Trying to Achieve Balance Against Great Odds
With the United States’s opposition to Kyoto so strong, a Canadian journalist finds little pressure from editors to include that perspective in his stories.
For more than 20 years, I’ve covered the environment for Société Radio-Canada, the French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s national TV news. As journalists do, I’ve tried to apply the “balanced coverage” rule to my reporting, just as I have taught my students in journalism at the Université de Montréal for two decades. But my attempts to do this don’t always work.
Sometimes daily news coverage with limited time to tell a story has not allowed for multiple points of view to be presented, and follow-up stories I might propose, to provide such balance, were often hard to persuade my editors to do. But when it has come to reporting on topics such as global warming or climate change, I think being in Canada has made it easier for me to do this than for reporters in the United States, since there are fewer pressure groups in Canada working against ecological actions.
In 1992, I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when countries from throughout the world pledged to spend billions of dollars and facilitate transfers of clean technology to developing countries to help reduce global warming emissions. Those promises were not kept but, in Kyoto, Japan, when these countries met again to address this issue, the call out of that meeting was for nothing less than a new economic order, as industrial nations committed themselves to very substantial reductions of polluting gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
In Canada, public opinion so strongly favored such actions that the government decided it had enough support to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Canada was one of few major economic powers outside of Europe to do so. As a reporter covering this issue, I did many stories about climate changes being measured in the Arctic, as well as about pressure Canadian provincial and federal governments were putting on the United States to ratify Kyoto. As I did these stories, few of my editors ever suggested that I try to find opposing views about global warming.
Why this lack of interest in balance from my editors with these stories? In some respects the situation can be easily explained. As it became quite clear that the U.S. government—our close and powerful neighbor to the south—was set against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, this meant that ecologists in Canada were not facing a lot of pressure from within their own country about this issue. The perspective of my editors—and of many columnists in this country—is that the obligation to look to opposing pressure groups in Canada isn’t as great when powerful opposition is found next door in the words and actions of the American President. In Canada, the consequence of this has been that pressure groups against Kyoto have become almost irrelevant; the only contrary views tend to come from the energy sector.
With the debate about global warming still open, how can a journalist provide the best available information and strive to produce balanced reporting? From my experience of 20 years covering the environment, the only way to do this is to become a specialist in reporting on these issues and work to do follow-up stories to bring in information that might be missing in the daily stories that tend to be done.
Jacques A. Rivard, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, has covered the environment from the early 1980’s for the French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). As a national TV correspondent from 1998-2004, based in Vancouver, he did many stories about the impact of global warming in the Arctic. He retired from the CBC in 2004. As a Nieman, Rivard held the V. Kann Rasmussen Environmental Fellowship.