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WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • Winner of The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award
A new classic of science reporting.”—The New York Times
The true story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and has been hailed by The New York Times as "a new classic of science reporting." Now available in paperback with a new afterword by acclaimed author Dan Fagin, the book masterfully blends hard-hitting investigative journalism, scientific discovery, and unforgettable characters.
One of New Jersey’s seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest environmental legal settlements in history. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river. The result was a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution.
Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary tale. He brings to life the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer and the everyday people in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.
Rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, Toms River is an epic of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect, and of a few brave individuals who refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.
"Deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town's cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution."
Winner's Citation, 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
"It's high time a book did for epidemiology what Jon Krakauer's best-selling Into Thin Air did for mountain climbing: transform a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end. And such is the power of Dan Fagin's Toms River, surely a new classic of science reporting. . . a sober story of probability and compromise, laid out with the care and precision that characterizes both good science and great journalism."
New York Times
"Dan Fagin's narrative of the arrival and explosive growth of a chemical plant in New Jersey in the 1950s weaves a complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller."
National Public Radio
"Immaculate research . . . unstoppable reading . . . Fagin's book may not endear him to Toms River's real estate agents, but its exhaustive reporting and honest look at the cause, obstacles, and unraveling of a cancerous trail should berequired environmental reading."
"If you have but a single new book to read, let this be the one. Its personalities, depth, and driving, detective-story-like narrative are as gripping as anything in recent memory."
"Fagin's meticulously researched and compellingly recounted story of Toms River families struggling to find out what was causing the cancers that claimed their children belongs on the shelf with other environmental/medical mysteries. It's every bit as important—and as well-written—as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
"Absorbing and thoughtful."
The USA Today
"This hard-hitting account of cancer epidemiology in the New Jersey town of Toms River is a triumph."
"In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin's compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development."
"This book stood out for its superb combination of compelling narrative and for its explanations of science and history....This thought-provoking work speaks to how the tragic tale of Toms River can happen—and is happening—other places."
Society of Environmental Journalists Rachel Carson Book Award judging panel
"Dan Fagin spent seven years investigating and writing the tale that is Toms River, and its Pulitzer Prize and more than 500 pages are a suitably epic testimony to those who fought for decades to bring justice to their town."
Resurgence & Ecologist
"A thrilling journey through the twists and turns of cancer epidemiology, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist."
Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer"
"[Fagin] does a superb job of investigative research in documenting this story, one that is well worth preserving...highly recommended."
Electronic Green Journal
"Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town. Along the way—as we meet chemists, businessmen, doctors, criminals, and outraged citizens—we see how Toms River is actually a microcosm of a world that has come to depend on chemicals without quite comprehending what they might do to our health."
Carl Zimmer, author of "A Planet of Viruses" and "Parasite Rex"
"At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town's struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book."
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of "Field Notes from a Catastrophe"
"Powerful, in-depth reporting that informs the public, shapes policy, and changes the world."
Winner's Citation, 2014 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award
"Masterful portrayal of the scientific process at work in a town facing environmental crisis."
Winner's Citation, 2014 National Academies Communication Award
"A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essential reading."
"Waterborne destruction has visited Toms River before, albeit via less conspicuous channels, which Dan Fagin traces with marvelous precision in his new book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation."
"Fagin's meticulously researched and compellingly recounted story of Toms River families struggling to find out what was causing the cancers that claimed their children belongs on the shelf with other environmental/medical mysteries. It's every bit as important—and as well-written— as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
"Deeply and thoroughly researched, it's a gripping, beautifully told, and thought-provoking account of a human tragedy. It also presents a fine history of a number of science and health-related topics that bear directly on the story that unfolds in the Toms River. Fagin is a gifted storyteller."
Chemical & Engineering News
"Toms River is absolutely riveting. I couldn't put it down. Dan Fagin has crafted a book about the consequences of industrial pollution that reads like a murder mystery. Read this book and the next time someone complains about too many environmental regulations you'll have clear answers for why government oversight of industrial waste production and disposal is so important."
Richard Besser, MD, chief health and medical editor, ABC News, former acting director, CDC
"It’s a sure bet to keep you engrossed the whole way through. It’s got to be the best nonfiction book I’ve read since “A Civil Action” (1995)."
Prologue: Marking Time
PART I. The Ice Cream Factory
Chapter 1. Pirates
Chapter 2. Insensible Things
Chapter 3. First Fingerprints
Chapter 4. Secrets
Chapter 5. Sharkey and Columbo at the Rustic Acres
Chapter 6. Cells
Chapter 7. On Cardinal Drive
PART II. Breach
Chapter 8. Water and Salt
Chapter 9. Hippies in the Kitchen
Chapter 10. The Coloring Contest
Chapter 11. Cases
Chapter 12. Acceptable Risks
Chapter 13. Friends and Neighbors
PART III. Counting
Chapter 14. Two Wards, Two Hits
Chapter 15. Cluster Busting
Chapter 16. Moving On
Chapter 17. Invisible Trauma
Chapter 18. A Cork in the Ocean
Chapter 19. Expectations
PART IV. Causes
Chapter 20. Outsiders
Chapter 21. Surrogacy
Chapter 22. Blood Work
Chapter 23. Associations
Chapter 24. Legacies
About the Author
Join Rutgers Univresity for a unique New Jersey story told by non-fiction Pulizter Prize winning author Dan Fagin. His book Tom's River: A Story of Science and Salvation will be featured and a book signing and reception will follow. Doors open at 6:30 pm and the lecture begins at 7:00 pm.
Open to the Rutgers community and the public. Registration is required as seating is limited to 140 people.
Join Dan Fagin at the University of Michigan on Thursday, March 17 at 12:00 pm.
The Epidemiology Seminar Series brings together current leaders in the field to share the most exciting developments in Epidemiologic science with the University of Michigan academic community. On Thursday, March 17, University of Michigan welcomes Dan Fagin, author of the 2014 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Toms River. The true story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River has been hailed by The New York Times as "a new classic of science reporting." Now available in paperback with a new afterword by acclaimed author Dan Fagin, the book masterfully blends hard-hitting investigative journalism, scientific discovery, and unforgettable characters.
More details here.
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the 2014 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, the Society of Environmental Journalists's 2014 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award, and the National Academy of Sciences's 2014 Communication Award.
Dan Fagin has offered to answer questions from students, teachers, and professors, ranging from how he uncovered long-buried secrets and wrote Toms River to the impacts of chemical pollution on real people. All questions matter as we aim to stimulate dialogue on this important topic.
Submit your questions in the comment section below and we will upload his video answers on October 8th. If you give us your school name and if your question is selected, we can even have him give a shout out to your school. This is a rare opportunity for your class to engage with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author!
Conversations about environmental journalism remind us of the power of effective storytelling to make our world safer today and tomorrow.
We look forward to seeing your questions!
Island Press' Associate Director of Marketing.
With the end of COP 21 and the signing of the historic Paris Agreement, it’s not just countries that are thinking about how to reduce emissions—individuals are reflecting on how their habits and actions impact climate change as well.
Island Press authors shared what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprints and, in some cases, what more they could be doing. Check out their answers and share your own carbon cutbacks—or vices—in the comments.
Jason Mark, author of Satellites in the High Country:
Very much like the Paris Climate Accord itself, ecological sustainability is a process, not a destination. Which, I'll admit, is a squirrely way of saying that I'm doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint. I ride my bike. I take mass transit. Most days my car never leaves the spot in front of our home. Most importantly, I have sworn off beef because of cattle production's disproportionate climate impact. The (grass-fed, humane) burger still has a siren song, but I ignore it.
Grady Gammage, author of The Future of the Suburban City:
I drive a hybrid, ride light rail to the airport and don’t bother to turn on the heat in my house (which is possible in Phoenix). My greatest carbon sin is my wood burning fireplace. I don’t use it when there’s a “no burn” day, but otherwise, I have a kind of primordial attraction to building a fire.
John Cleveland, co-author of Connecting to Change the World:
We just installed a 12 KW solar array on our home in New Hampshire. At the same time, we electrified our heating system with Mitsubishi heat pumps. So our home is now net positive from both an electricity and heating point of view. We made the solar array large enough to also power an electric car, but are waiting for the new models that will have more range before we install the electric car charger. The array and heat pumps have great economics. The payback period is 8-years and after that we get free heat and electricity for the remainder of the system life — probably another 20+ years. Great idea for retirement budgets!
Dan Fagin, author of Toms River:
Besides voting for climate-conscious candidates, the most important thing we can do as individuals is fly less, so I try to take the train where possible. I wish it were a better option.
