How does a journalist do a story on a subject they know nothing about?


This is a question which has long intrigued me. Most journalists have to cover all kinds of issues. Many don’t have the luxury of specialising in things they know about. I eventually worked out the basic technique for TV journalists.

First, make sure the names and titles are spelled correctly and assigned to the right people on the bottom of the screen, then stuff the story full of quotes. Try not to actually write anything yourself except vacuous little linking sentences.

Don’t quote any statistics or attempt any analysis. I could say not to ask tough questions, but when you’re really on unfamiliar territory, you probably won’t know a tough question from a Dorothy Dixer anyway.

David O’Shea’s Power Play story on Dateline about the renewable industry in Germany almost obeyed all the rules. There was precious little that could be confused with content or pass for analysis. But everybody makes mistakes and unfortunately for David, a checkable number crept into the story. Damn.

Happily it was in a quote from somebody else. Ironically for a green miracle eco-story, this is the bread and butter technique for climate change sceptic journalism. It hardly matters what you write if you can quote somebody else saying it. Quote Ian Plimer, quote Tony Abbott. With a quote, you can bend and twist the journalistic goal of truth into a mobius strip.

Unfortunately for O’Shea, German Green politician Jurgen Trittin’s claim that renewables save 126 million tonnes of CO2 each year is fairly easily checked.

Germany’s greenhouse gas emission inventories are lodged with the UNFCCC and are publicly available. In 2000, Germany’s public electricity and heat production produced 315 million tonnes of CO2 and its residential sector (mainly heating oil) produced another 117 million tonnes. That’s 432 million tonnes in total for the two sectors of the inventory where you’d expect to find the savings.

In 2010, the latest available, the public electricity and heat production was 315 million tonnes of CO2 with residential emissions of 101 million tonnes for a total of 416 million tonnes. This is a savings of 16 million tonnes in the residential area.

Germany’s population has declined by about a million people in that decade, so you’d expect some kind of emissions fall. But there hasn’t been anything like 126 million tonnes worth of fall. Maybe the good politician didn’t mean by savings an actual reduction in emissions, but perhaps just a virtual savings in the emissions that would have been generated if not for his heroic efforts.

A problem that is seldom appreciated by people who think our greenhouse problem is all about panels on rooves is that well over half of most countries emissions don’t come from electricity and housing at all.

They come from fuel use, agriculture and industrial processes and a raft of small categories that accumulate. We don’t just need to generate current levels of emission free electricity, but far, far more to electrify other sectors. Transport is the obvious example.

So Germany’s total greenhouse emissions are far more than the sectors we have been talking about. In 2000 they totalled 1,012 million tonnes of CO2-eq (which includes methane and other gases) and fell during the decade to 953 million tonnes, a fall of 59 million tonnes with 15 of those coming from better waste management, 12 from savings in agriculture and industry.

Piggery methane got a mention in the O’Shea story, but typically, no attempt was made to quantify just how much energy the collection of methane from the brutalisation of pigs in factory farms contributed to Germany’s clean energy miracle.

The methane emissions have been reduced by about 2,000 tonnes thanks to improved waste management in factory farms, isn’t it wonderful how useful pig shit can be! If O’Shea had been paying attention, he’d have realised that Germany had 20 million cattle in 2000 and only 12 million now.

This has reduced the methane in their inventory by 305,000 tonnes. While there has been a large fall in beef consumption, some of the emissions have just been outsourced and Germany now imports 333,000 tonnes of beef. That’s the thing with many so-called Greens, they crow about the tiny things and ignore the big ones.

In summary, there isn’t anywhere in the data for 126 million tonnes of CO2 savings to hide. They may be virtual savings under some tricky definition, but virtual savings won’t stop the melting of the Greenland ice sheet because the Greenland ice sheet doesn’t care about tricky definitions.

Let me end with a quote from the heroine of O’Shea’s story: Ursular Sladek, who has both written a book and met Barack Obama.

“You have to save 85 per cent greenhouse gases until the year 2050 in Germany. 85 per cent. This is enormous.”

Yes, Ursula, it is enormous and the savings have to be actual and not virtual and putting panels on rooves and catching pig shit gas just doesn’t cut it. If you persist with your nuclear reactor closures, your paltry savings from panels and pig shit will quickly vanish.

