Media warming: How to — and how not to — report on evangelical skepticism on climate change

Many journalists were less than thrilled with President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. In fact, a commentary writer for the right-leaning Washington Examiner suggested that the news media "dropped all pretense of objectivity" in bemoaning the decision. 

A short USA Today story — published before Trump's announcement — illustrates the "It's settled science" approach to climate change coverage that's so common.

The report concerns a Michigan congressman who said he believes God can take care of any global warming.

The headline:

GOP congressman on climate change: God will 'take care of it' if it's real

And the lede:

WASHINGTON — Michigan GOP Rep. Tim Walberg isn’t concerned about the effects of climate change — if it exists — because God will “take care of it.”

Am I the only one who finds that headline and lede a little snarky?

Keep reading, and — to its credit — the national newspaper includes Walberg's full quote. That is helpful because it allows readers to assess for themselves what he said:

“I believe there’s climate change,” Walberg said, according to a video of the exchange obtained first published by the Huffington Post. “I believe there’s been climate change since the beginning of time. I think there are cycles. Do I think man has some impact? Yeah, of course. Can man change the entire universe? No.”
“Why do I believe that?” he continued. “Well, as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

But USA Today's short piece of clickbait offers next to no background or context on Walberg, the climate change debate or — this is a biggie — why a statement from one of 535 members of Congress is national news.

For readers interested in more serious reporting, Religion News Service had a nice roundup of various religious leaders' reactions to Trump's decision.

Moreover, The Washington Post's all-star religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey — a former GetReligionista — produced a quintessential take on "Why so many white evangelicals in Trump’s base are deeply skeptical of climate change."

The Post's lede:

President Trump announced Thursday that he is withdrawing the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement, alarming religious leaders here and around the globe who decried the decision as a departure from the nation’s leadership role.
Mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, denounced the president’s actions. Major Jewish, Muslim and Hindu organizations also condemned the president’s withdrawal from the agreement.
Several Catholic leaders also denounced the move, which came just a week after Pope Francis at the Vatican personally handed the president his encyclical urging care for the planet. In the 2015 document, Francis called for an “ecological conversion,” saying Christians have misinterpreted Scripture and “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
But many evangelicals do not hold this view.

If I were Bailey's editor, I might suggest — gently — that the Post's story takes a bit too long to get to the point. The "But many evangelicals do not hold this view" nut graf comes below an advertisement breaking up the text on my screen.

But that nitpick is a matter of opinion and a minor criticism of what is — in totality — an outstanding overview of where many white evangelicals stand on climate change. Bailey mixes excellent sourcing with credible survey data to produce what must be described as real news (as opposed to, you know, that other kind).

Like USA Today, the Post references what Walberg said — but Bailey quickly follows up his comments with important background:

Half of white evangelicals say global warming is occurring, according to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, but only a quarter of them say it is caused by humans. And just 24 percent say global warming is “a serious problem.”
For many conservative Christians, climate change taps into a deeper mistrust they have of science over issues like abortion and transgenderism.
A tweet from Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative website the Resurgence, earlier this week about how he doesn’t have to care for global warming set off a debate over whether faith and environmentalism overlap.
Erickson on Thursday said he believes man-made climate change exists, but he doesn’t see it as a priority. He said he recycles and talks with his children about conservation, but he thinks the scientific community has been fatalistic about climate change. They remind him, he said, of the end-times preachers.
“We are adaptable and innovative enough to get out of any problem,” Erickson said.

This is one of those stories where I'm tempted to copy and paste the entire thing. However, that would violate copyright law and get me in trouble. I probably don't want to do that. So I'll urge you instead to click the link. Really, read the full story.

For journalists reporting on evangelicals and climate change, Bailey's Post piece is the "how to" case study to USA Today's "how not to" cautionary tale.

For news consumers, the difference in content — and credibility — could not be more clear.

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