Darrin Nordahl, author of Public Produce:
The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, and how we produce food in this country is responsible for much of those emissions. From agriculture, to the fossil fuels needed to produce bags and boxes for pre-packaged food, to the burning of gas and oil to transport both fresh produce and pre-packaged food, I have discovered I can reduce my carbon footprint with a simple change in my diet. For one, I avoid processed food of any sort. I also grow a good portion of my vegetables and herbs and, thankfully, local parks with publicly accessible fruit trees provide a modicum of fresh fruit for my family. We also eat less meat than we used to and our bodies (and our planet) are healthier because of it.
Yoram Bauman, author of The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change:
I try to put on warm slippers or other extra layers around the house in order to not have to heat the house so much, but I still like to take long hot showers. (Maybe those two things are connected).
Rob McDonald, author of Conservation for Cities:
I try to pay attention to my daily habits that make up a lot of my carbon footprint. So I bike to work, or take mass transit. That gets rid of the carbon footprint of driving. I also try to only moderately heat or cool my home, so I’m not burning a lot of energy doing that. The biggest component of my carbon footprint that I haven’t managed to cut is for travel. I have to travel once or twice a month for my job, and unless it is a trip in the Northeast (when I can just use Amtrak!), I am stuck travelling. The carbon footprint of all that air travel is huge. I try to do virtual meetings, rather than travel whenever I can, but there still seems to be a big premium people place on meeting folks face to face.
Emily Monosson, author of Unnatural Selection:
We keep our heat really low in the winter (ask our teenage daughter, it's way too cold for her here!) and I hang my clothes on the line in the summer. Because it’s so cold, I love taking really hot long showers. I should also hang my clothes in the winter too, and ditch the dryer.
Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley, co-authors of Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs:
We both live in a town-house in the central part of a city – on opposite sides of the continent: one in Philadelphia the other in Vancouver. Our neighborhoods have 100% walk scores. We each own one car, but don’t need to drive it very much - most of the time we can go where they need to on foot. We wrote our book using email and Dropbox. What they still need to work on is using less air travel in the future.
Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People:
I live in Denmark where 33% of the energy is delivered by windmills. A gradual increase will happen in the coming years. As in most other countries in the developed world, too much meat is on the daily diet. That is absolutely not favorable for the carbon footprint. It sounds like more salad is called for in the future!
Suzanne Shaw, co-author of Cooler Smarter:
Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low Carbon Living provides a roadmap for consumers to cut their carbon footprint 20 percent (or more). My approach to lowering my carbon footprint has gone hand in hand with saving money through sensible upgrades. Soon after I purchase my 125-year-old house I added insulation, weather stripping and a programmable thermostat. When I needed a new furnace, I swapped a dirty oil furnace to a cleaner, high-efficiency natural gas model. And now have LED bulbs in every fixture in the house, Energy Star appliances throughout, and power strips at my entertainment and computer areas. This summer, I finally installed solar panels through a 25-year lease (zero out-of-pocket expense). In the month of September, I had zero emissions from electricity use. Living in the city, I am fortunate to have access to public transportation and biking, which keeps our household driving to a minimum.
Peter Fox-Penner, author of Smart Power Anniversary Edition:
I’m reducing my footprint by trying to eat vegan, taking Metro rather than taxis or Ubers, and avoiding excess packaging. Right now I travel too much, especially by air. P.S. Later this year I’ll publish my carbon footprint on the website of the new Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy. Watch for it!
Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars:
Our family has a (small) car but I cycle pretty much all of the time. My kids cycle to school (some days) and my wife cycles to work (sometimes). It’s useful to have the car for some journeys, long ones mostly, but having a family fleet of bikes means we don’t need a second car. Reducing one’s carbon footprint can be doing less of something not necessarily giving up something completely. If everybody reduced their car mileage (and increased their active travel mileage) that would be good for the planet and personally: win/win.
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
In honor of the first presidential debate tonight beteween Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we asked Island Press authors: "If you were advisor to the president, what would your top priority be and why?" Check out their answers, in their own words, below.
I'd urge the President to act on every possible opportunity to reduce the influence of money in the political process, because until that happens it will be increasingly difficult to make progress on anything else.
-Dan Fagin, Toms River
Maintaining and extending the collaborative relationship with the Republic of Mexico over the shared waters of the Colorado River should be a sustained priority. The 2012 agreement known as "Minute 319", signed in 2012, included important water sharing provisions and for the first time allowed water to be returned to the desiccated Colorado River for the environment and the communities of Mexico. The deal was an important milestone, but it was only a temporary agreement. We need permanent solutions to the overuse of the Colorado River, and sustaining our partnership with Mexico is a critical piece.
