Climate Change and the Limits of American Journalism

with David Sassoon

On Friday, February 7, 2020, award-winning climate journalist David Sassoon, the founder and publisher of nonprofit online media organization InsideClimate News (ICN), addressed members of the AUP community on the subject of climate journalism, misinformation and the American media landscape. The event took place in the Omid & Gisel Kordestani Rooftop Conference Center in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons.

After an introduction from William Fisher, AUP’s Provost, Sassoon began his lecture by paying tribute to the ICN team. Though the newsroom has only 20 employees, the organization was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its seven-month investigation into a 2010 oil spill in the Canadian tar sands; the reporting series also covered oil pipeline safety across the United States.

“The function of journalism in a democracy is to allow a community, country or group of countries to become self-aware,” said Sassoon. “How else do you hold yourselves to account?” ICN was founded in 2007 to respond to what Sassoon perceived as a lack of adequate climate change coverage. He believed existing media were too influenced by the public relations strategies of multinational corporations – playing what Sassoon called “the uncertainty game” – with the aim of “tainting the science as suspect and denying the reality of climate science.”

He argued that this was far from a new phenomenon: “Fake news is an old story.” As far back as the 1950s, the oil industry has employed its own scientists to discredit scientific research – often into the links between automobiles and air quality – with the aim of preventing environmental regulations. An ICN investigative report into Exxon Mobil found that the company had internal documents, dated 1977, in which its chief scientist warned that oil and gas consumption were contributing to climate change. Though the board’s initial reaction was positive, a change of leadership in the mid-1980s caused a pivot toward misinformation. “Why did we break the Exxon story?” Sassoon asked. “Why didn’t the New York Times break it years ago?”

Sassoon closed his talk with a discussion of the Trump administration: “They have decided that they will do everything in their power to discredit media as we know it.” He highlighted the comments made by Trump’s former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in 2017 that the media should “keep its mouth shut” as evidence of this point. He noted that the problem had been exacerbated by the collapse of journalism’s business model over recent decades, as advertisers’ reliance on print media has been eroded by online competition. “Journalism has been weakened at a time when it is needed more than ever,” he concluded.

Following the talk, Provost Fisher questioned Sassoon on whether the nonprofit sector was truly independent from investors’ influence. “Those who fund journalism in America right now don’t give money to create content,” said Sassoon. “You have to be self-sustaining; investors give money to help you figure out how to do that.” Fisher then opened the Q&A to the audience, who asked about how best to communicate climate science in understandable terms and why climate denial was so prevalent in the United States. “I think misinformation is an American export,” said Sassoon, adding that fear of big government and mistrust of the UN system were also contributing to the problem.