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date: 08 April 2020

Summary and Keywords

Objectivity and advocacy have been contentious topics within environmental journalism since the specialism was formed in the 1960s. Objectivity is a broad term, but has been commonly interpreted to mean the reporting of news in an impartial and unbiased way by finding and verifying facts, reporting facts accurately, separating facts from values, and giving two sides of an issue equal attention to make news reports balanced. Advocacy journalism, by contrast, presents news from a distinct point of view, a perspective that often aligns with a specific political ideology. It does not separate facts from values and is less concerned with presenting reports that are conventionally balanced. Environmental reporters have found it difficult to categorize their work as either objective or advocacy journalism, because studies show that many of them are sympathetic to environmental values even as they strive to be rigorously professional in their reporting. Journalists have struggled historically to apply the notion of balance to the reporting of climate change science, because even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s experts agree that human-driven climate change is real and will have major future impacts, a minority of scientists dispute this consensus. Reporters aimed to be fair by giving both viewpoints equal attention, a practice scholars have labeled false balance.

The reporting of climate change has changed over time, especially as the topic moved from the scientific domain to encompass also the political, social, legal, and economic realms. Objectivity and advocacy remain important guiding concepts for environmental journalism today, but they have been reconfigured in the digital era that has transformed climate change news. Objectivity in climate reporting can be viewed as going beyond the need to present both sides of an issue to the application in reports of a journalist’s trained judgment, where reporters use their training and knowledge to interpret evidence on a climate-related topic. Objectivity can also be viewed as a transparent method for finding, verifying, and communicating facts. Objectivity can also be seen as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. In a pluralistic media ecosystem, there are now multiple forms of advocacy journalism that present climate coverage from various points of view—various forms of climate coverage with a worldview. False balance had declined dramatically over time in mainstream reportorial sources, but it remains a pitfall for reporters to avoid in coverage of two climate change topics: the presentation of the many potential future impacts or risks and the coverage of different policy responses in a climate-challenged society.

Keywords: journalistic objectivity, advocacy journalism, false balance, climate change news, environmental journalism, science journalism

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