Talking Shop: When Debunking Climate Disinformation Gets Labeled “Censorship”

A panel of experts discussed how journalists can strengthen their climate reporting against claims of disinformation and censorship.

Past event: June 18, 2024

Increasingly, disinformation peddlers are protecting their lies by accusing anyone who fact checks or debunks climate disinformation of censorship, bias, or being anti–free speech and debate. How can journalists preempt such charges, or deal with them, as we continue to tackle climate disinformation on the beat?

In this press briefing, co-sponsored by Covering Climate Now and Climate Action Against Disinformation, experts detailed strategies used by disinformers to discredit journalists and how you can protect your reporting and serve your audiences.  Kendra Pierre-Louis of Bloomberg, Marco Silva of BBC News, and Wudan Yan, freelance journalist and fact-checker for a one-hour discussion moderated by Amy Westervelt, executive editor of Drilled, joined the conversation.


Panelists

  • Kendra Pierre-Louis, Climate Reporter, Bloomberg
  • Marco Silva, Senior Journalist, Climate Disinformation, BBC News
  • Wudan Yan, Journalist, Fact-checker, and Entrepreneur

Amy Westervelt, Executive Editor of Drilled, moderated.

Transcript

Mark Hertsgaard: Hello and welcome to another Talking Shop from Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, I’m the executive director of Covering Climate Now, and also the environment correspondent for The Nation Magazine.

The subject of today’s Talking Shop is, I must say, a spicy one, outwitting the climate liars. Moderating today will be my esteemed colleague, Amy Westervelt, and she is, as many of you doubtless know, a distinguished climate journalist and the executive editor of Drilled.

For those who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a global collaboration of more than 500 news outlets reaching a total audience of billions of people. We’re organized by journalists for journalists to help all of us in the media do a better job of covering the defining story of our time.

To learn more, please visit our website at wwwcoveringclimatenow.org.

And co-sponsoring today’s discussion is Climate Action Against Disinformation. They’re a global coalition of civil society organizations. They describe themselves as “dedicated to combating climate misinformation and disinformation to foster a transparent and honest dialogue on climate solutions.” To learn more about the coalition’s work, visit caad.info.

Now it’s my pleasure to hand the mic to today’s moderator. Amy Westervelt is one of the world’s leading experts and exposers of climate, misinformation and disinformation. She’s also, I’m happy to say, a member of Covering Climate Now’s steering committee. We’re so grateful that she’s leading today’s conversation. We’re grateful to all the panelists, and we’re grateful to you for being here. Amy, over to you.

Amy Westervelt: Thank you. Thanks everyone for being here today. We have an amazing panel. I’m maybe the most excited about today’s conversation as any of these. So to start, we have Kendra Pierre-Louis, who you might recognize from the New York Times and from Gimlet. She’s now at Bloomberg Business Week doing amazing reporting there.

As well, long-time great climate reporter, Marco Silva from the BBC, I think still is maybe the only person I know with the words climate disinformation in his job title.

And then Wudan Yan, who I’ve worked with for a long time. She’s an amazing fact-checker. She is a reporter, an amazing long form writer, and now she has started multiple businesses and doing podcast production. I don’t know how you do it all Wudan.

Okay, so to kick us off, I want to explain a little bit the thinking behind this webinar, which is that I’ve been starting to see more and more politicians, right wing think tanks, pundits claiming that debunking disinformation and even fact is censorship. And we wanted to address that issue, talk about it, talk about what other people are seeing, and then how to respond to that accusation.

So I want to kick it off with a question to all of you and ask whether this is something that you have dealt with. Have you had people, when you do a climate disinfo story, accuse you of suppressing dissent or other viewpoints on climate? Who wants to go first?

Kendra. Kendra, have you had this happen to you?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I’ve weirdly not had someone say that it’s suppressing dissent. It often comes for me, has often come in different ways, which is people accuse you of cherry-picking the data, or being in the pocket of big climate, or shilling for the leftist agenda, moreso that I think it comes in the form of someone saying that checking someone’s facts is climate disinformation.

I’ve also though… I feel like to your point, that it’s been a more recent trend, and I nuked my Twitter in October, so I haven’t been in the space where you’re most likely to get that kind of direct pushback.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah. Marco, how about you?

Marco Silva: Yes, unfortunately, I would say that in my case, it’s been a fairly constant trend ever since I took on this particular role. Most of my stories deal with elements of climate change denial, and as a result, and particularly because I suppose because of the platform that I have through the BBC, which of course gives enormous exposure to my work, I normally receive a lot of negative feedback on social media or by email from people who, most of the time, people who reject the overwhelming consensus on climate change, and who are aggravated by the fact that the BBC is stating the basic science of climate change as facts.

And they see me as part of this attempt to silence people who have different views, to repress debate, to censor somehow. So yeah, I would say sadly, it’s fairly constant with the work that I do.

Amy Westervelt: Interesting. And Wudan, what about you, have you seen this crop up anywhere?

