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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why the Huffington Post doesn’t equivocate on issues like global warming

Arianna Huffington explains why her site takes an editorial stance: “Because we are clear about where we believe the truth lies, I believe we elicit a richer kind of response from our readers.”

The Huffington Post wants gobs of traffic. It also want reader engagement. But there are some things it just won’t do — like equivocate on whether climate change is real.

HuffPost Science recently featured a story on former astronauts and scientists upset with NASA’s position connecting carbon dioxide to climate change. It’s not new to see sides clash on the issue, and any editor knows it’s a debate that will predictably spill over into the comment thread on a story. HuffPost Science senior editor David Freeman offered up this question at the end of his piece: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”

One problem: The question violated one of the Huffington Post’s editorial policies. Not long after the piece was posted an editor’s note replaced the question, saying in part:

We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

“The way the call for engagement was raised was as if we’re somehow agnostic about the reality of climate change,” Arianna Huffington told me.

Huffington framed the incident for me as one of editorial policy. But this isn’t a simple case of clashing stylebooks, of one outlet favoring the Oxford comma and another leaving it out. This is something more akin to a policy position: Within the editorial confines of HuffPost, issues like climate change and evolution are settled, Huffington told me. That doesn’t mean divergent viewpoints aren’t welcomed, she said — just that on certain issues the reporting won’t offer up a false equivalency.

“Where truth is ascertainable, we consider it our responsibility to make it very clear and not to — in the guise of some kind of fake objectivity, the media often pretend that every issue has two sides and that both sides deserve equal weight,” Huffington said. “That’s not the case, and that’s not our editorial stand.”

Traditionalists might find the idea of a mainstream, general-audience news organization staking out these kinds of stances in news stories radical. Huffington doesn’t see it that way, saying that traditional media spends far too much time trying to provide balance on issues that are, within certain facts and other data, settled. For her journalists, she said, that means doing reporting that assesses facts and doesn’t “pretend that the truth is supposed to be found in the middle,” she said.

“Editorially, we train our editors and reporters to basically not buy into what Jay Rosen calls the ‘View from Nowhere’ journalism,” she said. “We see our role more as doing everything we can to ferret out the truth, rather than be a kind of Pontius Pilate washing our hand of the possibility of truth.” That’s evocative of NPR’s new ethics guidelines, which make a similar distinction:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth…If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

Along with HuffPost’s internal editorial guidelines, this incident also demonstrates the value of comments and engagement to its brand. (Huffington told me the site had 7 million reader comments last month.) After all, this wasn’t about anything in the body of Freeman’s work — just his call-to-engagement question to readers.

Huffington Post standards editor Adam Rose told me they quickly added the editor’s note on Freeman’s story because they wanted to be transparent with readers about their editorial process. Instead of offering up a reworded question, they wanted to make it clear why the story had been changed. “I think it’s important that our readers know that and can trust that,” he said. “I think by being direct it develops a sense of trust with our readers who understand that we are not equivocating on the issue of climate change.”

The story’s racked up more than 3,300 comments and counting — not an unusual number by HuffPost standards but not an insignificant one either. Rose said he, Freeman, and Huffington were pleased with the quality of the conversation in the comments of the story.

This is where HuffPost’s stance on climate science and other issues has a practical element: The site is placing a marker to let readers know where it stands. Huffington says readers appreciate that kind of honesty and will reward news organizations for it. “Because we are clear about where we believe the truth lies, I believe we elicit a richer kind of response from our readers,” she said. It also helps in moving stories forward. The site already has a follow-up story to Freeman’s piece by reporter Lucia Graves that found that none of the former NASA personnel who signed the climate change letter actually worked in climate science.

Elevating the level of online comments is a fairly decent, if not constantly shifting, goal, but Huffington sees the editorial guidelines as promoting something broader. “To be able to see clearly where truth lies on one side or the other, as it happened in this particular instance, is not to abandon objectivity — it’s to, in fact, embrace a higher standard of journalism,” she said.

