A workshop hosted by Germany’s international broadcaster urges journalists to abandon neutrality on climate change

John Rosenthal Contributor
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Germany’s publicly-funded international broadcaster Deutsche Welle held its third annual “Global Media Forum” last week in Bonn. According to the conference website, this year’s event drew some 1500 participants from 95 countries. The topic: “The Heat is On: Climate Change and the Media.”

Like the general heading, the titles of the numerous panels and workshops leave little doubt about the orientation of the proceedings and their unqualified endorsement of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis: “Ideas For A Cooler World – Covering climate protection and possible solutions,” “Media-ting change: The effective use of media to creating societal awareness of climate change,” “From Copenhagen to Cancun – a roadmap,” “Working with nature to tackle climate change,” and so on and so forth. There was even a workshop on “How to make Oscar-winning movies on climate change.”

One workshop, however, sparked particular controversy. Its title: “How to professionally deal with climate skepticism” – or as its German title translates: how to deal with “skeptics.” As the description of the workshop makes clear, “deal with” here is a euphemism. “Let both sides make their point and let the audience sort out what is true” is the traditional “mantra” of journalism, the organizers admit. “But with climate change, things are not so easy,” the text continues. “Falling back on a ‘neutral’ journalistic position can mean playing into the hands of the skeptics at the expense of the basis of life.”

The German version of the description, moreover, leaves even less room for misunderstanding: maintaining journalistic neutrality does mean “playing into the hands of the skeptics” and threatening “the basis of all life,” it asserts. The German version is no longer available on the “Global Media Forum” website, but it can still be consulted in Google cache here.

The full English version of the description reads as follows (it has clearly been translated from German and the syntax is very choppy at points):

Even to the well informed journalist, reporting on the reasoning behind climate change policy can be tricky. Climate policy hurts vested interests and there are many voices in the media that challenge almost each scientific datum aiming to deliver the message: There is no justified reason to change course. For journalists, it is impossible to verify each statement and it seems the reputation of the IPCC seems has been successfully questioned over the past months.

Climate skeptics, old and new, seem to be on the rise and have achieved in once again becoming an honorable part of the societal debate. Their mantra plays well with the training journalists have gone through: Don’t believe what you cannot prove, let both sides make their point and let the audience sort out what is true. But with climate change, things are not so easy. Falling back on a “neutral” journalistic position can mean playing into the hands of the skeptics at the expense of the basis of life.

This workshop aims to point out what journalists must know about climate change policy, whom to trust and when to question their own professional procedures.

In one other respect, the German version is again more explicit, suggesting conspiratorially that “climate policy hurts vested [economic] interests and therefore there are many voices in the media that cast doubt on nearly every scientific finding….” In the German, it is clear that it is the representatives of the “vested interests” who are attempting to “disseminate the message” that “there is no need to change course.”

The workshop was moderated by the journalist Bernhard Pötter. A report by correspondent Ulli Kulke in the daily Die Welt recounts the tenor of Pötter’s moderation as follows:

For journalists, Pötter…insisted, climate change is the most important theme of the 21st century. And so one wants to provide helpful tips for editors-in-chief, authors and other journalists on how best to react during an unexpected confrontation with a “climate skeptic.”

As reflected in the title of Kulke’s report – “Alone among Climate Warriors” –  Die Welt is one of the rare German media outlets to offer critical perspectives on “climate change.”

One of the featured speakers was Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at the University of California in San Diego. According to Kulke’s account, Oreskes argued for avoiding the term “skeptic”:

“Skepticism,” after all, has positive connotations. In fact, in science it is regarded precisely as a virtue. Therefore, Oreskes explained in her presentation, it would be better from now on to speak of “contrarians”….And she also listed another expression that should not be used: “climate debate.” It is no wonder, Oreskes complained, that people think that there is still a scientific discussion about climate change when one is constantly reading in the papers about a “debate.” But it [the debate] has long been over….

Deutsche Welle is a publicly-funded German broadcaster that aims principally at foreign audiences. Deutsche Welle TV broadcasts in German, English, Spanish and Arabic, and the Deutsche Welle website,, features content in some thirty languages. Deutsche-Welle programming is carried by PBS affiliates in the United States.

The Deutsche Welle “Global Media Forum” was co-sponsored by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Partner organizations included the German Ministry of Education, the German Federal Office for Environmental Protection, the European Commission, UNESCO, and Bionade, Germany’s favorite organic cold beverage.

The announcement of the forum drew protest from the Jena-based European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE). The EIKE describes itself as Germany’s “only climate and energy institute that is completely privately financed.” Its motto is “It is not the climate that is threatened, but our freedom.” In a press release, the EIKE accused Deutsche Welle of providing “disinformation training” for international journalists.

In a letter to Deutsche Welle Director Erik Bettermann, the EIKE demanded that the event be cancelled, “since it deliberately seeks to undermine or inhibit the right to freedom of opinion that is anchored in our constitution….” The letter cited the call to abjure journalistic neutrality contained in the workshop description. In a reply dated June 14, Bettermann insisted that “Deutsche Welle does not influence the global discussion of climatic development in a one-sided manner or intend to do so, neither through its coverage in the media nor through the international conference, the ‘Global Media Forum.’” (The exchange of letters is reproduced here.)

One week later, per the official Deutsche Welle press release, Bettermann opened the conference in calling attention to the role of the media “as chroniclers and interpreters of the struggle against climate change.”