Wudan Yan: Yeah. So in my own reporting, I don’t publish so much on climate disinformation, but in thinking about this talk and what could be useful, it’s just kind of this idea of other people’s perceptions of journalism, I think plays a big part into it. I spent seven years reporting a piece about lead in turmeric, and I reached out to this one South Asian organization in Seattle being like, “Have you heard of this being an issue?” And they’re just like, “Who’s sponsoring this piece? Big pharma?”

And I think it’s just so interesting what people think of reporters, who they think that we take money from or don’t, or what is true independence. And that is just so skewed by however each individual person consumes media and believes what is a fact, which I know we’re going to get into later.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great segue actually into a question I wanted to come back to you with Marco, which is, I guess, how do you handle it when this kind of accusation comes up in the reporting process, before the story is even out where you go to a source to ask them either about something that they’ve been accused of or something you found or whatever, and you’re being accused of even looking into it being somehow suspect or censory.

Marco Silva: Well, I would say I would like perhaps to broaden in a way the scope of the question, because the fact that this response from the public is there requires from me and from colleagues who report on the same beat, requires a particular attitude in the reporting process during publication and afterwards.

So in the reporting process, there have been instances where, as part of my investigations, as part of the stories that I worked on, I have had to reach out to people who indeed deny the basic facts of climate change, people that you and I would define as climate deniers. And some people might question the wisdom of including those voices, of course, in our reporting. But in every instance where that happened, there was a clear editorial process thought about is there an editorial case to include these voices in our reporting? And what is the purpose of including those voices?

So an example of that would be when, for instance, I did a piece about a collective of climate activists known as the Twitter Ninja Troll Hunters group of vigilantes on Twitter who have taken it upon themselves in recent years to patrol Twitter and to report climate denial on the platform back when that sort of content violated the rules of Twitter, as we know that today is certainly no longer the case.

And as part of the piece that I was building, getting to know them, understanding their work, I was also interested in speaking to the people who had been affected by their activities, which as a matter of fact could get quite intense at points.

And so I reached out to an individual who promoted climate change denial, who promoted an abundancy of other conspiracy theories on his platform. But I think provided that you are transparent, honest, and treat people with the same professionalism that you treat any other interviewee, you are already set on a good course.

So in this case, I made it very clear that the piece was not meant to censor his views, or it’s essentially what we wanted to do was to use his story to reflect on how this group of activists was operating online. And there was a clear understanding of what we were about, and there were plenty of opportunities for this person to withdraw consent from that.

So I would say that the first step would be transparent, be honest about what you want to do. And without wanting to take too much of the forum, because I know your colleagues will also have interesting thoughts on that, I would say as well, in addition to that, during the reporting process, I think a good way for us to protect ourselves against these sort of accusations that we’re censoring, restricting freedom of speech, involves being really transparent in our reporting.

The BBC at the moment has a huge focus on transparency. It’s that old motto, show your work. So if you are stating facts, if you are illustrating conclusions, how do you get to that conclusion? Where is the data coming from? Use links, use reports, show your work, and then show how your journalism is made.

Our research at the BBC shows that this tends to increase confidence from audiences. If audiences know how we’re making our journalism possible and how we’re reaching some conclusions, then they are perhaps more likely to trust us. It doesn’t mean that it’ll be the case all the time. There are people for whom the BBC… who have gone past any point of wanting to embrace the BBC and the journalism that it does. But perhaps for a large section of the audience that may have questions about our journalism or sections of the audience that may have questions about how we get to some stories, that certainly helps us build that confidence.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah, totally. Kendra, I want to ask you about what should we do when the call is coming from inside the house? I know I’ve had editors in the past who have been sort of like, “Well, if we…” Actually not as long ago, as you might think, said, “Well, if we have climate scientists, we have to have an alternate point of view as well.” Or say you get a quote from someone where the quote itself is a lie and you are trying to decide whether to include that or not or whatever, and you’re dealing with an editor pushing back in kind of the same way that we’re talking about the public doing, how do you handle that? Have you ever had that happen yourself? And even if not, how would you recommend other reporters handle it?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I have two very clear examples of this happening, not at my current employer. I just want to make that really clear.

And in the first case, it was basically a study story. So I had done a roundup of two studies that it doesn’t really matter, but it was about conservation easements for agriculture. And my editor came to me at the end, and the conclusions of the study were essentially in support of what is essentially against a liberal position, which is that conservation easements, which are essentially… There are a variety of them, but it’s basically this idea that you set aside a certain amount of land and you don’t farm it, and the government pays you not to farm it. There are other nuances to it, but, broad strokes.

And it basically said like, “Hey, they’re actually really good for the environment.”

And my editor turned to me and he was like, “Well, we need to interview a Republican.”

And I was like, “But we haven’t interviewed a Democrat. It’s a study story. I’ve only interviewed researchers.” And they were insistent that I needed to interview a Republican. And I was like, “This literally makes no sense to me.”

And so I’m just like, “What if I interview a right-wing organization,” since I’m not, it would be if I interview… They wanted me to interview a Republican rep, like a government rep-

Amy Westervelt: A politician, yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: A politician, right. And it’s like, what if I go with a right-wing organization? Because if I interview a Republican rep, then I’m going to have to interview a Democrat rep and it’s going to take too long to publish.

