Newspapers should not adjust journalistic standards for controversial topics

Christina Coleburn, Staff Columnist

The Los Angeles Times recently announced it would no longer print letters that refute climate change, igniting a fierce discussion about the balance between free speech and the preservation of journalistic standards. Letters editor Paul Thornton contended that many anti-climate change pieces contained factual inaccuracies and maintained that the new policy was intended to minimize corrections. His explanation immediately prompted backlash, some claiming the paper was censoring the anti-climate change viewpoint to promote a political agenda. Skeptics can still, however, leave comments on online pieces that express the opposing perspective.

Although The LA Times arguably has the strictest policy on such letters, other news outlets have guidelines in place to address climate change denials. USA Today editorial page editor stated that an aggressive fact-checking process is applied to every opinion piece, just as The Tampa Bay Times affirmed its commitment to ensuring that claims are supported with legitimate scientific credentials. Measures also exist to ensure both perspectives are adequately represented, with USA Today often printing columns expressing the alternate view, while The Tampa Bay Times assesses submissions on a case-by-case basis.

While climate change evidently sparks passionate debates, typically from an ideological angle, the crux of the matter is largely irrelevant to the topic itself. As a leading news source, The LA Times has a responsibility to uphold professional ethics, the foremost being that all printed material is accurate. This standard of journalism should be consistently maintained, especially when controversial subject matter is published. If editors know an opinion piece conveys misinformation, whether on climate change or another issue, it is irresponsible to market it as truth.

This position certainly does not equate to believing that writers should not have journalistic latitude, that opinions should be silenced or that free speech should be limited. By all means, the exchange of differing perspectives enriches the national dialogue. It is simply to say that the commentary published in reputable papers should be factually sound. The public turns to The LA Times, among other top sources, for credible information. Printing an editorial that contains errors or unsupported notions does the readership an intellectual disservice and abuses the influence the paper holds.

If a climate change skeptic writes an opinion piece that bolsters his or her denial with legitimate scientific studies, there is no reason why it should not be published, as the viewpoint was articulated with reverence to journalistic standards. By the same token, if he or she seeks to publish an editorial that contains fallacies and lacks solid credentials, the news outlet should adhere to professional ethics and reject the submission. The issue of climate change is already controversial — the divide should not be needlessly deepened by irresponsible journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 4 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected].