Review: InsideClimate News

4 stars
A recommended source of daily watchdog journalism on climate change and green power

The scientific consensus is clear, the predictions range from bad to worse: we are slowly heating the Earth by pumping greenhouse gases into its atmosphere, with increasingly disastrous consequences. Yet politicians whose careers depend on fossil fuel industry support are as eager as ever to peddle doubt and uncertainty to justify inaction.

In US politics, the governing political party is now fully identified with climate denial. In the media, organized denial continues to this day in publications ranging from center-right (Wall Street Journal) to “alt-right” (Breitbart). See the chapter on organized climate change denial in the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society for a scholarly overview of the machinery of denial.

How should journalists tackle the issue? Not, many scientists warn, by engaging in false balance, but by giving consistent and serious attention to the matter. So far, such warnings have fallen on deaf ears in the US. Never mind balance: not a single question in the US presidential debates focused on climate change, and the ultimately successful candidate has repeatedly called it a hoax.

InsideClimate News (ICN) is one nonprofit news site that wants to close the gap between environmentalist advocacy and the limited reporting on climate change by major media. Explicitly nonpartisan, it has won multiple awards for its journalistic work, including a Pulitzer prize for “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of”. That article series was the result of a seven month investigation into a pipeline spill of diluted bitumen (dilbit), and the expensive and unprecendented cleanup that followed.

The site was founded by David Sassoon, a former PR industry professional, in 2007. The American Press Institute interviewed him on the occasion of the Pulitzer award, and he provided some background on his motivation to start the site:

Back in 2007 it looked like the country was getting ready to move toward national climate legislation. And we were very much attuned to the interest in the business community and the economic case for taking action. We also saw that the mainstream reporting on climate change was flawed. It was still reporting as if there was equal doubt about man-made global warming — when really on one side you had politics and the other side science, which was indisputable.

The site transitioned from a small blog into a full journalism operation that built partnerships with Reuters, Bloomberg, The Weather Channel, VICE Media, and others. It was initially part of the nonprofit incubator NEO (formerly known as “Public Interest Projects”) and now operates as an independent organization.

Funding, Transparency, Executive Compensation

InsideClimate News has published a single Annual Report so far, for 2014. According to it, the organization spent $961K in 2014. 88% of revenue is attributed to foundations and 8% to individual/online donors. One nice touch: individual donors starting at the $10 level are listed by name. The website also lists foundation supporters, which include some common names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Knight, but also environmental funders such as the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund. Corporate sponsors like The North Face get logo placements on ICN’s website.

The Annual Report focuses more on what ICN does (showcasing especially its many media partnerships) than what impact its stories have accomplished in the real world. However, through 2016, ICN has published two newsletters, which do speak to impact. For example, from its April 2016 newsletter:

Although our Exxon: The Road Not Taken series launched last September, its momentum continues. Not only have the original set of stories won a series of journalism awards, they helped kick-start a push to investigate whether Exxon misled the public and investors on climate, with several states and the U.S. Virgin Islands now joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the effort.

In an email, David Sassoon told me that the organization is shifting to releasing a full report in even years, supplemented by quarterly reports in odd years. He also suggested that previously distributed quarterly reports would be added to the public archive soon.

In ICN’s 2014 tax return (which shows $1.5M in revenue), Sassoon’s compensation is listed at $98,400 total, and writers are listed at $51K-$76K/year. Assuming this covers a full year of compensation, this is at the bottom end of organizations we’ve reviewed, though ICN is also one of the smallest organizations we’ve looked at in terms of revenue.

Right-Wing and Fossil Fuel Industry Attacks

It’s worth noting that ICN has come under attack from right-wing groups. In 2015, Jillian Kay Melchior wrote the article “InsideClimate News: Journalism or Green PR?” for National Review, a conservative paper which endorsed Ted Cruz (“Climate change is not science, it’s religion”) for President in 2016.

The critique doesn’t withstand cursory scrutiny and rests on ICN’s long existence as a small-scale effort bootstrapped with help from a nonprofit incubator and Sassoon himself. But it is bolstered by groups like the Media Research Center, which receives most of its funding from Breitbart/Trump-aligned billionaire Robert Mercer and has also cashed in hundreds of thousands of dollars from – wait for it – ExxonMobil.

To be sure, the fossil fuel industry really, really doesn’t like InsideClimate News. In addition to the aforementioned proxies, it regularly feuds with the small nonprofit through its own PR arms such as ExxonMobil Perspectives (examples) and Koch Facts (examples).

The goal here is probably not to convince environmentalists or even right-wing activists, as these websites receive tiny amounts of traffic, but to disrupt partnerships and funding, and to firmly push ICN into the categorization of “advocacy journalism” in order to undermine its journalistic credibility.

Positioning, Bias

As noted, ICN considers itself nonpartisan, but starts with the assumptions that there is no ongoing international conspiracy to perpetuate the climate change hoax and conceal its origins, and that the scientific community generally has an idea what it’s talking about. If you think those are reasonable assumptions (and – surprise, surprise – I do), that still leaves some important questions:

  • Does ICN report on legitimate scientific disagreements?
  • Does ICN report on legitimate policy disagreements?
  • Does ICN treat the subjects it reports on (e.g., scientists, corporations) fairly?

Generally, ICN articles are written in a neutral tone. There are no parts of the site that are dedicated to activism. Compared to, say, Rewire (which we described to advocacy journalism in our review), this is a much more straightforward news site.