And I didn’t say that… I said that because I had nefarious intent, I’m going to own it. I knew about Ducks Unlimited. Do you know about Ducks Unlimited?

Amy Westervelt: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: They are sort of a right-wing leaning conservation nonprofit because they want to protect wildlands for hunting and trappings. I was like, “I’m just going to call Ducks Unlimited. This is going to solve all the problems.”

Because I was like, “I strongly suspect Ducks Unlimited is going to be like, ‘We love conservation easements,’ and it will fill all of this niche. It won’t be really partisan. It won’t undermine what the researchers have said. It’ll be fine.” And that’s exactly what they did.

So I guess one is a little bit about knowing the landscape that you’re operating under, and knowing what you can sort of slide under, it’s kind of to appease your editors without actually undermining the central thrust of your story. If it had been a different type of story where if it had literally been, I’d been interviewing politicians about this new policy putting through, I would not have been pushing back against interviewing a Republican politician, but it was just very much like I’ve interviewed two academics and because their conclusions are somewhat in support of policies that tend to happen under democratic regimes my editor was interpreting that as a liberal story. And it wasn’t, it was a scientific study right?

Amy Westervelt: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: The second time this happened was during that, this is like 1,000 years ago, but do you remember that weird period when the Green New Deal first came out and Gorka was going on and on about how they’re going to take our hamburgers away and it’s what Stalin would’ve wanted?

Amy Westervelt: So much Stalin. So much Stalin, yes.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: The irony is Stalin freaking loved hamburgers, loved it. There’s this great quote, he literally… there’s a type of Soviet sausage that’s loosely based off of McDonald’s hamburger, because they had literally sent an attaché to the United States to learn the technology of the nascent McDonald’s. But the embargoes went up before they could get the technology out. So they had to make do, and solve it. I forget what it’s called, but when you have the final product and then try to figure out how to make it so they ended up with something different.

And so I had this really funny quote, I had Gorka’s quote, and then I was going to immediately kind of counteract it with Gorka’s quote was wrong, it was wrong, and I was going to immediately counteract it with the fact that Stalin loved burgers because it’s hilarious. And my editor wanted to keep that fact to the end. But I was like, “No.” I was like, “If I’m repeating a lie, we need to debunk it right away.” I understood it’s a literary technique. Putting it at the end is really fun, it’s delightful, it’s this great surprise. But I was like, but as a journalistic technique, it’s bad journalism and journalism needs to be literary technique in this case.

And we couldn’t come to a conclusion. We couldn’t come to an agreement. So I was like, “We’re pulling the quote.” And so I pulled the quote. I’m not saying this is what you should do, I’m just saying this is what I’ve done.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, better to… I think you made the right call, although I’m sad that we missed the amazing fact that Stalin loving hamburgers. Okay. Wudan-

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Stalin doesn’t want you to take your hamburgers away. He wants you to eat your burgers.

Amy Westervelt: He wants everyone to have burgers. Okay, so Wudan, I have a five part question for you because you’re the only one on this panel that is on both sides of this coin where you sometimes are the reporter and sometimes you’re the fact-checker. So first, I want to have you just define what fact-checking is because I feel like it is a broad spectrum. I’ve recently had a lot of people tell me that they self fact-check, and I’m like, “Okay, that’s not a thing.” But yes, please tell us, define the term for us.

Wudan Yan: Yeah, I felt very strongly about leading with this question because as I am launching a fact-checking agency this fall, and so I’m getting applicants from all over the world who have very different ideas of what fact-checking is. So there’s two types of fact-checking.

One is pre-publication fact-checking. This is what I specialize in. It’s before when a piece of nonfiction goes live and into the world, somebody like me works behind the scenes to independently verify the facts of the story and rebuild somebody’s reporting based on that person’s reporting and other available information on the internet. Pre-publication fact-checking prevents the persistent spread of lies.

Post-publication fact-checking is what you see kind of after presidential debates. People going in, like AP fact-check, things like that. Being like Trump said this, Biden said that. How true are those things? That’s post-publication fact-checking. And while I believe it has its place, the lie is already out there. And so, yes, when I talk about fact-checking, I am talking about pre-publication fact-checking which is, I believe, the best way to reduce the amount of disinformation that is out there.

The one thing I do say about the pre-publication fact-checking process, and for the rest of this talk I’m just going to call that fact-checking to clarify anything, that depends on the strength of what’s been reported on. Marco was saying, “Show your work.” Well, I need to see that work as a fact-checker to kind of make this assessment. A lot of the time, the benefit of hiring a fact-checker who is a very skilled fact-checker is that we kind of know how to take note of all the swimming facts around the internet and the world and figure out who’s telling me this? Why are they telling me this? Could they have a vested interest in what they’re spreading? And kind of winnow that down until the answer is like, no, this is as objective of a perspective as we can get.

But when I’ve worked on pieces where the sourcing was suspect and the footnotes were not up to par, that was a conversation I had with an editor. And ultimately, in a lot of those cases, the pieces got killed, which I think is responsible ultimately, even though what a sad waste of time for everyone else involved. So, yeah, that’s what I’ll say about fact-checking. I’m not completely re-reporting a story from scratch. I want to see a reporter sourcing. That’s going to inform a lot of the work that I do.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, totally. Can you talk a little bit about how your work as a fact-checker has influenced your work as a reporter? I know actually as someone who’s had the experience of being fact-checked by you, I have a little Wudan in my head all the time being like-

Wudan Yan: Source.