-John Fleck, Water is for Fighting Over
1) Ending farm subsidies and other protection/promotion of food crops.
2) Embracing GMO neutrality.
3) Ending federal support for state unpasteurized (raw) milk bans.
4) Reining in the FDA.
5) Ending the federal ban on sales of locally slaughtered meat.
6) Ending federal policies that promote food waste.
7) Improving food safety and choice by requiring good outcomes, rather than mandating specific processes.
8) Ending the federal ban on distilling spirits at home.
9) Deregulating the cultivation of hemp.
-Baylen Linnekin, Biting the Hands that Feed Us
For more elaboration on these bullets, see Linnekin’s full article on Reason.
My advice to a presidential candidate would be to recall the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that its true whether or not you believe in it.” Natural forces are at work that will have adverse consequences, many of which are diametrically opposed to our national interests. Global climate change, the spread of vector borne diseases, and the rampant overuse of nonrenewable and renewable resources are just three such forces currently in play. The decisions that you make during your tenure will be pivotal relative to the health and well-being of our citizens, as well as the citizens of the world. Recognize the fact that you are governing, just as Lincoln did, during a period of history that will resonate for centuries to come. Make wise environmental decisions even if they are not necessarily politically advantageous. Our futures depend upon it.
-Alan Kolok, Modern Poisons
“I would urge the President to take strong action to pass climate change legislation in Congress. The form that climate change legislation would take would depend on the politics, but it is imperative that the U.S. begins to lead the world to action on climate change. Climate change isn’t even my own professional issue of focus (I would love to talk to the President about how to make our cities more resilient, green, and livable), but it seems to me clearly the crisis issue. Every major scientific study that is coming out is pointing toward serious consequences of climate change, happening now. Rather than thinking about climate change that will impact my kids’ lives, I am realizing it will deeply impact my own as well.”
-Rob McDonald, Conservation for Cities
If I had a chance to sit face-to-face with the winning candidate, my advice would be something like: Think about the welfare of our grandchildren when you make decisions on energy and environmental issues. Consider not just the short-term impacts but the long-term consequences of sea-level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, and loss of agricultural land. Set an example for reducing carbon emissions based on energy efficiency and renewable energy that can serve as a model for developing countries. Listen to our climate scientists and heed their warnings. Trust their advice on global warming in the same way you trust the advice of your physician with regard to your personal health.
-Charles Eley, Design Professional’s Guide to Zero Net Energy Buildings
I would push for the next President to try again (yes, again!) to work on bipartisan climate action, perhaps with a revenue-neutral carbon tax like the Initiative 732 campaign that I’m a part of in Washington State. We’re proud to have endorsements from three Republicans in the state legislature as well as from a bunch of Democrats. The short-sighted opposition from some left-wing groups (including some mainstream “environmental” groups) highlights the risk of making climate change a partisan wedge issue for electing Democrats instead of an existential issue for all Americans. We need to try harder to build a big tent for lasting climate action, and that’s one one reason I’m so fond of the quote at the end of this NYT story (about the failed attempt by enviros to win control of the Washington State legislature for the Democrats in Nov 2014): “The most important thing is to normalize this issue [climate change] with Republicans,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “Anything that makes it more partisan makes it less likely that there will be legislation, until such time as Democrats take over the world. Which according to my watch, will not be happening anytime soon.”
-Yoram Bauman, Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change
I would urge the President to reassert cross-departmental efforts such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to further empower local governments and constituents to meet ongoing challenges of urban development, because those challenges of land use, transportation, affordability will not be entirely met by private market solutions. I would also advise that the new administration investigate further centralizing resources relevant to urban areas, and evaluate (as was once proposed by Richard Florida) a new cabinet-level position focused on cities and rapidly urbanizing areas. Finally, I would suggest to the President that the federal government should lead by example by illustrating methods to elevate civic dialogue, including program development and funding to encourage individuals to obtain firsthand knowledge of the cities around them through careful observation and input into urban political and regulatory processes.
-Charles Wolfe, Seeing the Better City
Challenging as this will be even to try, much less accomplish, the next President should work to return a spirit of compromise and cooperation to the American political conversation. On the current course, no real progress toward environmental or social sustainability is possible. The impacts of climate change and demographic pressure are now becoming obvious to people of all political persuasions. Growing awareness may eventually offer room for fresh policy ideas: a carbon tax with proceeds turned into dividends and a universal basic income for all citizens, access for all to comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive health services, and humane and sustainable migration law.