Image by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/hengistmcstone Hengist McStone

    Is that the same Huffington Post that published “Mr Gore, Apology Accepted” by climate denier Harold Ambler, who said “It is the biggest whopper ever sold to the public in the history of humankind.”?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harold-ambler/mr-gore-apology-accepted_b_154982.html

  • http://twitter.com/carlzimmer carlzimmer

    I think you need to contact Huffington again to follow up on her statement about editorial standards with some examples of their stuff on medicine. How does she explain publishing something like this:

    “This flu wasn’t created on the level of the body, because no disease is. It was created on the level of the mind, and it is there that we will root it out at the causal level.”

     http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marianne-williamson/pray-away-the-swine-flu_b_192004.html

  • Rebecca Searles

    In our defense, neither of the articles mentioned above appeared in the Science section of The Huffington Post. The science section came about late last year, and the editors here are committed to reporting and aggregating sound science.

    It should also be mentioned that both of those posts are ‘blogs’ which represent the opinions of our bloggers, not straight science news reporting from our staff.

  • Anne Hofstede

    Please add breastfeeding to your list of ‘settled topics’. The constant debate ‘is it really better than formula?’ is truly maddening for those who try to honestly – and without anything to gain financially – inform and support mothers

  • http://twitter.com/carlzimmer carlzimmer

    Rebecca: Thanks for your reply. I’m heartened to hear that the Science section is committed to sound science. But you seem to be cordoning yourself off from the rest of the Huffington Post. I didn’t see any qualification from Ms. Huffington that HuffPo’s dedication to ferreting out the truth about science stops at the boundaries of the science section. Nor do readers have any way of telling that a blog on Huffington Post are opinion–there is no mark on the page, no disclaimer, etc. On a day when the Huffington Post justly won a Pulitzer Prize for deep reporting on the plight of wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, I hope that the publication can give the same attention to science topics–and to stop giving space to nonsense. 

  • Climatechanges

    Whereas, in fact, I have e-mails from Arianna Huffington proving a two-month correspondence with me prior to publication of “Mr. Gore: Apology Accepted.” When she personally read and approved the piece she published, she cc’d an editor indicating that she’d approved it and saying to me, “Cheers.” Her story that I was “accidentally” published is absurd on its face and belied by the facts. –Harold Ambler

  • benito

    With headlines like, “WATCH: Michelle Obama Reveals Her Sexy Prom Dress”… it’s ironically amusing that Huffpo employs someone with the title: “standards editor.”

    Huffpos devolving into an AOL tabloid mess aside, the following quote is spot on and what real journalism should be striving for, as opposed to the Cokie Roberts horse race garbage:

    “Where truth is ascertainable, we consider it our responsibility to make
    it very clear and not to — in the guise of some kind of fake
    objectivity, the media often pretend that every issue has two sides and
    that both sides deserve equal weight,”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karl-Haro-von-Mogel/688542447 Karl Haro von Mogel

    This is a weak defense, and it sounds like how Fox News defends its talking head programs. “It’s not the news programs producing this – its the blogs!” It’s the huffington post’s refusal to police the scientific misinformation published on its site, while trying to pass itself off as being good about editorial control when it comes to science. Can Rebecca Searles point us to the detailed rebuttals of Huffington Post blog posts (and other news articles) written by the science team at HuffPo?
    The Huffington Post’s War on Science:
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/the-huffington-posts-war-on-science/
    Huffington Post is Afraid of Criticism from their own writers:
    http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/07/huffington_post_is_afraid_of_c.php
    When you take the blog section into account, at best HuffPo has an ambiguous position on scientific accuracy. As someone who runs a group science blog, I would never allow the kind of nonsense that HuffPo publishes get on the site I run.