Amy Westervelt: … does this really stand up?

Wudan Yan: Source, please. Yeah, so I was trained up as a fact-checker before I began reporting myself. That’s how I learned the craft of journalism. So when I am reporting, I’m always asking for a source, which can sometimes be annoying, lead to a lot of follow-ups, but it makes the story better. So because I was kind of trained up as a fact-checker, when I write all my stories, I annotate as I go to show my work.

Some editors are like, “We love this because if we need to edit you, we have the sourcing to make an accurate edit.” And I find that really refreshing because I think it prevents this constant back and forth, which as a freelancer, time is money and if I can spend less time, then I make more money theoretically. So that is a boon.

There are some things that you can’t get as a reporter, but you can get as a fact-checker. And Amy, I feel like I’ve experienced this a lot when checking your shows, which is like you’re having trouble pinning something down. But in my fact-checking process, people are like, “Who the hell is this Wudan woman? Okay, she wants to fact-check the story, fine.” And then if I present what we think is a fact to the person, then they can debunk, rebut or support it. And so I think-

Amy Westervelt: I actually use that sometimes too, even as a reporter, as a last step, I’ll be like, “We’re fact-checking this piece. Here’s how we understand it. Please correct or confirm it.” And almost every time is they’ll finally be like, “Okay, yeah, that’s how it happened.” Or “No, it was actually this thing” or whatever. Yeah.

Wudan Yan: Well, when it comes down to that in fact-checking process, it’s like fact-checking is the last call at the bar situation. It’s like, all right, send in your piece or if anyone has any objections as to this couple getting married, speak now or forever hold your peace. So that’s how I feel when I’m fact-checking with sources. And it is fascinating how much more I can get sometimes as a checker than as a reporter.

Amy Westervelt: Awesome. All right. I want to ask all of you to talk a little bit about what you do in this situation that Kendra just talked about, where if you are interviewing someone and they say something that is untruthful, how do you decide when to run that and debunk it, when that’s valuable versus just leaving it out of the story altogether? Maybe Marco, we’ll start with you because I feel like this probably comes up for you a lot.

Marco Silva: Yes. Yeah, quite a bit. I suppose it depends a little bit on the circumstances, as if you’re a live broadcaster and you are speaking to someone, let’s say just in abstract terms, a politician who’s dropping falsehoods faster that you can fact-check them, it can be the interview can become a painful process if every five seconds you’re interrupting the politician to debunk or address a particular claim that is being made. And that requires from you as a broadcaster very good judgment, and you have on the spot in that moment to make a judgment call, an editorial call on whether for the benefit of the interview, is it worth you stopping the interview to address that claim or shall we continue and you deal with a big one, with a really fat, juicy, all the claims or the big underlaying point that the interview is making on that question.

Now, in my role particularly, most of the work that I do involves either rapid response fact-checking of claims that have gone viral on social media, in which case I do still have the time to respond, to think carefully about the elements of each claim and how I’m going to address them. Or I also do sort of more investigative, long-term projects that allow me, again, to look at those claims, gather them, forensically analyze them, decide what is relevant for the story that I’m making, and how am I going to debunk those claims?

There is certainly a case to ask, how do you go about deciding which claims are worth unpicking? I suppose you have to decide in the context of the story, is this important to the story? Do I need to get into it and do I have the information and the resources that are necessary to debunk those claims? So there is a very careful thought process that goes into, again, the forensic analysis of those claims.

And so, once you’ve decided that there are particular claims that you want to address and fact-check, of course, then there’s that whole other side that I’ve mentioned earlier about, okay, how can I debunk this claim in a way not only that is objective and accurate, but also that helps the audience trust my journalism and my editorial process. And again, that’s where the “show your work” motto comes in.

If you’re writing a text piece for online, can you add links to the papers? Can you provide context about think tanks or organizations that you’re mentioning? Don’t take any knowledge for granted among the audiences. I guess that all of us here at this call today, and possibly most of the people who are joining the call are people who are already interested in climate beat, but for the vast majority of the audience, climate change is not necessarily something that they dabble into on a day-to-day basis. And as such, it is important for us as journalists covering this beat not to take any knowledge for granted and really drill down these claims, take everything back to the basics and do not be afraid, I suppose, to explain how do you go from A to B to C with all the information and providing the audience with enough information to help them trust your journalism, but of course not too much that is going to drown them and put them off consuming your journalism.

It’s a delicate balance. And I can’t say about my work that I’ve always got it right, but that’s the goal, the golden standard that I aim for on a day-to-day basis. Yeah.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, awesome. Kendra, you already talked through one example of this, but I’m curious about how you evaluate this for yourself in an ongoing way. If someone says something untrue, when is it valuable to print it and debunk it versus just not even including it?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: So I’m about to spread my own misinformation. I don’t know if the data has continued to support this, but when I was in J school, one of the things that I was taught was that often in the course of debunking misinformation, you can actually reinforce that misinformation.