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56 comments

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    • murph says:

      06:29am | 24/04/12

      Love it Geoff!  Keep it coming.  The Catastrophists plan all along is to divert wealth from poor people in rich countries to rich people in both rich and poor countries

    • Peter says:

      06:48am | 24/04/12

      “A problem that is seldom appreciated by people who think our greenhouse problem is all about panels on rooves is that well over half of most countries emissions don’t come from electricity and housing at all.”                                                                                        No such word as rooves. it’s roofs. That would have been easily fact checked. Ironic really given the tenor of the article.

    • TimR says:

      08:46am | 24/04/12

      Both roofs and rooves are acceptable. Until 1980, Australian children were taught that the plural was rooves.
      ‘tis also an easy fact to check!

    • Salec says:

      09:53am | 24/04/12

      Actually, if you were to do some quick fact checking, you would see that ‘rooves’ is an accepted, though rare, alternative spelling, which is more common in Australia than elsewhere.

      Ironic really, given the tenor of your comment

    • Chris L says:

      10:12am | 24/04/12

      Skitt’s Law claims another victim!

    • ronny jonny says:

      06:59am | 24/04/12

      No surprises there. The green movement has always been fast and loose with the truth. If only we could get some academics and journalists of quality to dig deeper into and expose the frauds the greens are promoting. Then again, “The sky is falling!” will always be a better headline than “the facts show you are wasting your time with solar panels”
      I can’t believe I am agreeing with an animal liberationist about something. It’s a nice feeling. I suspect Geoff and I would disagree on more important matters like say, bacon.

    • rod sexton says:

      10:13am | 24/04/12

      Baaa…...I like sheeps!

    • thatmosis says:

      07:06am | 24/04/12

      So whats new, we are used to Climate Change believers stretching the truth to suit their idea of heaven. That was my way of saying they are a lieing bunch of hypocrits. Its refreshing to see an article on the Punch actually going against the touchy feely Green menace that has so altered our perception of the lengths people will go to to justify the unjustifiable, the lies and spin that is generated to try and convince thinking people that they are right and we are wrong. The facts just happen to get in the way all of the time and its these facts and the incorrect predictions of the faithful that have seen a rise in the Climate Sceptic numbers over the last couple of years to the point where a true believer is a thin on the ground a an honest Labor politician.
      We are sick of the Flannery’s and the Gillards and the Greens telling us that the sky is falling just to justify their need to tax the people to swell the Government coffers because of all the failed policies and their inherant loses of our tax payer monies.

    • Nathan says:

      07:28am | 24/04/12

      You are quilty of what you are preaching against. You only believe the crap one side puts out….no doubt your a Monkton fan as well.

    • Fiddler says:

      07:43am | 24/04/12

      it’s like fat chicks on a diet trying to convince themselves that calories from a cheesecake don’t count.

      Then eat the whole thing

    • acotrel says:

      07:58am | 24/04/12

      @Natha
      As a scientist I love Monckton.  A while back there was an active society which opposed pseudoscience,-  I didn’t join it.  The one I love the best is aromatherapy.  I like to fart loudly in crowded lifts and declare it’s smelly therapeutic value to the other occupants.

    • I love lies best says:

      08:04am | 24/04/12

      Well, I agree. Labour, climate change and the main media go together; they intrinsically thrive on their own psuedo information parading as intelligence, then believe their opinions should be violently forced on everyone. Climate change, labour and main media are just a religion which is expressed in their psheudo industries . It is not knowledge at all - they forgot about how to get real knowledge long ago.  Kites fly highest when they sail against the wind. Truth and justice have never been easy to buy. The greatest *real science* mostly sailed against the wind.  Lord Monkton, is more of a scientist than most scientists on this issue, but then he is sailing against the wind isn’t he?

    • thatmosis says:

      09:04am | 24/04/12

      Its so sad to see that people still believe in the crap that we are constantly served up as settled science. Nathan, have a good look at the predictions of Flannery and then at the facts and you will see that Flim Flam Flannery and the truth are divided by a gulf as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Not enough rain to fill dams, oh dear , lets build costly and inefficient De sal plants on this advice, oh dear its hasnt stopped raining since this prediction was made and enough rain to fill a dozen dams. Dont buy near the coast as the oceans are going to rise so significantly that house will ne unindated but just forget that I am buying a house in this region. And the list goes on and on. You may care to wear red blinkers but those of us that have a brain and use it realise that we are being sold a pig in a poke and dont want anything to do with it. The truth is out there but you have to open your eyes to see it. There are none so blind as those that cannot see.

