the U.S., the world's largest historic greenhouse gas polluter.


With international negotiations at a standstill and U.S. legislation at a stalemate, 350.org, Greenpeace and others in the environmental community are using every new media tool available to them to share their climate protection message and recruit new organizers.

The most visible display of this renewed focus on digital organizing will be this Sunday's "Global Work Party," where activists from around the globe will "pressure our leaders to Get To Work themselves by passing strong climate policies promoting clean energy and reducing emissions," as 350.org's website explains.

With two days remaining until 10/10/10, the group has registered nearly 7,000 events in 188 countries. Coordinated online outreach by 350.org and its partner organizations has made the immense scale of the Global Work Party possible. Jess Leber, editor of the environment blog at Change.org, has worked with 350.org to feature a Get To Work series guest posts from its organizers around the world. Chris Eaton, an online community organizer for Greenpeace, spent all of last Friday calling and emailing people in the climate movement to get them involved in one big social media push ten days before the 10/10/10 event, which like previous 350.org events his group is co-sponsoring.

"I've found that's really effective," Eaton said. "If you get everyone to do the same thing at once online it's like a wave that gets a lot of attention."

Greenpeace Gets Digital

Greenpeace certainly knows how to attract attention. For nearly 40 years, this confrontational environmental group has been adept at building what co-founder Robert Hunter referred to as "Media Mind Bombs": "reaching the public consciousness through dramatic, camera-ready opposition to environmental crimes."

As the media have fragmented and cameras have proliferated, the activist group has had to expand the scope of its non-violent direct-action campaigns. Sure, British Greenpeace members will still scale Westminster Palace to protest what it perceives as Parliament's weak climate efforts. But increasingly its activists are downloading online toolkits for decentralized events like a Bake Sale to Save the Whales or using the power of social media to push for greater climate protection.

Screen shot 2010-10-07 at 10.48.14 PM.png

In one campaign, Greenpeace's online organizers drew attention to deforestation, a major contributor to global warming, by targeting Nestle. The confections company was making chocolate with unsustainably-sourced palm oil, a fact Greenpeace pointed out in a graphic video depicting an office worker eating a bloody Kit-Kat made of an orangutan finger that was viewed 350,000 times the first day it was posted. After Nestle made YouTube remove the grisly campaign ad, the environmentalists protested at its headquarters, jammed its phone lines with complaints, and plastered its Facebook wall with negative comments until the company announced a "zero deforestation policy."

One of Greenpeace's ongoing campaigns is protesting against Facebook, one of the social media tools it used in its battle against Nestle. The environmental group singled out the Internet giant earlier this year as a part of its Cool IT campaign to encourage tech companies to use clean power. Facebook attracted the ire of Greenpeace in February when it announced plans to build a server farm powered by dirty coal-fired energy. To protest, Greenpeace started a Facebook group, We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy, that currently has nearly 300,000 members. They also encouraged online activists to send a message directly to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook account.

When the company announced in September that it planned to double the size of the dirty data center, Greenpeace stepped up its online campaign with the charmingly inflammatory video posted below. The crudely animated short mocks Zuckerberg and tells him to "unfriend coal." It has already attracted more views than the Facebook protest group has members. You can watch it here:

The campaign has not yet succeeded in getting Facebook to switch entirely to clean energy, but Zuckerberg responded to one message saying, "We're moving in the right direction here." Whether he and his company get there fast enough to ward off further action from Greenpeace remains to be seen.

What's Next?

Maintaining their new media momentum in a changing technological landscape will be a challenge for the climate movement. While Change.org's Leber told me how her site is aiming to become the "YouTube of social change," Greenpeace and 350.org have both deployed new media tools experimentally rather than tactically. This makes sense to some extent, but their better financed opponents in the fossil fuel industries are not leaving the development of social networks to chance. (For example, read this remarkable New Yorker article about the Koch Industries-fueled Tea Party movement.)

The climate movement is seeking low cost, easily accessible online tools. 350.org is interested in "boot-strap solutions that we can use extremely cheaply and scale up," Aroneanu said. His organization recently ditched their iPhone app in favor of a simple mobile website.