The example that was often held up is if you tell people that vaccines don’t cause autism, there’s a subset of people who have never even considered the idea that vaccines cause autism. So in the act of debunking, you’ve now put that idea in their heads.

And so when I think back to that Gorka example, the reason I was willing to use that quote, if we debunked it, is because that quote was already circulating so much in the zeitgeist that it felt like it was worth addressing it and acknowledging it hands-on. If it had been an obscure comment buried in some weird dispatch, I don’t think it would’ve been worth raising it. And so, I think when I think about am I going to use this piece of information that isn’t true, obviously, is it already circulating? Is it already a kind of popular conception that needs addressing? Is it coming from someone unexpected and that reveals something about who they are? Because otherwise you really do risk creating this, doing the opposite of what your intention is, which is making people believe the thing that you don’t want them to believe is true.

And so I think very carefully about how much is this already an idea that’s circulating? How much is this revealing about someone? If my neighbor down the hall thinks a weird thing about climate change, I’m not going to put that into story because what’s the point? Nobody knows who my neighbor down the hall is. Now, if my neighbor down the hall is AOC, that might be worth including. And it’s contrary to what it’s not, I don’t live down the hall from AOC, which is all clear. I could. I live in her district, but I don’t. That might be worth putting into it to show some hypocrisy on her part, for example. That’s kind of the way that I think about it is, is this worth people accidentally believing it’s true for me to draw attention to it?

Amy Westervelt: Marco, I know you had something to add on to that and then I want to ask you, Dan, as well.

Marco Silva: Yeah, Kendra, I think that’s such an interesting point, the one that Kendra made and such a huge dilemma that of course all of us who are involved in fact-checking have to face on a day-to-day basis.

So partly because I’ve been doing this role now for three years, as I published more and more stories, of course more people, especially here in Britain, became more aware of my work. And as such, now I have followers on social media who on a regular basis send me claims that they feel, okay, this is a good one, this is a good one that you need to be fact-checking this, you’ll have people talking about it.

And as a journalist, of course you have to think, I have sort of, through trial and error I’ve come up with a thought process in my head to decide whether or not these claims that are shared with me or that come to my attention are worth my effort and time. And so, the first question that I ask myself is, has this particular claim or falsehood entered mainstream public debate? So is it happening outside the bubble that is social media? Has it genuinely cut through most people? And there is always the temptation, of course, we all here spend far too much time on social media, far more than we should, I’m sure.

And of course, there’s no shortage of false and misleading claims about climate change circulating on social media on a day-to-day basis. Now, for us, I suppose that the BBC to give a platform as it were, to some of those falsehoods being shared online. So for us to give that focus, put the spotlight and share with millions of peoples those particular claims that I find, I have to feel that that topic of conversation is indeed being talked about by a lot of people. Point in question, a good example of that recent one had to do with cloud seeding allegations involving the Dubai flood. So as you’ll remember, in April, in Dubai, we had record floods, not just in Dubai, but all across the Gulf. And as a result in the 24 hours that followed those floods, there were claims circulating on social media suggesting that cloud seeding in UAE was the real cause behind the floods and nothing to do with an unusually strong weather system, nothing to do with climate change.

And of course, for us, there was a lot of misinformation around the flood circulating on social media, and we had to make a judgment call. So are these particular claims being talked about by a lot of people? And data suggested that we monitor in real time, just looking, for example, at Google Trends, at the questions people are asking in connection to a particular news event, you can see whether or not a particular claim has cut through. From the moment a lot of people on Google are asking, “Did cloud seeding cause floods in Dubai?” You know that it’s become a real topic of conversation. You can see that happening on social media. So that first test is met, second test, is it in the public interest? Is there a genuine public interest case for us to spend our limited resources as journalists addressing these claims?

And perhaps a third question and one that can sometimes be a painful one to deal with, can I debunk it? Is there evidence out there that allows me to thoroughly debunk this claim? Because there are dubious claims circulating out there where the jury is just out, we just don’t have all the answers, or at least we don’t have the certainty that we would like in a fact-checking piece. So it’s an important question to ask yourself, do I have enough evidence to again, thoroughly fact check? And if not, will the reader be satisfied with me acknowledging what we know and what we don’t know? Is there a public interest in doing so? So it’s a thorough editorial process that I’m sure we’ll be very familiar with as well, and Kendra as well. But yeah, it’s a process that goes through my mind again and again every time I receive one of those new claims.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. Wudan, love to hear your take on this, when you would include a quote that’s not quite accurate and immediately debunk it versus not including it. And I want to add another layer, which is that I think a lot of people still don’t think about the fact that they need to fact check the information within a quote as well. I see a lot of people being like, “Yeah, the person said it, fact checked.” No. If someone is making a claim, especially if it’s a database claim, I just had this happen in a story recently where someone who is a researcher, but you kind of dropped a number into a quote and we had to go back and ask for, “Where did that come from? Please show us your math. Where’s the data?” That kind of stuff. So yeah, I would love to have you answer the question about how you figure out when to include and debunk versus just ignoring, and then also how people go about fact-checking quotes in general.

