Journalists and the Looming Superstorm of Climate Disinformation
With climate action on the table, disinformation is poised to get louder. What should journalists do about it?
By Andrew McCormick
Texas had only just frozen over. In the wake of a devastating winter storm, millions in the state were without power and struggling to find warmth. They boiled snow for water; some were dying. And against all evidence, the climate-science-denying political right was grousing about windmills and blaming a Green New Deal that doesn’t yet exist.
“Unbeknownst to most people, the Green New Deal came to Texas,” Tucker Carlson said on February 16 on Fox News. “The power grid in the state became totally reliant on windmills. Then it got cold, and the windmills broke, because that’s what happens in the Green New Deal.” An hour later, on Hannity, routinely America’s most-watched cable news program, Texas governor Greg Abbott said his state’s predicament “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” In the days that followed, similar disinformation was repeated across Fox News and Fox Business programming, on competitor right-wing outlets OAN and Newsmax, in right-leaning newspapers, and in myriad statements by Republican elected officials.
These claims were nonsense. Texas runs primarily on natural gas, and it was frozen pipelines and wells—amid an energy infrastructure not designed to withstand cold—that were most responsible for the blackouts. Moreover, in the spirit of deregulation, state officials years ago had isolated their grid from the rest of the country, meaning Texas was unable to import electricity from elsewhere to keep the lights on. Some windmills did freeze, but only because they weren’t winterized—not because windmills in general are innately vulnerable.
In the reality-based press, experts defended renewable energy, and outlets issued explainers debunking Republican assertions. As the saying goes, though, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on. And so a story that should have been about Texans in need and a harrowing warning of how the climate emergency can turn life upside down was instead given over to a political mud fight—and that’s when it wasn’t reduced to a story about the high-flying misadventures of Ted Cruz.
Of course, disinformation is nothing new to the climate story. Exceptional investigative journalism has shown that fossil fuel companies knew as far back as the 1970s that their operations threatened humanity’s future, but they kept silent to keep their profits flowing. Now the fossil fuel industry is decidedly on the defensive—losing in the court of public opinion, shedding investors, and facing a new US president who vows expansive climate action. It’s no surprise the industry and its backers are again turning to disinformation. Judging by the chorus that followed the Texas freeze, they’re willing to get louder.
The question is, what can, and should, journalists do about that?
The best approach, simple as it sounds, is to lead with the facts, not punditry, says Kristy Roschke, managing director of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Reporters should favor local sources and expertise over outsiders; coverage of the Texas storms that centered in-state climate and energy experts was exemplary. And as much as possible, journalists should focus on information that people need to make real-world decisions; if disinformation is often meant to distract, Roschke says, “the counter to distraction is usefulness.”
Above all, Roschke says, journalists must shirk the habit of framing everything as a two-sided debate: “We can’t keep reinforcing the debate when there’s no debate there.”
Research shows that repetition affects both how our brains imprint information and the claims we judge as true. Repeating falsehoods, then, even to debunk, can inadvertently reinforce them. A tool journalists can use to avoid this trap is what retired University of California–Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff calls a “truth sandwich”—that is, presenting disinformation between two statements of truth. For example: Power outages in Texas were caused mainly by gas and coal-fired power plants freezing up. Some right-wing media figures and Republican politicians have instead inaccurately blamed renewable energy and the Green New Deal. But wind and solar energy in fact fared better than fossil fuels did during the Texas cold snap, and the Green New Deal does not exist yet, neither at the federal level nor in the state of Texas.
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