"We're not looking for things that we have to own, we're looking for things that our organizers can use effectively," Aroneanu said.

Greenpeace's online organizer Eaton said his number one rule is "organize where people are at" and he pointed out that there simply aren't a critical mass of activists on Foursquare yet.

Regardless of the precise new media mix, the climate movement is committed to continuing the push for climate protection with what Aroneanu called "open source" activism. Social activism sites like Change.org feature blog content about environmental challenges and online petitions that can recruit activists for 350.org and Greenpeace. The organizers at those groups can then mobilize high-impact online climate campaigns or on-the-ground distributed actions across the nation and around the globe. The big, one-day march on Washington has been done so many times, no one notices anymore.

"We really focus on developing grassroots leaders," Aroneanu explained. "And we feel like that grassroots leadership is what's going to lead this movement to a place where we actually are able to pass the kind of legislation we need to pass."

Legislative deal-making is worthless without deep pockets or a broad base of public support.The failure of the recent climate bill proved that environmental groups cannot outspend or outmaneuver the fossil fuel industry.

"Everybody understands that we need to build a movement beyond just this piece of legislation," 350.org's Aroneanu said.

The successes his organization, Greenpeace and others have had organizing in the expanding digital space has made activists realize that savvy use of new media is required to construct a lasting climate constituency.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of the New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at the Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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December 17 2009


December 10 2009


'Climategate' and the Perils of the Media's Short Attention Span

There is a moment with which all stand-up comics are familiar. It comes when they release their big punchline, sometimes known as the "drop." For the drop, timing is everything. A successful drop means a joke takes off. An unsuccessful drop leaves it flat on its face.

The already-infamous release of climate change emails was a fantastically successful drop. Though the emails themselves date from the late 1990s onwards, their release was perfectly timed to capture the media's attention just before the Copenhagen climate talks -- to achieve maximum impact. And it worked.

Why? Not because they undermined the science of global warming. Only a hardened rump of skeptics still believe the world is not warming (as opposed to the larger number who dispute the causes and implications). Nor because they proved there was a global conspiracy of scientists determined to hide the truth from us (rather than a handful of scientists who might well have been manipulating aspects of their data). Nor to help promote a climate change skeptic think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which coincidentally launched around the same time.

The release of climate change emails dominated the headlines because it was a good news story. It fit with the basic need of news: to reveal something previously hidden, to uncover alleged wrongdoing, and to cast doubt on a widely held consensus.

Media Not Built to Cover Climate Well

In a larger sense, however, climate change doesn't fit with news' needs. The climate doesn't change on an hour-by-hour or daily basis, but over years and decades. It is theoretically urgent but, for most of us, not immediately apparent. Structurally, mainstream news is not built to cover long-term climate change well.

Mainstream news has a short attention span. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former director of communications, remarked that if a politician could weather a media storm for 10 days then he would survive. The media would move on.

Newspapers -- understandably -- don't want to fill their front pages day in and day out with gradual news. Gradual news doesn't sell. "Antarctic ice cap retreated one foot" is unlikely to get people reaching into their pockets for loose change.

As a result, we tend to get treated either to occasional apocalyptic headlines of "the end is nigh" variety, or to news that bucks the scientific consensus.

So, when something like these emails comes along, the story is irresistible to most news outlets. Not just irresistible to cover, but irresistible to elevate the emails from an indication of shabby scientific behavior by a small number of scientists into evidence of a massive global warming conspiracy.

Contrarians, But About the Wrong Things

The problem is that a lot of those within mainstream media are a little bored of climate change. Journalists don't like consensus, especially not when it is foisted on them by ivory-towered experts on the basis of "trust us, we know more about this than you do." A lot of journalists are contrarians, and, for the most part, this is a very good thing.

But when it comes to climate change, many seem to be misdirecting their contrariness. Rather than being contrary about the science, about which the vast majority of journalists know very little, shouldn't journalists be contrarian about the difficult political implications? Isn't that the territory most of us are going to have to live on for the next 50 odd years? And the territory that most journalists would feel more comfortable inhabiting?

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