Wudan Yan: Yeah. I’m trying to think of a few. I think I’ve done a lot of pieces where there’s an afflicted community, there is a politician or somebody who has a lot more power who’s like, “No, no, no, we did the best that we could with this cleanup.” But clearly, the on-the-ground evidence suggests otherwise. I think in that case, the purpose of me including the person who has more power rather than the afflicted’s quote is to point out the hypocrisy and show the reporter that I have round truthed it with whatever I have done in that story. So I think in that sense, the quote makes a point.

But I’m not debunking things just for the sake of debunking. I think what you’re talking about is the old adage, which is if somebody tells you that it’s sunny, somebody else tells you that it’s raining, like your job as the journalist is to go out and see what the weather is. And I see that so much as my role as a journalist and as a fact-checker. So like Marco, like Kendra, I’m always thinking about what is the purpose that this is serving and who does it harm? Who does it protect? Who does it expose? And try and do my best to lay that bare for the reader as possible.

Kendra mentioned science and papers and stuff, and I do want to talk about that for a hot second because in 2020, remember when preprints were a new thing? Yeah, I covered that piece for the New York kind of early in the pandemic as people were learning new things about COVID-19, and I don’t think preprints are as much of a thing in environmental and climate science, but even covering that piece kind of added this layer of nuance about how we talk about science and how we can say that in one study, people have found these things and these trends. We can study these methods, we can look at who they took funding from, who could have potentially had a stake in influencing the direction of their science.

And I think as journalists, we need to be really skeptical of that because sometimes, there’s a story in that, in the funding, or the methods or something else. But I think scientists do not always have the final word. I think that’s what the pre-print story made me appreciate. And so I think it’s upon us as journalists to be able to capture that nuance when we talk to the public and inner stories about how that science is presented.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. I want to get to some of the questions that folks in the audience have been having, starting with actually one from Mark Hertsgaard who’s asking of Marco. And I think this is something like Kendra, you might want to jump in and you as well Wudan, but someone else in the Q&A was saying, “I feel like we shouldn’t even be debating climate science anymore.” I agree. But in the US, we have a presidential candidate who’s saying that climate change isn’t real or that it’s not as big of a problem or all of those kinds of things. So how are you planning to deal with that, to deal with fact-checking a US presidential candidate who is a climate denier, and how do you deal with… I mean, he’s not unique in the realm of global political leaders, Argentina’s president, for example. So yeah, how do you deal with it when that comes up?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Oh, sorry. I don’t know if you said Kendra or Marco. Sorry.

Amy Westervelt: Both of you. So either of you can go first.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: You can go first, Marco. It’s okay.

Marco Silva: Okay. So I should start just by prefacing that from a salary point of view, I’m not quite at a level of decision making leadership that you’d expect on the BBC. So it won’t come down to me how we cover the US elections, but I can certainly share some of the thinking there. So on the debate around climate change and that idea, so the BBC established very clearly a couple of years ago that we are no longer going to present climate change as a debate in the same way. And it’s an analogy that for us football fans here in UK works quite well. In the same way, you’re not going to debate whether or not Manchester United won last night for two nil. You’re not going to debate the climate change either. The science is there. There’s an overwhelming majority of scientific evidence proving that the basic facts of climate change are there.

So every time we do a climate story, we no longer feel that there is any need to platform that very, very small majority of people who for one reason or another, decided to question the understanding of climate change. Now, putting that aside, how do you deal with a story as big as the US presidential election? Again, I’m not involved in the decision making, but I can talk about my own experience. I have fact checked claims that former president Donald Trump has made, for example, in regards to the suspicions that the US offshore wind turbines were killing humpback whales, which was a claim that he made a couple of years ago at a rally in North Carolina. I mean, I’m sure he’s made that claim more often than not, but-

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. It’s been coming up again this year.

Marco Silva: So I suppose you take them as they come and you think carefully about the merits of debunking each particular claim. In this particular case, we knew there was a case to fact check that particular claim because, of course, we saw that the conversation on social media was getting really, really loud around the topic. It was a very dominant topic of conversation. So that first test of has the claim cut through mainstream public debate? It had. Was there a public interest in doing so? There was, because we couldn’t necessarily see a lot of forensic examination of that claim. So let’s get in there. Is there the data, is there the evidence available for us to fact check that particular claim? Yes, there is. So let’s do that. I suppose in the context of the campaign, as far as I’m concerned, there will be a case to examine the merits every… With every single story, are you going to always be pushing the button that President Trump has question the overwhelming understanding of climate change? You have to ask yourself, is there an editorial reason to do so?

So it’s difficult for me as someone who works on a granular level on these stories to make a broad point about how to go about it. In my case, I’m going to continue to analyze any particular claims that come my way, whether from the Republican side or from the Democrat side, any particular claims that come, and figuring out whether there is indeed a public interest case in addressing those claims and making sure that people have the facts they need to make informed decisions about how they want to vote in the election. I hope that answers the question mark as well, but if not, feel free to take me to task after this.