    • Expat Ozzie says:

      09:43am | 24/04/12

      thatmosis: I love you claim to be one of the thinking people. If you were a thinking person you’d probably be somewhere in the centre of this issue. The fact you well on the deniers side clearly shows you not really a thinking person.

      I Love Lies: You claim Monkton “is more of a scientist than most scientists on this issue” is one of the most ignorant lines I’ve read for some time. Monkton is a sales man in the same vein as Gore. He’s selling you a line so you’ll buy his books and tickets.

    • andye says:

      02:47am | 25/04/12

      @thatmosis - You use the term “touchy feely” to disparage your enemies, but in two long rambling posts you haven’t made a single argument directly about the science. You got a bit of the “touchy feely” yourself there, mister.

    • Nathan says:

      07:28am | 25/04/12

      @thatmosis
      I do not care about Flannery or what position the government put him in. He is not a climate scientist and is an idiot to boot. Unlucky on that one.

      Blinkers you say? That is hilarious, keep peddling the same story and see what happens in 50yrs

      I stand by one thing on this topic as i am not a scientist. If there is a 10% chance this is real is it a risk worth taking.

      A climate conspiracy that people would have you believe this is are doing fantastic to keep it quiet

    • Fiddler says:

      07:09am | 24/04/12

      wow, Ursula Sladek has met Barack Obama. Is that really one of the two things she’s done in life worth mentioning?

    • Jeremy says:

      09:27am | 24/04/12

      Ursula betrayed Ariel, nuff said.

    • Fiddler says:

      10:30am | 24/04/12

      Ariel was a ranga and had it coming. Plus she started a relationship based on lies, so double had it coming

    • M says:

      07:29am | 24/04/12

      Another good article, love your stuff Geoff. Seems you’re one of the few in today’s media who is actually familiar with the term “investigative journalism”.

    • acotrel says:

      08:03am | 24/04/12

      ’ Seems you’re one of the few in today’s media who is actually familiar with the term “investigative journalism”. ‘

      ‘Imaginative journalism’ is much better ! Ask Rupert and Tony !

    • Fiddler says:

      08:24am | 24/04/12

      In line with “Godwins Law” I announce the creation of “Acotrel’s Law” that no matter what subject Tony Abbott will be brought into it.

      Your obsession with him borders on the erotic

    • RyaN says:

      10:20am | 24/04/12

      @Fiddler: He definitely has a man crush!

    • Bitten says:

      03:17pm | 24/04/12

      @RyaN &Fiddler;: Please don’t draw attention to acotrel - he’s an off-topic trolling moron and I for one still can’t believe the Punch has banned Erick for OT posting, while acotrel remains active.

    • Sensible says:

      07:50am | 24/04/12

      Oh Geoff, you single-track express to obsoleteness.

      You know (you must.. and if you dont, you are unqualified to comment) that solar hot rock/solar salt power generation is coming, and makes even nuclear energy redundant.
      And the best way to reduce methane output of animals is to eat them. Yum. Bacon sandwiches AND eco-heroism in the one tasty breakfast.

      As you say… the greenland shelves (see, “shelves” has a v… “roofs” has an “F”) dont care about ideology, they only care what works. Radioactivity and billions of uneaten animals releasing methane aplenty aren’t the answer.

    • Fiddler says:

      08:26am | 24/04/12

      while I agree on your bacon related comments, silly things such as solar hot rock making nuclear power redundant is just stupid.

      Seen the cost analysis of this? What happens when we ge say two weeks of rain/cloudy days. Research a thing called “baseload” and get back to me

    • ronny jonny says:

      08:33am | 24/04/12

      Ask Tim Flannery how his hot rocks are going. You might want to look in to actual real world results before you go pinning your hopes for power generation on these “alternatives”

    • Sensible says:

      08:58am | 24/04/12

      It doesn’t make nuclear redundant because it generates “all” power - just as nuclear would not generate “all” power… but it does generate enough to make radioactive plants unnecessary to handle the remaining baseload requirement.
      And on hot days, when demand is highest ... solar rock out put is highest. By default.