  • Climatechanges

    The first Huffington Post piece about skeptic climate scientists was thoroughly researched — and approved by Arianna Huffington personally. Despite ad-hom pieces about yours truly published in the days following, not a single fact from the piece has been shown to be incorrect by the Huffington Post or anyone else. 

    Skeptic climate scientists continue to perform honest good work in relative obscurity, the true Davids in this David-and-Goliath tale. Perhaps Mr. Zimmer (from comments below) would like to publicly debate the merits of the opposing scientific camps? Oh, no, I forget — the scientists on the other side of the debate are beyond the pale, and the journalists and bloggers who report their work only more so. 

    A few simple facts:

    1. The Holocene is the coolest interglacial of the last five. 

    2. The warmest part of the Holocene is not today but rather the Holocene Climactic Optimum. Earth has been cooling since then. During the Holocene Climactic Optimum forests ringed the Arctic in extreme northern Siberia on land that that is presently tundra. 

    3. Forest fires burned more acres per year (times about three) during the 1920s in the U.S. than over the past decade. 

    4. At present, the U.S. hasn’t had a major hurricane make landfall for the longest period during the period of record. Irene, meanwhile, was a minor event compared to the Galveston hurricane of 1900 — pre-supposed AGW.

    5. Most continental maximum record temperatures were more than 30 years ago. 

    6. If the Dust Bowl were to replay today, the NYT’s journalists would absolutely lay it at the feet of AGW. 

    7. The New York Times, as I report in my book, has been publishing frightening tales of climate change for 125 years, alternating between 30-year periods of frightening cold and 30-year periods of frightening warm, and seems to lack any institutional knowledge of itself. 

    8. Earth has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age, with no evident acceleration in sight. 

    9. Looked at in Kelvins, rather than according to the highly subjective “anomaly” graphs in “An Inconvenient Truth” and American newspapers, Earth’s temperature over the past 1,000 years has barely altered. 

    10. As was true the day my piece was published in the HuffPo in 2009, global sea ice is essentially sitting on the “zero-anomaly” line. 

    Interestingly, unlike my little comment here, the Nieman Lab piece contains not a single fact about climate change. 

    “Don’t Sell Your Coat!”

    –Harold Ambler

  • jdey123

    Huffington Post regularly bans posters who provide scientific evidence that debunks the global warming myth. 

  • jdey123

     Perhaps you’d like to explain why your paper bans posters merely for not holding the same political opinion as yourselves, rather than for breaching your published comments policy. Also why you take no action against posters who do share your political opinions but regularly breach your comments policy by using ad hominem attacks. Further I’d like an explanation as to why your moderators will not reply to any enquiries as to why they’ve banned posters. Censorship is something that you expect in North Korea, not from a paper which claims that it holds liberal views.

  • jdey123

    This is a typical blog that you’ll find in the climate change section of Huffington Post. The article is clearly libellous towards 49 ex-NASA scientists who happen to not share the views of HuffPo Editors who believe in global warming.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawn-lawrence-otto/nasa-climate-change_b_1423509.html?ref=climate-change

  • Glad

    Staying out of, and not sprucing up the apparent importance of, every fringe debate, seems very commendable to me. I hope that you stay in business, despite keeping away from such easy traffic pullers, because this is the type of journalism which many of us feel is lacking – where others seem to often go for ‘drama’ and build a perception of academic/learned discord in many topics where there is none, which is no gift to the public in my opinion.

  • Tim Wordsworth

    While the Huffington Post is extremely liberal, it is also one of the least accurate sources of political gossip on the web. It’s extremely decisive and is full of the kind of horrible invective that we all need to do a better job of doing away with. It’s definitely part of the problem and not the solution. It pushes people with extreme views to be even more extreme by telling them exactly what they already believe and would like to hear and by never challenging conventional liberal wisdom.

    Oh and their science stuff is often wacky as well. It often promotes a weirdly anti-vaccination agenda and it certainly doesn’t seem rooted in any hard science or data. 