Amy Westervelt: Kendra, you were going to say something too, yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. What I was going to say is, oh, I started full-time journalism with an outlet that was founded at a time when the debate was still kind of reaching, and they were like, “The science has settled, we’re not having the debate anymore.” And I think that’s really informed the way I think about reporting on climate, which is at this point, I don’t do that much political coverage, but I can say from what I see in the coverage, I don’t think it’s worth even spending that much energy debunking the president because the people who believe him, believe him, President Trump, are going to vote for him regardless. I think the points and the times in which it’s worth spending that energy is when it’s tied to policy and really explaining to people the consequences of what that candidate’s rhetoric means in terms of policies that will affect people’s everyday life. I think if you’re spending your energies being like, “Well, the science says this and Trump says this,” you’re not getting anywhere and you’re not actually giving people the information that they need that’s necessary, and that’s actionable.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Okay. I’m going to combine several different questions into one because it’s come up in a variety of ways in the Q&A, and that is basically at what point is responding to misinformation, giving it too much credit, doing the both sides thing, fanning the flames, all of that kind of stuff, and how do we deal with the fact that that is a reality with the fact that… Marco, you were just walking us through your editorial process and it’s sort of like, well, once it’s hit this certain level that some people are like, “Yeah, but once it’s hit that level, it’s too late.” Journalists aren’t really in the position of providing rapid response to influencers on social media. So people are asking, what do we do about that?

And especially when in a lot of cases, it’s not like a hardcore climate denier, like a lifestyle influencer who may or may not be getting paid, or may or may not be identifying themselves as being political in some way and things like that. There’s this broader disinformation soup that we’re all swimming in now, and I guess the question is, can journalists do anything about that? And if the structures of journalism as it exists today don’t really allow us to, what should we do about that?

Marco Silva: It’s a difficult one. So I think there’s a note of optimism and there’s a note of pessimism in my answer. So let’s start with the bad stuff, the note of pessimism, I would say, like Kendra said, and rightly so, once a particular falsehood has reached a viral status, once it’s entered mainstream public debate, there will be a section of the public for whom-

Marco Silva: Section of the public for whom fact checks will make no difference whatsoever. That call of people who don’t really care about fact check, who choose to believe that that particular claim is true. So here it could be a case about, I don’t know, false and misleading claims about climate change, COVID-19, vaccines, the war in Ukraine, you name it. Some people will, regardless of how much effort we all put into this trade, into fighting misinformation and disinformation, there will be a core of people who will not be reached by our work and for whom our work will make no difference whatsoever. And there is plenty of academics out there trying to figure out, people much cleverer than I am, putting their thinking caps on and thinking about ways to reach out to those people and to perhaps change their minds, how to persuade them and so on. Now, that’s the negative bit, the positive bit.

The positive news is, regardless of that, there is still a large number of people out there who, in the face of these falsehoods, are just genuinely confused and asking questions, right? Some people, I like to call them the “persuadables”, people who are generally on the fence on issues and are just trying to navigate this jungle of information in trying to figure out what the facts are or not. And for those people, people who just want the facts to make up their minds, then we can provide a very useful service. Journalism definitely has a place and a purpose for those people who are open to facts, who are just trying to understand the world around them. And I would say, in those cases, our job as reporters, it is worth it because we’re just providing people with the basic information, information that they need to make those informed decisions about voting, about whatever, about how they live their lives.

Just on another note, as part of this conversation about whether or not what we do amounts to restricting freedom of speech and censorship. I’ve often found myself wondering whether… I lost my train of thought. I may come back to you on this particular thought because it completely wiped out of my head, but I’m sure it’ll be a brilliant thought and I’ll come back to you in a second.

Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Kendra or Wudan, what do you think about this? Kind of overlaid on top of this is the news avoidance issue, too, that a lot of people, because of the fire hose, are just like, “I’m going to only listen to this one random person that I trust and that’s it.” Which, I don’t know, I feel like we’re trying to tackle too many problems at once here. There’s only so much we can do.

Also, just within the context of this conversation, let’s remember that journalists are being paid less to do more work than ever before, there are fewer jobs for all of us, there are fewer outlets. It’s not like we’re being equipped to solve these very big complicated issues. But with all of those caveats, yeah, curious, Wudan and Kendra, what you guys think about this issue of we want to be thorough and fact check things, but we also have this issue of rapid-fire misinformation that gets amplified very quickly

Wudan Yan: As a fact-checker and reporter. I think one thing I’ve appreciated a lot is that there’s also a great importance in contextualizing claims, which can sometimes, and it’s not just saying like, “Oh, so-and-so said this and this is false given all this evidence.” It’s just like, I think this goes back to one of my main motivations of being in this profession is understanding other people’s motives. And Amy, I actually think you do a great job with this through a lot of work on Drilled and the season of Drilled, I checked, with Steven Donziger, and also This Land. It’s like, okay, there’s right wing interest in this particular thing. There’s interest from this random group. Why is that? And really digging into it. And I think the more interesting you can make that story, the more likely somebody else is going to listen and be able to see more clearly the chain of events rather than you just stating a blatant fact.

