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Reporters should tell the truth about global warming

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Humans are warming the climate.

That's a settled fact you'd expect to see in coverage of global warming, even in news stories about scientists who don't believe in the global-warming science at all.

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Yet, some reporters still can't bring themselves to writing about human-caused global warming as a settled fact.

For example, in one news article headlined, "And in this Corner, Climate Contrarians," about the international climate talks in Copenhagen last month, The New York Times reported that "climate skeptics" are a minority. Now that's a fact, but the reporter didn't go so far as to say that they are wrong about key facts.

The Times article stated that the "scientific evidence for human-driven climate change may be widely accepted," but it that's as far as it went. The article didn't say that humans are warming the planet.

Of course there's nothing wrong with covering skeptics. But at some point a scientific consensus becomes so overwhelming that journalists need to assert it as a fact and stop seeking the views of skeptics -- unless they have something new to offer.

We've reached that point with global warming. There's an overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing global temperatures to rise.

This doesn't mean that scientists agree on the impacts of global warming. For example, there's real scientific disagreement about whether hurricanes are caused by climate change.

But there's international scientific agreement that emissions generated by humans are, in fact, warming the planet. So just as a journalist has no need to quote a "scientist" claiming the Earth is flat, journalists have no professional obligation to present the views of scientists who deny that global warming gases, produced by humans, are warming the planet -- unless the skeptics have new and credible evidence to back them up.

And, in articles about climate skeptics, journalists should remind readers that a scientific consensus exists on global warming.

Christy George, special projects producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, told me that many die-hard climate skeptics are now saying the climate is changing, but humans aren't responsible. She thinks the views of these skeptics needn't to be included in stories.

"There's no value to me as a reporter to continue to throw in that person who says humans aren't causing climate change at all, because we're just past that, in terms of the scientific evidence," says George. "There are tremendous disagreements about the impacts [of climate change] and what to do. We don't have to look hard to find conflict in the story," she said. (George is the current president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, but spoke to me as an individual reporter, not on behalf of that organization.)

No one wants journalists to ignore serious dissent. Giving voice to the fringe of the mainstream debate, whether it's about science or public policy, is what journalists are supposed to do. But journalists shouldn't give fringe views more credibility than they deserve by quoting their falsehoods.

We've reached the point with the science of global warming where journalists should state, categorically, that humans are warming the planet. There's plenty of differing and credible views about what this warming will do to the Earth, and journalists should tell us all about that.

Jason Salzman, author of "Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Non-profits," is chairman of the board of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and a former media critic for the shuttered newspaper Rocky Mountain News.

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Pioneer staff reports
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