-Robert Engelman, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want
As much as climate change will affect the United States, we likely have the capacity to adapt more effectively than most other countries—at least in terms of human welfare. At the same time, US demand for foreign goods and services is not going away; I, for one, don’t care what you say about the damn environment—I’m having my morning cup of tea or coffee come hell or high water (the latter an increasingly distinct possibility). If my personal recalcitrance is at all reflective of our national attitude, we nonetheless ought to be striving for a broadly-defined international stance that fully and coherently accounts for climate change. Specifically, in a world where the actions of our friends and our enemies will be increasingly defined by surging resource constraints (as well as “releases”—think Arctic oil…), our next President should focus on integrating foreign aid, fair trade, free trade, and military/security policy in a way that anticipates the incoming tsunami of threats—and opportunities—posed by climate chaos.
-Charles Chester, Climate and Conservation
In general terms, I believe the wealth of the nation lies in two areas: natural resources and human resources. As a matter of national defense priority, these areas require policy attention at the national level. Attending to these issues requires commitment and collaboration among all political, ethnic, religious and socio-economic affiliations—it is time for the adults to take charge. In particular, it will be necessary to harness their combined strengths in a public and private partnership initiative. An outline of my top priorities topics includes the following:
Natural Resources/Climate Change:
-Michael Murphy, Landscape Architecture Theory, Second Edition
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Glenn Beck’s recent commentary in the New York Times. “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another,” he wrote. He took the words right out of my mouth. And so, Glenn and I urge the next President to do exactly that, reach across the aisle, connect with the great diversity of people and views in this country, and with respect and empathy seek to understand.
-Lucy Moore, Common Ground on Hostile Turf
Given the evident impact of rampant development pressures and climate change on our nation’s wildlife populations and diverse ecosystems, I urge the next President to endorse and promote a strong federal leadership role in collaborative landscape-scale planning efforts among federal, state, tribal, and private landowners in order to ensure our natural heritage is conserved for present and future generations.
-Robert Keiter, To Conserve Unimpaired
Dear Future POTUS,
The U.S. must be consumed with the urgent goal of retooling the energy infrastructure of our country and the world. Cooperatively mobilizing with other nations, our government—we, the people—must immediately, using all just and complementary means at our disposal—e.g., directives, incentives, and disincentives—close down fossil fuel operations and facilitate replacing coal, oil, and gas dependencies with cradle-to-cradle manufacture and ecologically and socially sensitive installation of ready, climate-responsible technologies, including locally scaled wind turbines, geothermal plants, and solar panels.
No less urgently, as a globally-responsible facilitator, the U.S.—members of all administrative branches together with the citizenry who have chosen them—must, with forthright honesty and transparency, support a matured narrative of progress that is alluring across political spectrums. This story must redefine power to integrate economic prosperity with other commonly held values—such as equality, justice, democratic liberty, and skillful love for land that interpenetrates with human health and flourishing. It must recall people to ourselves and each other not as mere individual consumers, but as diverse, empowered, capably caring members—across generations—of families, neighborhoods, and of the whole ecosphere of interdependencies—bedrock to sunlight—the source of Earth’s life.
Julianne Lutz Warren, Plain member of the U.S. and Earth, and author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
A piece from Grist points out that major TV networks spent just 50 minutes on climate change—combined—in 2016. We’ve asked a few of our journalist-authors what kind of responsibility the media has to report on climate change topics. Does this lack of coverage happen because there isn't a compelling news story or narrative? Check out what John Fleck, Dan Fagin, and Randy Olson have to say about it below.
As a journalist-turned-academic who has spent much of the last two-plus decades working on climate change issues, I agree with Grist and Media Matters that coverage of climate change is important, and that there should be more of it. In that regard, one of the highlights of the study is that there is a network that provided extensive coverage of climate change issues last year—PBS. Viewers' time is precious, and they have choices. On this issues, as on many important public policy questions, PBS is a good one.