      Besides… my comment was just as much a non-sequitur as the entire article itself. “I’m a climate change sceptic… therefore the only solution to climate change is nuclear” - umm.. dude? Fark. Logic wasn’t taught in whatever maths degree he claims to have.

    • egg says:

      10:17am | 24/04/12

      @Sensible, the best way to reduce methane ouput is to stop breeding millions of methane-producing animals for slaughter… oh, but wait, then you can’t have your precious bacon! Shame your argument is balls, though. Real shame.

      P.S. Rooves is a word. Look it up.

    • Sensible says:

      10:44am | 24/04/12

      @egg

      Look up non-sequitur.

    • RyaN says:

      11:06am | 24/04/12

      @egg: Or we could get rid of farting veggies.

    • Rank says:

      11:48am | 24/04/12

      @ RyaN
      Or, we could just send you back to Zimbabwe.

    • RyaN says:

      03:20pm | 24/04/12

      @Rank: How is that going to help the environment?

    • Geoff Russell says:

      08:15am | 24/04/12

      Let’s be clear. I was a welded-on anti-nuke for decades. The more I learned about climate change the more desperate I became for plausible solutions. My opposition to nuclear was always irrational, but I only put the time into investigating my beliefs because of climate change. It isn’t a coming catastrophe, but it is here and now and getting worse. Ask the 20 million Pakistanis displaced in the 2010 floods, many are still displaced.  Would I give a damn what the Germans do with their roofs (!) if it wasn’t for climate change? Maybe a little, but certainly not enough to bother investigating and writing about it.  As I’ve said before, for a country that eats so many cancer causing meats to think that nuclear reactors are dangerous is the ultimate sick is irony.

    • Super D says:

      08:42am | 24/04/12

      The carbonistas are having a very bad day when one of the high priests of climate doomsaying admits to having overegged the alarmism and notes that:

      “The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,”

      So much for the science being in!

      He goes on to say:

      As “an independent and a loner,” he said he did not mind saying “All right, I made a mistake.” He claimed a university or government scientist might fear an admission of a mistake would lead to the loss of funding.

      Watch out for Big Green corrupting the debate and hiding the truth!!!

      Now while he still has the faith he’s grabbed himself a pew by the fire escape.

      Oh and he also describes Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery’s book as an example of an alarmist forecast of the future.

      Read it here:

      http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/23/11144098-gaia-scientist-james-lovelock-i-was-alarmist-about-climate-change

      A fantastic day for science, not so much for “the science”

    • iansand says:

      09:19am | 24/04/12

      James Lovelock?  Seriously?  Do you know anything about his theories?  Anyone who ever took anything he said about anything seriously has been away frolicking with him and the other pixies for far too long.  His role in scientific debate is the comic relief.

    • Luke says:

      09:23am | 24/04/12

      “Big green”. Let me just get my tin-foil hat.

    • jerky says:

      09:33am | 24/04/12

      So, an individual makes predictions that are a bit over the top and then admits he was perhaps a bit too pessimistic.
      Climate change is still happening for him and for us.
      BTW. He is 92 years old.
      Did you have a point SuperD?
      Or is this your “great” moment where you have blown wide open the climate change “myth” and liberated the masses?
      Is this your answer to thousands of peer reviewed papers that you hope will set us free to do nothing about climate change?
      toss on

    • andye says:

      02:59am | 25/04/12

      So… a guy who has a bunch of theories that the scientific community didn’t accept now says those theories aren’t any good?

      This is actually vindication for science, you twit. This man doesn’t represent “the science”.

    • Super D says:

      09:31am | 24/04/12

      @ian - I know all about Lovelock. This just makes his adoption of a sensible position all the more remarkable.

    • prosperity says:

      09:42am | 24/04/12

      Keep those nuclear reactors going and you might have to evacuate the whole of Europe sometime over the next few years.

    • Fiddler says:

      11:10am | 24/04/12

      but more likely not. In fact, I’d bet money on it

    • No Nukes says:

      12:14pm | 24/04/12

      Nuclear reactors worked so well in Japan.

      I know, let’s buy some of those fruit-loop reactors, you know the ones I’m talking about. The ones that produce that yummy smell as a by product.

    • Geoff Russell says:

      03:10pm | 24/04/12

      prosperity and No nukes: Who has the highest cancer rate, filthy dirty Chernobyl polluted Ukraine or Australia? Australias rate is about 50 percent higher.  When the Japanese added more meat to their diets they transformed bowel cancer from a minor player into a 100,000 new cases every single year disaster.  Did Chernobyl manage to do that?  No. The leukemia rate in Ukraine is way lower than Australia. Next to red meat, alcohol and cigarettes, radiation is a cancer wimp. People who understand radiation know this. Your body is radioactive to the tune of about 7000 decays per second, so is everybody else’s.  About 100 Bq per kilogram is pretty normal.  We need nuclear power because nothing else looks even remotely like being more than a toy in relation to our energy needs ... and I’m talking globally here. The developed world cannot develope without either nuclear or coal. It’s that simple. Which do you want them to have?

    • No Nukes says:

      03:52pm | 24/04/12

      Geoff
      Blah blah blah,
      meat eaters, meat eaters, meat eaters.

      A Greenpeace report has revealed that the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.

      The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

      But hey, it’s only Greenpeace and they’re just a bunch of greenies right?

    • Mike says:

      04:33pm | 24/04/12

      “But hey, it’s only Greenpeace and they’re just a bunch of greenies right?”

      Yes. The World Health Organisation don’t have quite as vested an interest in scaremongering and you’ll find significantly less zeroes in their numbers.

    • marley says:

      04:35pm | 24/04/12

      @No Nukes - no one seriously gives credence to that Greenpeace paper - the best figures out there talk about a possible four thousand additional deaths, mostly among first respondents and residents of the most affected areas.  So far, the death toll is around 50 - and that’s after 20 years. 

      And at least a few of those deaths could have been avoided if the Soviets had handed out iodine pills. 
      The reality is that, except for the first responders, the radiation dosage levels most people received were modest.  People in nearby countries were scarcely affected at all, even though radioactive dust fell and contaminated the soil.  People just didn’t eat lettuce or drink fresh milk for six months.

    • Little Red Herring says:

      10:07am | 24/04/12

      How indeed does a journalist present a story on something they have little or no knowledge of.
      They firstly should keep their mind open to the “experts” research experience and or knowledge then leave their own personal beleifs and ideals at home, secondly being able to detect when the pretend professional Flannerys’ of this world are “pushing their own barrow” , then thirdly, seek answers from different sources at opposite ends of the research field sorting out the bullshit from credible facts and points of view without emotional, religious, or personal involvement.
      Other than that they should keep their ideas / ideals to themselves and their foolish mouths shut, and leave it to a true professional journalist.

    • Justin of Earlwood says:

      11:44am | 24/04/12

      I love Geoff’s unique ability to crowbar the anti-meat message in to any topic.

      That aside, the smoke & mirrors of Germany’s green industry has been well known, but denied, for years. Multiply it by 10 & you get Spain’s green industry.

      And China’s figures…. The leaders of such a totalitarian state must not be able to believe their luck when democratic governments are holding them up as the paragon of green virtue. When you convert subsistence farming villages to high-rise cities in 6 years, clearly the amount of pig shit is irrelevant. As are the numbers of windmills.

    • Farken says:

      12:43pm | 24/04/12

      have a chat with abolt and he will tell you How does a journalist do a story on a subject they know nothing about!

    • Magnet says:

      02:17pm | 24/04/12

      Oh, that’s sticking your neck out, now you’ll probably get a lot of scrutiny of your work from the media industry. But it was a worthwhile piece nonetheless and I enjoyed reading it - thanks.

      One of the problems that staffers face rather than freelancers is that they have pretty awful time limits placed on their production and that curbs some of the checking time - I’d have thought a big production like Dateline would vet the outside pieces they commission for their integrity.

      It’s frustrating as a freelancer, watching the stuff ups that staffers make when their workplace conditions are ten times better than those for stringers.

    • seniorcynic says:

      02:33pm | 24/04/12

      Did any one pick up on the statement Bob Brown made on Q&A Mon 23/4 to the effect that solar generated power is a good baseload power source. Last time I looked the sun doesn’t shine at night.

    • AJ of Here says:

      04:00pm | 24/04/12

      Sure it does, Seniorcynic. It shines out of Brown’s butt and off Gore’s halo!

 

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