“Not Grounded In Facts” : Environmental Journalism Veterans Slam Wall Street Journal Editorial Board

WSJThe head of North America's leading association of environmental journalists and several environmental journalism professors with years of experience in the field are criticizing The Wall Street Journal editorial page's decades-long history of undermining scientific facts and consensus to dismiss environmental threats.

Using phrases like “disingenuous,” “misleading,” and “dangerous,” some of the nation's top scientific news instructors and veteran reporters weighed in with harsh comments on the Journal's practices.

The science journalism veterans reacted to a lengthy report on the Journal editorial page's poor record with regard to environmental issues posted today by Media Matters. The report shows a history of the Journal editorial board distorting facts to downplay concerns about issues ranging from the ozone layer to acid rain.

Notably, the Journal continues to cast doubt on the fact that human activities are contributing to climate change in the face of a strong scientific consensus driven by abundant evidence. Following the pattern they used in responding to previous environmental threats, the paper has downplayed this consensus, claimed that fixing any potential problem is too expensive, and attacked those seeking to fix the problem as motivated by politics, not science.  

Carolyn Whetzel, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and an environmental reporter for the private publisher Bloomberg BNA, said such behavior by the Journal is “not grounded in facts.”

“In the case of climate change, there is strong body of scientific evidence that shows climate change is occurring and that is caused by human activities,” she said. “This has been reported in hundreds of news outlets in the U.S. and around the world. Editorials that argue otherwise simply do not reflect peer-reviewed science and may confuse the news consuming public.”

“There's a lot of that going on, in terms of the opinion pieces not based on, not grounded in the facts,” she added. “You can have your own opinions and the facts are the facts and in many cases on these issues, the facts speak loudly as to what's true, what the research finds and shows.”

Whetzel and others also pointed out that the impact of the Journal as a news source and influential opinion page makes its inaccuracies even more problematic.

“It can sway opinion,” she noted about the Journal editorial pages, later adding, “I personally respect much of the Journal's reporting, but when I read the editorial page I go into it knowing it is the editorial page. If the editorial page skews the facts it is confusing and that creates a lot of uncertainty, including [with regard to] environmental issues and particularly climate change.”

For Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, the Journal's climate change editorials raise “strong concerns.”

"The Wall Street Journal editorials come across my desk and what I've seen has been, to put it mildly, disingenuous," he said in an interview. “The use of facts, the use of -- misuse of -- what is known about the science of greenhouse effects, global warning, and climate change.”

Allen, who spent a dozen years as a science, environment, and medical reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, added that the Journal's editorial board is “remarkably in step with the world of the -- pick a term, denialists, contrarian, vest-pocket hacks -- for the oil industry, or the fossil fuel industry.”

He also said: “I often read those editorials on climate change and wonder, 'where do they get that stuff?'”

Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director of the Center for Science & Medical Journalism at Boston University and a contributing editor to Atlantic Magazine, cited the Journal opinion page's broader influence within the right-wing media as a problem, pointing out that its distortions can quickly spread.

 "The Wall Street Journal editorial page will be reprinted on the Web and quoted by Rush Limbaugh and others," she said. “What is printed there will go beyond The Wall Street Journal so we have to be concerned.”

She said that the Journal's pattern of skewing data to fit an opinion is not “responsible journalism,” adding, "The Wall Street Journal is obviously pro-business and that is what it is in business to do, but business interest often conflict with environmental interests."

Sharon Friedman, director of the Science and Environmental Writing Program at the Lehigh University Department of Journalism and Communication, shared that view.

“Editorial writers are also supposed to do their research and base their opinions on factual information,” she said. “I find a significant difference as I am sure many have between the general news reporting in The Wall Street Journal and the editorial pages. Some of them I have problems with.”

After reviewing the Media Matters report, Friedman cited several Journal editorials that disturbed her, including a February 16, 2010, Journal editorial on climate change that stated: “We think the science is still disputable.” It questioned “how much our current warming is man-made as opposed to merely another of the natural climate shifts that have taken place over the centuries.”

  “As far as the majority of scientists go, there is no dispute that climate change is occurring,” she said. “I don't like that sentence, it is misleading, it is a misleading sentence.”

Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, said the Journal editorial page has been “extremely selective” with environmental data.

“It's very tricky to do opinion writing well because it is very easy under the veil of 'this is just my opinion' to really reject the data,” he said. “Certainly the Journal is a very conservative page and they are very selective with the empirical data that they cite. It shows up on environmental issues.”

Fagin, who spent 14 years as the environment writer at Newsday, later added: “The Journal editorial page has a very long record of consistently underestimating the benefits of environmental regulation and consistently overstating the costs. Acid rain is maybe one of the most famous ones and one that reaches more than 20 years back. It speaks to a real problem in opinion journalism. It is possible to cherry-pick data that reinforces your opinion. It is especially dangerous with any issue that is complex and the public doesn't really have a clear understanding of because many members of the public don't have the ability to double check that. The dangers on complex issues are greater.”