As a side note, I just finished Charles Duhigg’s book Super Communicators, which I really recommend. It’s really insightful and talks about connecting with people who you might not agree with and just connecting more with people in general. And I think, yes, it doesn’t always work to just, “Trump said this, well, that’s false.” That person’s going to believe what they want to, there’s another way in. And I do think the contextualization of information and telling that story in a way can be really effective.

Amy Westervelt: Kendra, last thought goes to you. Sorry.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Piggybacking on something Wudan said, which was prior to working at Bloomberg, I worked for a podcast called How to Save a Planet, and our whole thing was climate solutions, but specifically not individualized climate solutions. It was either highlighting an actual solution or highlighting an unexpected part of the climate problem that nobody really thinks about. So we did an entire episode on the grid. We did an entire episode on this dude who goes around collecting refrigerants from old refrigerators and things in old AC units, it’s a form of a carbon credit, and he doesn’t tell the people that he’s collecting them from that he’s doing it to save the planet because a lot of them are not motivated by that. They’re just made by the fact that this guy is going to give them money for their old refrigerator.

And one of the things that I was really reinforced in the experience of doing that podcast is something that I think journalism is failing at is this expectation that people understand how society and government functions. And we don’t. This is a very U.S. context. I’m sure this applies in other places too. Maybe you were lucky enough to have a very strong civic education in middle school and it stuck, but a lot of us didn’t have a great civic education in middle school and what little we got didn’t stick. So oftentimes we’ll report about a bill that is being considered or a policy change that’s being considered and we make no mention of the fact that there’s a public comment process and that the public actually weigh in on that public comment process. There are all of these things and all of these levers of governance that are really critically important, but that we leave out of the conversation, leave out of the context of that conversation.

Really quickly, just two things I really want to highlight. Right before we got canceled, we ended up doing an anniversary episode and two big ones that popped out of that episode is there was a group of college students who helped kill an Exxon project in their community based off of information we gave them in a podcast. And the information was about how a lot of banks are starting to be a little bit wary about investing in big oil because they think that they’re going to end up with stranded assets. That goal of that episode was never, “Here’s how you block an Exxon project in your home community.” But they were able to take that information and they were able to use it and they were able to leverage it.

And then we had a guy run for the utility commission in his hometown and nobody had ever competed for that position before, but that’s a hugely influential position if you want to get your utility off of fossil fuels and on clean energy. And he only knew about that because he listened to our podcast. But that’s the thing that I think we’re missing, is that we so often report on politics and on climate as this inside baseball game that we are the spectators of when we should be the participants of.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, totally. Totally. And we’re almost told to not think about the impact that our work is going to have when it’s perfectly fine to think about how might people use this information. Okay, back to you, Mark, to wrap us up. Thank you very much everyone.

Mark Hertsgaard: Yes. I want to echo that. Thank you to all of our panelists and especially to you, Amy, for another fascinating discussion here. We touched on so many different things. I’m not even going to try and summarize it except to thank everyone for your very thoughtful participation, including those of you in the Q&A. A lot of very interesting thoughts here. And this is a conversation, clearly, that we’re going to have to continue through this year. Again, this is an election year and not just in the United States where climate change is at the top of what we should be talking about. And there is a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there that we as journalists have got to combat.

In that regard, let me put in a plug for a couple of tools from us here at Covering Climate, now, that may be helpful to you in your reporting. We have three newsletters now. One is the Climate Beat, that’s our general newsletter, that comes out on Thursdays, but we also have Climate on the Ballot, and that talks about how you can cover elections, make climate change part of your elections’ coverage. And then, finally, just launching today, a newsletter on locally covering climate change. And that’s called, very witty on my team’s part, Locally Sourced.

I will just close with one comment about all of this, which is to remember, especially in today’s information-saturated society, that the messages that pierce the static and actually land in the public consciousness are the messages that get repeated and repeated and repeated. So when we are combating climate disinformation and misinformation, including from the former president Donald Trump, who that is a big part of his message, if we say, “Oh, we can only counter that once in a while,” He’s going to persevere because he’s going to repeat and repeat and repeat.

And I would point out that when it comes to, for example, January 6th and the lies that he is telling about January 6th, how it was peaceful, how he never encourage people to take violent action, he repeats those lies often and many U.S.-based news organizations, including the Washington Post, mainstream organizations, New York Times, occasionally, and CNN and others, it’s now basic practice in their reporting that after he says that, the next graph basically says there’s no evidence to prove that, et cetera, et cetera. That is fighting fire with fire. And we are, as journalists, responsible, at least in large part, for what people are carrying around in their heads. What gets repeated and what gets not. We’re responsible for that. So we have to think about that carefully.

And in that regard, I want to thank again all of our panelists and Amy, who has done such amazing work in this area for so long. We’re going to keep after this at Covering Climate now. We invite all of you to be part of the continuing conversation on this. So I close by thanking, again, Wudan and Marco and Kendra and Amy for being with us today. And thank you for all of you who are out there with us and good luck with this continuing work. We’re with you and it’s another six months or so, less, I think, before the election. So get your boots on and we’ll see you out there on the campaign trail. And now on behalf of everyone here at Covering Climate now, I’m Mark Hertsgaard, wishing you all a very pleasant day.