Winter 2005

How Do We Cover Penguins and Politics of Denial?

Bill Moyers suggests a new approach to conveying reporting about global warming.

Excerpts from remarks by Bill Moyers
As part of the message television journalist Bill Moyers delivered in October to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists at their annual convention, he spoke about an opportunity the mainstream press has to reach a segment of the country’s population—evangelical Christians—with coverage of issues revolving around climate change and sustainability. To connect their reporting with this audience, he argued, would require that journalists find ways to speak about such issues using more metaphorical language rather than “the language of environmental science.” In excerpts we are publishing from his remarks, Moyers elaborates on the methods and potential of this new approach. The entire text can be obtained online at the SEJ Web site.


There is a market here for journalists who are hungry for new readers. The conservative Christian audience is some 50 million readers strong. But to reach them, we have to understand something of their belief systems.

Reverend Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, tells us that “creation-care is starting to resonate not just with evangelical progressives but with conservatives who are at the center of the evangelical spectrum.” Last year, in a document entitled “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” the National Association of Evangelicals declared that our Bible “implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the earth must be designed to conserve and renew the earth rather than to deplete or destroy it.” In what might have come from the Sierra Club itself, the declaration urged “government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.” Ball and a few evangelical leaders have also pushed for a climate change plank to their program, standing up to demagogues like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson who are in the service of the corporate-funded radical wing of the Republican Party.

But we can’t expect to engage this vast conservative Christian audience with our standard style of reporting. Environmental journalism has always spoken in the language of environmental science. But fundamentalists and Pentecostals typically speak and think in a different language. Theirs is a poetic and metaphorical language: a speech that is anchored in the truth of the Bible as they read it. Their moral actions are guided not by the newest IPCC report but by the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Here’s an important statistic to ponder: Forty-five percent of Americans hold a creational view of the world, discounting Darwin’s theory of evolution. I don’t think it is a coincidence then that in a nation where nearly half our people believe in creationism, much of the populace also doubts the certainty of climate-change science. Contrast that to other industrial nations where climate-change science is overwhelmingly accepted as truth—in Britain, for example, where 81 percent of the populace wants the government to implement the Kyoto treaty. What’s going on here? Simply that millions of American Christians accept the literal story of Genesis, and they either dismiss or distrust a lot of science—not only evolution, but paleontology, archeology, geology, genetics, even biology and botany. To those Christians who believe that our history began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and that it will end soon on the plains of Armageddon, environmental science, with its urgent warnings of planetary peril, must look at the best irrelevant. At worst the environmental woes we report may be stoically viewed as the inevitable playing out of the end of time as presented in the book of Revelation. For Christian dominionists who believe the Lord will provide for all human needs and never leave us short of oil or other resources, no matter how we overpopulate the earth, our reporting may be viewed as a direct attack on biblical teachings that urge humans “to be fruitful and multiply.” It’s even possible that among many Christian conservatives, our environmental reporting—if they see it at all—could seem arrogant in its assumptions, mechanistic, cold and godless in its worldview. That’s a tough indictment, but one that must be faced if we want to understand how these people get their news.

So if I were a freelance journalist looking to offer a major piece on global warming to these people, how would I go about it? I wouldn’t give up fact-based analysis, of course—the ethical obligation of journalists is to ground what we report in evidence. But I would tell some of my stories with an ear for spiritual language, the language of parable, for that is the language of faith.

Let’s say I wanted to write a piece about the millions of species that might be put on the road to extinction by global warming. Reporting that story to a scientific audience, I would talk science: tell how a species decimated by climate change could reach a point of no return when its gene pool becomes too depleted to maintain its evolutionary adaptability. That genetic impoverishment can eventually lead to extinction.

But how to reach fundamentalist Christians who doubt evolution? How would I get them to hear me? I might interview a scientist who is also a person of faith and ask how he or she might frame the subject in a way to catch the attention of other believers. I might interview a minister who would couch the work of today’s climate and biodiversity scientists in a biblical metaphor: the story of Noah and the flood, for example. The parallels of this parable are wonderful to behold. Both scientists and Noah possess knowledge of a potentially impending global catastrophe. They try to spread the word, to warn the world, but are laughed at, ridiculed. You can almost hear some philistine telling old Noah he is nothing but a “gloom and doom environmentalist,” spreading his tale of abrupt climate change, of a great flood that will drown the world, of the impending extinction of humanity and animals, if no one acts.