The problem is not that media coverage of climate change is imbalanced. 'Balance' is not even something we should aspire to in journalism; fairness is, along with clarity and context. Why? Because all ideas shouldn't be given equal weight; some have a lot more evidence behind them than others! Actually, when climate issues are covered in media (with the very notable exceptions of FoxNews and right-wing websites like Breitbart and Daily Caller), the coverage usually reflects the scientific consensus. The bigger problem is that climate is so rarely covered at all, or at least it isn't covered as anything more than a political struggle. There are many reasons for this, including that climate is rarely "breaking news"; it is often very difficult to make accurate connections between specific local news events (such as storms and droughts) and global climate change.
A less obvious but even more important reason why climate in the mainstream media tends to be rare and shallow is what the communications scholar Dan Kahan at Yale has called the "polluted science communication environment" that plagues certain issues, including climate change. Through some very clever experiments, he has shown very clearly that what we may think is a relatively straightforward question of atmospheric physics and chemistry is actually now very emotional question of cultural identity. When we decide what we think about climate, we rarely make up our minds based on a dispassionate evaluation of the scientific evidence. Instead, we take our clues from the broader culture, because climate has become a powerful cultural signifier. Most of us believe whatever we believe about climate based on which "team" we prefer to be on—Team Red or Team Blue. Do we like Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh? Saturday Night Live or Duck Dynasty?
Once an issue has acquired this kind of cultural salience, it becomes very problematic for major media to cover because each side very passionately wants the coverage to reflect its point of view. So, more often than not, these very polarized issues either aren't covered at all or are covered as political struggles instead of us explications of evidence. That's a crucial failing of big journalism but it's a very difficult problem to solve because polarization is so difficult to avoid. Indeed, Kahan's research shows that the more people know about climate change—the more the understand the details of atmospheric chemistry and physics, for example—the greater the polarization becomes! Why? Because people cherry-pick that new information to reinforce what they already believe! Communications scholars call this 'motivated reasoning', and it is an extremely powerful force on issues that have become cultural signifiers.
The good news is, not all issues are as polarized as climate change, and we're not all automatically prisoners of motivated reasoning. Young people, especially, tend to be more open to evidence, especially if the topic is unfamiliar and has not been "polluted" with lots of partisan messages. For the rest of us, a smarter, deeper dialogue on global climate change is going to require talking about climate in ways that don't force our audiences to renounce their deeply held sense of who they are, what 'team' they're on. People like E.O. Wilson understand this; when he talks to evangelicals about biodiversity he frames it as "creation care". For journalists, though, this is a tricky business—we equate such framing with marketing and advocacy, not journalism.
Major media are going to produce more and better coverage of global climate change only after we can figure out ways of telling true stories about our changing planet that avoid antagonizing large chunks of our audiences while also living up to the ethical standards of good journalism. That's the challenge we face, and it's a daunting one.
First question — who says that climate change is “the defining issue of our time”? Seriously. Yes, we know that the educated left feels this way, but what about the general public? What percentage of them would answer “climate change” to the question of “What is the defining issue of our time?”?
This is a lot of the problem of the climate movement—an air of “everybody knows this” to all that they say. Everybody doesn’t know this. I would bet most people would say “the defining issue of our time” is terrorism. So that’s the first problem.
In fact, here’s the real, broader problem, which happens all the time—the production of solutions to problems that nobody feels we have. Effective communication is built around the problem/solution dynamic. Too often smart people sense a problem that few others do, come up with a big set of solutions, then can’t figure out why nobody wants to implement the solutions when presented.
Agreeing on “the problem” and agreeing it’s urgent and important is the challenge. When people sense problems they act. So far, climate change is still not perceived as “soon, salient and certain.” These are three words that EVERYONE in the climate movement should live by. Furthermore, they should all read Andy Revkin’s excellent and profound 2006 blogpost, “Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet” over and over again.
That blogpost is still about the smartest thing I’ve ever read on climate change. In the middle of it he cites Helen Ingram of U.C. Irvine who offered up those three words—soon, salient and certain.
And then talk to the two New Jersey TV meteorologists I met at a workshop a couple years ago who told me that before Super Storm Sandy their audience had zero interest in climate change. After it, they wanted to know everything about it. They had been the victims of an event that was soon (just happened), salient (happened to them in a big way), and certain (definitely happened).
Communicating effectively requires understanding the perceptions of the audience. If they don’t perceive a problem, they aren’t going to listen to your solutions, no matter how brilliant and passionately conveyed.
And so guess what drives TV coverage? It’s all about the problems the public wants solved. Convince them that climate really is the defining issue of our time and that it’s a problem and they will demand you present solutions.
Island Press' Associate Director of Marketing.