NY Times Public Editor: We're “Moving In A Good Direction” On Properly Describing Climate Deniers

Margaret Sullivan Says Times Is Increasingly Using The Term “Denier” And “Perhaps Should Be Doing It Even More”

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New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan believes the paper is making progress when it comes to using the more accurate term “denier” -- rather than “skeptic” -- to refer to those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change.

In an interview with Media Matters, Sullivan described “denier” as the “stronger term” and the appropriate label “when someone is challenging established science.” Sullivan said that “the Times is moving in a good direction” on the issue, adding that the newspaper is using the term “denier” more often and “perhaps should be doing it even more.”

She also likened the discussion to the Times' process for evaluating whether to refer to “enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture, stating: “After a long time the Times came around to calling it torture and I thought that was a very good thing. I think we're sort of in the same realm with the business about skeptics and deniers.”

Sullivan, who briefly addressed the distinction between “skeptics” and “deniers” in her May 7 column, said she doesn't have any immediate plans to return to the topic. But she reiterated that “language choice is something that interests me a lot because I think it's something that matters.”

Philip Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, confirmed to Media Matters that Times staff are “aware of the issue and have discussed it.” Corbett said Times reporters and editorial staff “do our best” to keep the proper use of labels in mind “even if the process is not always perfect,” and that "[w]e intend to continue scrutinizing future stories with these concerns in mind."

However, Corbett said he does not expect The Times to “set a hard-and-fast rule” on the subject. Sullivan also said she doesn't “think there needs to be a policy,” and that she and Corbett believe it makes more sense to handle the issue “on a sensible case-by-case basis.” According to Sullivan, the term “denier” doesn't fit “when people are kind of wishy-washy on the subject or in the middle.”

Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, told Media Matters that she believes “there are reasonable shades of 'skepticism' about specific science or assumptions [and] conclusions,” citing ongoing research into the relationship between global warming and certain extreme weather events as an example. But Parke added: “Personally, I feel 'denier' is the most accurate term when someone claims there is no such thing as global warming, or agrees that it exists but denies that it has any cause we could understand or any impact that could be measured.”

In December, a group of Fellows and self-described “scientific skeptics” from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry wrote an open letter to journalists asking that they “stop using the word 'skeptic' to describe deniers.” The Fellows noted that true skepticism “promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason,” and that journalists need to better distinguish between skepticism and “political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong.” The climate change advocacy group Forecast the Facts subsequently launched a petition to support their call.

Media Matters and Forecast the Facts have identified several Times articles that improperly used the term “skeptic” to refer to individuals and organizations that flatly deny the science of climate change, but the paper has also frequently used variations of the terms "denied" or "denial" to describe the views of those who contradict the scientific consensus. 

Image at top via Flickr user samchills using a Creative Commons License.