Colouring the sky

2012-10-02 00:00

SOME years ago during a course I was attending at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, veteran editor and commentator Allister Sparks referred to journalists as “experts for a day”. It’s a good description. Typically, as a journalist, you arrive at work, are assigned a story and not only do you have quickly to come up to speed on the whys, whats and wheres, but also research the background in order to ask the right questions and to provide the reader with some kind of explanation on why, for example, the Oppenheimers pulled out of De Beers or our local municipality can’t get its act together when it comes to potholes.

While the general run of journalists would fit Sparks’s definition as being “experts for a day”, there are others who are just plain “experts”, journalists who specialise, most obviously in politics or sport, but also in areas requiring more arcane knowledge, such as the arts, finance, science and the environment.

Seeing as I intend getting around to Ivo Vegter and his book Extreme Environment, let’s stick with environmental journalists. To be even halfway competent in this field, quite apart from any academic qualifications, you need to be on top of the science as well as an increasing amount of legislation. I can only think of a handful (under five) journalists working in the South African English-language press who qualify as such specialists and who write about nothing else. That’s not many. So, for the most part, the environment is in the hands of those one-day-only experts.

In The Sky is Pink, Josh Fox’s “emergency short film” made to rebut criticisms concerning accuracy in his Oscar-nominated full-length documentary Gasland, an interviewee points out that the bulk of journalists are not, as the public fondly believe, investigative journalists. They tend to be reactive, they quote what people say. So if one day a group of scientists says the sky is blue, they will report that the sky is blue. But if a person of some standing comes along the next day and says “no, the sky is not blue, it’s pink”, this will be the received wisdom that is reported. And the sky will be pink.

The majority of journalists, being neither investigative nor specialist, tend to go for the received wisdom. They don’t ask questions or, at least, they don’t ask the right questions. So if there is no informed questioning what gets reported is what the experts are saying (or what the people who are thought to be experts are saying). And, according to Vegter, it is here that another dynamic comes into play, as journalists, by their very nature, are “naturally sympathetic to narratives that purport to speak truth to power, whether that power is political or economic”.

Vegter writes mainly for the Daily Maverick, CAR magazine and ITWeb Brainstorm. He’s made a name for himself as a determined contrarian, someone who questions the prevailing narratives, particularly in the field of environmental reporting. Last month, The Witness published an article by Vegter on fracking. He’s sympathetic towards it, not least because of its perceived economic benefits for a developing country like ours. Such concerns underpin Extreme Environment which is subtitled “How environmental exaggeration harms emerging economies”.

Vegter admits to being a determined contrarian and his book sets out to look at a number of examples of how environmental activists — aided and abetted by journalists — “exaggerate their fears to promote a perversely conservative and oppressive form of government. We’ll analyse their claims and examine to what extent they’re true, and to what extent they’re just fear-mongering aimed at stifling economic activity. We’ll speculate about motives, which range from merely fashionable health neuroses to ideological opposition to freedom, industry and capitalism.”

Vegter does all that and more, taking on such issues as fracking, insecticides and chemical fertilisers, the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and climate change. His conclusions? That none of these is as bad as the environmentalists and the media are telling us they are. Plus, he supplies facts and figures to back up his case.

At the core of Vegter’s argument is the accusation that all of us, not only journalists, tend to adopt positions often without the benefit of accurate data or without even applying some simple logic. Put another way, we don’t ask the right questions, if we ask questions at all. That is something made particularly clear in the chapter “Fun with facts and fallacies” where Vegter details several examples of lemming-like behaviour, of which one will suffice — the famous photograph of seemingly distressed polar bears adrift on an ice floe which Vegter cites as a “brilliant example of [the] emotional, statistical and logical manipulation of the truth”.

“In 2007, several newspapers published a picture of a pair of polar bears standing atop a small ice floe, dramatically expressing what looked like the effect of melting ice. ‘They cling precariously to the top of what is left of the ice floe, their fragile grip the perfect symbol of the tragedy of global warming,’ wrote the UK Daily Mail.”

Everyone from the New York Times to Al Gore used the picture to drive home the climate-change message. It worked. All those I spoke to while writing this article were familiar with the photograph and interpreted it along the same lines as the Daily Mail.

But, asks Vegter, does the photograph depict a common occurrence? “Does it truly represent the state of the melting ice caps and the perils of the bears?” He’s not the first to ask that question as a correction published in the New York Times shortly after they published the picture indicates: “A correction to that story notes that the photo was completely misattributed, location, photographer, date, the works. Nothing was true.”

So, what is the truth? The photograph was taken by Amanda Byrd and not the credited Dan Crosbie. Plus, it was taken in 2004 and not in winter, as originally stated. “It turns out that the photo was taken in the summer. Ice was supposed to be melting,” writes Vegter. “Polar bears are known to be able to swim great distances, and these two were not far from the nearby shore. Byrd reports that they didn’t appear to be in danger. The confusion was complicated. Byrd was a marine biologist on a field trip. She took the photograph, simply considering it to be a striking shot, and gave a copy to Dan Crosbie, of the Canadian Ice Service, who was on the same trip. Several years later, he passed it on to Environment Canada, a government agency, to illustrate an article, which in turn sent it to several news wires, which passed it on to newspapers. Nobody got paid, Crosbie got credited, and the location and date were lost in the mists of time.

“Byrd told the media that she believes in global warming, but does not believe her picture says anything about it. It serves a very useful purpose to the environmental lobby, however. It was no more than a picturesque lie, and a perfect example of the kind of exaggeration that has great impact when published, but suffers little harm when a correction is printed a month later.”

There’s something in Extreme Environment to enlighten, provoke or annoy just about everybody. Speaking as an “expert for a day”, Vegter left me feeling that he had backed up his various positions with some convincing arguments that left me with no room but to to agree with his conclusions; at least, until I hear the next convincing (and contrary) argument from someone else. By way of illustration, Vegter takes on Josh Fox’s Gasland and blows assorted holes in it, but Fox’s follow-up “emergency short” referred to earlier seems to answer many of Vegter’s objections.

Does this mean we all have to become specialists — in everything? No, it means that sometimes we have to use our common sense, ask some pertinent questions and check the facts.

Extreme Environment certainly ups the level of debate and much of what Vegter has to say should be a wake-up call for journalists (environmental or otherwise). But I fear Vegter’s is an increasingly lone voice. The current state of the newspaper industry, with declining readerships and drops in profits, has seen drastic staff cuts plus the juniorisation of newsrooms. It’s not a climate favourable to specialisation.

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