  • Climatechanges

    I misremembered, she didn’t use the word “cheers.” Here is our e-mail exchange three years ago:

    [Thu, Jan 1, 2009 at 9:21 AM]

    Hi Arianna. Happy New Year! I have written a 2,000-word piece on why Al Gore is wrong about climate. May it increase your enjoyment of the new year so much that you feel compelled to publish it!

    All the best,
    Harold Ambler

    [January 2, 2009 4:04:26 PM EST]

    Many thanks, Harold. I’m CCing our blog editor, David Weiner tocoordinate. All the best, Arianna.

  • http://profiles.google.com/stevekass Steve Kass

    By “sound science,” do you mean articles like yesterday’s “Was Life On Mars Found In 1976?”, currently the featured piece in HuffPo Science,  which seems to be entirely based on one article in the “International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences,” a questionable source with only 6,370 Google hits (many of these hits related to the same article HuffPo’s “science” section used as its only source for their feature article)?

    Writing based on one article in a sketchy “journal” is not my idea of “reporting and aggregating sound science.”

    HuffPo’s new science editors may mean well, but as long as “Featured Blog Posts” dominate the main Science page and worse science litters HuffPo’s coverage on health, it’s hard to consider HuffPo a reputable source for science news.

  • http://twitter.com/hengistmcstone Hengist McStone

    Harold, You might recall  I asked you  for substantiation for your “facts” once before. And you weren’t forthcoming. Readers might care to be a little circumspect when Harold Ambler uses the word facts.

  • http://www.wordyard.com Scott Rosenberg

    I’m afraid that this piece reframes a major failure on Huffington Post’s part as a triumph.

    It’s great that Huffington Post appended the new editor’s note, but the note pretty much invalidates the whole article that precedes it. 

    That article presents, without comment or criticism, a manufactured PR stunt in which a relatively small number of former NASA employees who do not have expertise in the climate field were rounded up to cast doubt on the work of NASA climate scientists. The article made no effort to report on how the letter came to be,  and it failed to mention even once any of the overwhelming evidence suggesting that the letter-writers are, in fact, wrong — as Huffington Post itself now avers. 

    What good is Huffington’s disavowal of “the view from nowhere” in the editor’s note if the whole story still offers the view from nowhere?I wrote about this article as an instance of what Jay Rosen calls “verification in reverse” in this post: http://grist.org/media/how-huffington-post-aided-a-demolition-job-on-climate-science/

  • daretostudyallscience

    The 97% of scientists number has been debunked. Even that number was fixed to encourage the masses to shut their ears to any science that was anti-global warming. 

    Even if it were true, at some point in history 97% of scientist believed the Earth to be flat. Aren’t we glad science was allowed to evolve.The use of the word “agnostic” tells much. This has become a religion, and not science for the Huffpo. There are tons of books based on hard science that discuss the faulty beliefs of AGW, I dare liberals and the Huffpo to read just one. 

  • Captivation

    I ditched Huffington Post a few months ago because it seems to me they were trying to promote the controversy of Climate Change rather than the facts.  I seem to recall articles about how some species of lizards might prosper in a changed climate.  Then there were the articles about avoiding the next ice age might require increasing our CO2.  Having dropped out of the mainstream media has been a fruitful endeavor for me.  I won’t be looking back.

  • conventional wisdom

    Can you define: “conventional liberal wisdom?”

    If I’m understanding you correctly, the answer is more reliable political gossip and pro-vaccinaiton pieces?  Yikes. 

    BTW, what’s really “weird” is that the FDA requires absolutely no long-term studies on the plethora of vaccines that they rubber stamp.  Science at its best eh.

  • Harold_Ambler

    My book has several hundred citations in the bibliography. I’ve done my homework. You on the other hand specialize in specious ad homs. To each his own, though.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    I’ll believe that the HuffPo cares about facts when they get rid of the anti-vaccine nonsense (and most of the alt-med crap), all of which is at least as conclusively disproved as AGW-denialism is.