"Climategate"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Delayed coverage of “Climategate”

We received 82 complaints concerning the absence/delayed coverage of the story concerning e- mail traffic in the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. Many saw a conspiracy among those who support the theory of Anthropomorphic Global Warming (AGW) to keep the revelations under wraps. Many also claimed that the “hacked” e-mails completely undermined the basis for accepting that theory.

Esther Enkin, the Executive Editor of CBC News, responded. She said the explanation was more mundane--a lapse in assessing the value of the story which essentially broke over the weekend. She pointed out that a number of high-profile mainstream media outlets found themselves in the same predicament. She went on to explain how CBC News responded once the story's significance became evident.

Several correspondents were unsatisfied with Ms. Enkin's response and asked me to review the matter.

Scepticism is one of the cornerstones of journalistic practice. Of course, it is not to be confused with cynicism, nor with manipulation, “spin” or denial of fact.

The good journalist should always view the “accepted” with an appropriately open mind, but not an empty one. Evolution can be acknowledged as accepted science, without closing the mind to new discoveries that might amend the theory.

While the “theory” of evolution can be tested with actual artifacts, the “science” of climate change appears to be a mixture of “artifact” and projection. Journalists should approach any kind of projection openly, but skeptically. This is a quite different position from those who argue against AGW and more in line with those who see that the broad spectrum of scientific opinion tends in one direction, but remain open to both historical and current data which might suggest alternatives.

There is no doubt that CBC News was slow to the so-called “climategate” story, although that trope overstates the extent and nature of the revelations. Most mainstream journalists should have become aware of the story over the weekend of November 21, 2009. A number of agencies carried stories then about the stolen e-mails. By Monday, the story had more general, but not universal, coverage. As Ms. Enkin noted, various major outlets had not yet carried the story

A number of those who wrote cited the Google search numbers for “climategate,” but this tells us little since there was a very high “churn” rate among those looking for information to discredit the main body of climate change opinion. That being said, CBC News was extremely slow in picking up on the story, even after hearing from a significant number of people in the early part of the week.

Finally, on Thursday, Nov. 26, CBCNews.ca carried an item on the reaction to the story and the other services of the CBC began to pick up on the main drift of the revelations. Subsequently, both radio and TV in different ways gave appropriate and balanced coverage to the story. It should be borne in mind that the information contained in the published e-mails, while worthy of note, does not achieve the impact stated by a number of complainants—i.e., the complete undermining of the AGW position. They do show that some scientists are as capable of being petty and manipulative as their opponents.

The situation is, though, an object lesson for a news service to be prepared--weekends or not--to respond to significant stories and put them in appropriate context. It does not seem reasonable to me for a news service the size of the CBC's to not have the resources and capacity to do so. Weekend staffing questions do not seem to cover the lapse on the Monday in following up this bit of news. It would appear that the senior journalists coming on after the weekend assumed that something appropriate had been done. Then, by the time they realized nothing had been done, lapsed into a somewhat self-protective “it's old news” mode. Only as other major media began to catch up to the story did CBC News do so as well.

While it may be comforting to some to point to the lapse in coverage by other major main-stream outlets, I am afraid that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, and our own self-esteem, do not allow that as an excuse for poor journalism. Ironically, the story may have received more coverage than was really justified by the “real” scientific revelations contained in the documents-- i.e., not many. In any event, this was not the CBC's finest hour. I trust that appropriate attention will be brought to bear on the weekend staffing of CBCNews.ca and other immediate response units of CBC News.

Conclusion

The slow up-take on the story was a serious lapse in performance by CBC News. The fact that other major outlets were slow is noteworthy, but not an excuse for the CBC. Appropriate steps should be taken to ensure that events that originally occur at odd times or weekends can be properly assessed and covered.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman