During its first day on the air, Al Jazeera America gave climate change nearly half as much coverage as network news programs did during the year 2012, all while avoiding common pitfalls like providing false balance to those that deny the science and leaving the crisis' manmade origins ambiguous.
The fledgling network's first climate report comprised the entirety of Tuesday's edition of Inside Story, a half-hour news discussion program that promises to “take an in-depth look at the story behind the headlines.” Indeed, the inaugural show featured a meaningful dialogue on -- in guest Heidi Cullen's words -- “coming to terms with the fact that we're all part of the problem ... [and] the solution” to manmade global warming, and discussed consequences like extreme weather and rising sea levels. It never wavered on the veracity of the issue:
Al Jazeera America's 30 minutes of climate coverage (about 24 minutes not including commercial breaks) represented nearly half of what was seen on all network nightly news programs in 2012, and more than what was featured by CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront and Anderson Cooper 360 and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity combined in the past four and a half months:
While the network's early attention to climate change is a breath of fresh air, it may not qualify as a surprise. After all, network heads promised serious, in-depth reporting with “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings,” and commentators have held out hope for a new source of solid TV journalism ever since the sale of Current TV was finalized early this year.
Bottom line: this was a great start. But just as encouraging as what Al Jazeera America discussed last night -- climate change -- is the list of things it didn't do:
1. Provide False Balance.
Perhaps most significantly, Inside Story explored public opinion on climate science, and even presented differing views on climate policy, without once offering marginal contrarian viewpoints as a “counterbalance.” Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera America's acting chief executive, has cited PBS as a model, and it showed. Other cable news channels have sometimes run afoul of this standard.
2. Focus On Politics.
Al Jazeera America focused on the impacts of climate change, with a complementary discussion of some possible ways of mitigating them through political action. Notably, no politicians were interviewed, as few politicians are credible sources of information on, say, sea level rise. Instead, the guests -- Michael Mann, Heidi Cullen and Klaus Jacob -- were all scientists familiar with the topic at hand. Television news outlets don't always do this well: in 2012, 89 percent and 12 percent of Sunday and nightly news coverage of climate change, respectively, was driven by politics.
3. Show Weird Charts.
Discussing public opinion on climate change, Inside Story displayed two graphs showing recent polling. Both had proper vertical axes (starting at zero), showed accurate statistics and cited their sources. Previously, peer network Fox News has had some trouble with charts, maps and the like. They might want to compare notes.
4. Obscure The Cause.
Some attempts at climate coverage muddy the waters, but Al Jazeera America left no doubt that the phenomenon it was referring to is man-made. The segment treated the science as a “given,” and host Libby Casey made a point of mentioning the fact that a significant majority of scientists agree about it, as is continually re-affirmed by high-level research.