ICN staff sometimes write backgrounders such as “Republican Carbon Tax Proposal: Novel Climate Solution or Regulatory Giveaway?”. These are also not advocacy pieces – the article in question is a good example of balancing different perspectives, though it would benefit from citing sources.

Stories like “Warming Climate May Limit Lyme Disease’s Spread in Parts of the U.S.” clearly don’t serve an activist narrative. ICN also looks critically at the way scientific findings are used (“Both Sides in Climate War Blamed for Cherry-Picking Attribution Research”) and reports on ambivalent findings (“Study Delivers Good News, Bad News on Methane Leaks from Fracking Operations”). It includes fossil fuel industry voices/statements in some of its stories, as in this recent report on the Dakota Access Pipeline, even though industry spokespersons sometimes refuse to engage with ICN.

When it comes to renewables, the story “EPA Loopholes Allow Biomass to Emit More Toxic Air Pollutants Than Coal, Study Says” is an example of a critical look at a “renewable” technology (biomass) that is increasingly viewed critically, as recent reports on wood pellet energy schemes indicate. ICN also reports on carbon capture and storage and other technologies that could work in conjunction with fossil fuel use. At the same time, I found few stories on nuclear power, or on the ecological effects of large wind/solar projects. Similarly, I learned about the promising Allam cycle technology from ForbesICN has never mentioned it.

ICN does give most visibility to scientist and activist voices, and when it comes to climate change, tends to focus on stories that highlight risks of inaction, or show the potential of clean energy sources. Its in-depth coverage of the Environmental Protection Agency’s fracking study is a good example of its critical vantage point. Indeed, ICN sometimes describes itself as a source of “hard-hitting watchdog reporting”.

Content Example: “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”

One of the series that has gotten ICN into the crosshairs of ExxonMobil is “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”. In spite of ExxonMobil’s efforts to discredit ICN as a group of activists with an agenda, the series was named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

Interestingly, ICN also offers the whole series as a Kindle ebook. Whatever one thinks of Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market, it’s certainly a convenient way to donate a buck and read the content on the go.

The series covers multiple points of Exxon’s history, starting with research in the late 1970s that began sounding alarm bells about what was then known as the greenhouse effect. One Exxon researcher told employees that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”

ICN credits Exxon with working fruitfully with the scientific community for many years, before joining with the rest of the industry in mounting a campaign of skepticism and denial. From part III:

As the consensus grew within the scientific world, Exxon doubled down on the uncertainty. Its campaign to muddy research results placed the company outside the scientific mainstream.

The series is supported by timelines, source documents, and graphics. ExxonMobil’s response is to try to reframe the history: that there was always a lack of certainty, and that the company has always acted consistent with available knowledge. Nothing to see here!

But that clearly isn’t true – the evidence that the PR campaign started just as scientific groups organized their response and policymakers began getting serious about climate change is abundant. But not a single page on Exxon’s PR site (except for some user comments) even mentions the “Global Climate Coalition” and similar groups that were used to fight effective climate policy.

The investigative importance of the ICN series is undeniable, though I’m inclined to agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon, who notes a lack of editorial synthesis. Nonetheless, there are some elements of powerful storytelling, for example:

In 1981, 12-year-old Laura Shaw won her seventh-grade science fair at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Cranford, N.J. with a project on the greenhouse effect.

For her experiment, Laura used two souvenir miniatures of the Washington Monument, each with a thermometer attached to one side. She placed them in glass bowls and covered one with plastic wrap – her model of how a blanket of carbon dioxide traps the reflected heat of the sun and warms the Earth. When she turned a lamp on them, the thermometer in the plastic-covered bowl showed a higher temperature than the one in the uncovered bowl.

If Laura and her two younger siblings were unusually well-versed in the emerging science of the greenhouse effect, as global warming was known, it was because their father, Henry Shaw, had been busily tracking it for Exxon Corporation.

Email Newsletters

ICN offers multiple newsletters, including two curated collections of daily news from around the web:

Each newsletter item has a brief original summary, while the headlines are copied from the source. These digests are useful, but they aren’t as engagingly prioritized and curated as, e.g., the Marshall Project’s criminal justice newsletter (see our review). A single, more carefully compiled newsletter might be ultimately more successful.

Design, Tech and Licensing

The site is straightforward to navigate and works well on mobile devices. The list of “hot topics” (currently “Dakota Access Pipeline”, “Exxon Climate Investigation”, “Donald Trump”, etc.) is especially helpful, while the rest of the main page is a bit cluttered. Sections lead to in-depth investigations, infographics and documents.

There is no commenting system of any kind. There are, however, prominent instructions for submitting corrections and leaks, and a story correction I submitted via tweet was addressed quickly.

The site is under conventional copyright, granting content re-use on a case-by-case basis. Sassoon explained via email: “We rarely refuse [permission]. We’ve seen abuse of our content, otherwise. Also, we do partner with other media, and like to be able to grant exclusive access to our work.”

The Verdict

ICN is a very valuable, journalistic effort that sheds light on one of the most important topics of our era: the future habitability of our planet by humankind. The well-funded efforts to discredit this small organization speak to the impact that it has achieved through its award-winning investigations.

Indeed, the organization isn’t large enough yet to achieve the full breadth of coverage that the topic merits. One should therefore understand it to be a source of “watchdog” journalism, as opposed to a comprehensive view of climate/energy news (although the team’s news monitoring work helps with the latter).

The rating is 4 out of 5 stars: recommended reading. With a bit more editorial and design polish, more breadth/depth, and more consistency in organizational transparency, that rating may easily increase in future. ICN is now part of the Twitter list of quality nonprofit media.