But no one does act, and Noah continues hearing the word of God: “You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Noah does as God commands. He agrees to save not only his own family but to take on the daunting task of rescuing all the biodiversity of the earth. He builds the ark and is ridiculed as mad. He gathers two of every species, the climate does change, the deluge comes as predicted. Everyone not safely aboard drowns. But Noah and the complete complement of earth’s animals live on. You’ve seen depictions of them disembarking the ark beneath a rainbow, two by two, the giraffes and hippos, horses and zebras. Noah, then, can be seen as the first great preservationist, preventing the first great extinction. He did exactly what wildlife biologists and climatologists are trying to do today: to act on their moral convictions to conserve diversity, to protect God’s creation in the face of a flood of consumerism and indifference by a materialistic world.

Some of you are probably uncomfortable with my parable. You may be ready to scoff or laugh. And now you know exactly how a fundamentalist Christian who believes devoutly in creationism feels when we journalists write about the genetics born of Darwin. If we don’t understand how they see the world, if we can’t empathize with each person’s need to grasp a human problem in language of his or her worldview, then we will likely fail to reach many Christian conservatives who have a sense of morality and justice as strong as our own. And we will have done little to head off the sixth great extinction.

That’s not all we should be doing, of course. We are journalists first, and trying to reach one important audience doesn’t mean we abandon other audiences or our challenge to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth. Let’s go back for a moment to America’s first Gilded Age just over 100 years ago. That was a time like now. Gross materialism and blatant political corruption engulfed the country. Big business bought the government right out from under the people. Outraged at the abuse of power, the publisher of McClure’s magazine cried out to his fellow journalists: “Capitalists … politicians … all breaking the law, or letting it be broken? There is no one left [to uphold it]: none but all of us.”

Then something remarkable happened. The Gilded Age became the golden age of muckraking journalism.

Lincoln Steffens plunged into the shame of the cities—into a putrid urban cauldron of bribery, intimidation and fraud, including voting roles padded with the names of dead dogs and dead people—and his reporting sparked an era of electoral reform.

Nellie Bly infiltrated a mental hospital, pretending to be insane, and wrote of the horrors she found there, arousing the public conscience.

John Spargo disappeared into the black bowels of coal mines and came back to crusade against child labor. For he had found there little children “alone in a dark mine passage hour after hour, with no human soul near; to see no living creature except … a rat or two seeking to share one’s meal; to stand in water or mud that covers the ankles, chilled to the marrow … to work for 14 hours … for 60 cents; to reach the surface when all is wrapped in the mantle of night, and to fall to the earth exhausted and have to be carried away to the nearest ‘shack’ to be revived before it is possible to walk to the farther shack called ‘home.’”

Upton Sinclair waded through hell and with “tears and anguish” wrote what he found on that arm of the Chicago River known as “Bubbly Creek” on the southern boundary of the [stock] yards [where]: “All the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer … and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations … bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava … the packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.”

The Gilded Age has returned with a vengeance. Washington again is a spectacle of corruption. The promise of America has been subverted to crony capitalism, sleazy lobbyists, and an arrogance of power matched only by an arrogance of the present that acts as if there is no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow. I see the future every time I work at my desk. There, beside my computer, are photographs of Henry, Thomas, Nancy, Jassie and SaraJane—my grandchildren, ages 13 down. They have no vote, and they have no voice. They have no party. They have no lobbyists in Washington. They have only you and me—our pens and our keyboards and our microphones—to seek and to speak and to publish what we can of how power works, how the world wags and who wags it. The powers-that-be would have us merely cover the news; our challenge is to uncover the news that they would keep hidden.

A lot is riding on what you do. You may be the last group of journalists who make the effort to try to inform the rest of us about the most complex of issues involving the survival of life on earth.

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