Corrections to our critique of Aaron Huertas and the Poynter Institute

After we posted our critique of Aaron Huertas’ evidence backing his claim about a Florida government gag order on discussion of climate change, Huertas contacted us to let us know he annotated the article on the Genius website.

Though Huertas’ response failed in answering the meat of our criticism, he found two mistakes that we hasten to correct. Moreover, reviewing his critique led us to the discovery of two more minor errors.

  1. We claimed in our original story to have quoted the entirety of an Orlando Sentinel story Huertas had cited on his own behalf. Our report was incorrect. A conspicuous ad hid the latter half of the Sentinel story from view; we failed to notice the scroll bar showed enough room to allow for more story material below the ad. The updated version of our post adds the missing portion of the story. We thank Huertas for pointing out the error.
  2. Near the end of our post, we referred to NPR as PBS. The updated version uses the proper three letters. We thank Huertas for pointing out the error.
  3. In one instance we misspelled Florida Division of Emergency Management director Bryan Koon’s name as “Koons.” We have corrected that misspelling in the new version. We apologize to Bryan Koon and to our readers for the error.
  4. We supplied the wrong hyperlink where we intended to link to the Orlando Sentinel. The link went to Huertas’ post linking the same story, but our intent was to supply a direct link. We have remedied that problem.

Find the original version of the story below the page break/below.

Did Florida’s state government issue a gag order stopping state employees from discussing climate change? A Dec. 22, 2016 article published at the Poynter Institute’s website suggested as much (bold emphasis added):

Indeed, fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises.

For instance, Florida’s government banned state employees from discussing global warming.

We ran across this story months ago, resulting in a post at PolitiFact Bias. We wondered why PolitiFact did no detailed fact check when Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton made the claim.

The story originally comes from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. The Miami Herald story linked in the Poynter article  carries the byline of an FCIR reporter, identifying his connection with the FCIR.

Is the FCIR biased? We do not care. Our interest focuses on whether the reporting justifies the claim in the Poynter story.

“State employees”=”DEP”?

The linked story does not provide adequate support for the wording in the Poynter article. It cites a handful of witnesses claiming they were encouraged not to use certain words. All of the examples apparently were connected to the Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection:

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.

“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’” said Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

Kristina Trotta, another former DEP employee who worked in Miami, said her supervisor told her not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in a 2014 staff meeting. “We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact,” she said.

This unwritten policy went into effect after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011 and appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as the DEP’s director, according to former DEP employees.

Despite the focus in the Herald’s story on the DEP, the Poynter article by Aaron Huertas says the state  banned employees from discussing global warming. Huertas’ wording invites the reader to conclude the supposed policy affected all state government employees.

To clarify or correct, or not?

We posted a comment in reply to Huertas’ story pointing out the deceptive wording in the article.

After that, we called attention to the problem on Twitter.

That drew out Huertas in defense of his work.

We pointed out to Huertas that the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “independent investigation” of the claim relied wholly on  the FCIR’s reporting—the same source the Miami Herald used.

That’s independent?

Nothing in the Plain Dealer’s story, other than its dubious conclusion that the story was true, contradicted or blunted our criticism of Huerta’s story at Poynter. Two or more wrongs still do not make a right.

Huertas tried again:

NPR

Huertas’ first link led to an NPR interview. An NPR reporter claimed to have interviewed a number of scientists about Florida’s gag order. The reporter named one of his sources (bold emphasis added):

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, that’s right Melissa. We’ve been hearing from independent scientists who did work for the state and they said that they were encouraged and, in fact, pressured to make revisions to their work, to take out the phrase climate change. A researcher who did work for the health department, for instance, says she was pressured to take out the phrase out of a paper that she worked on about a food poisoning. I spoke today to another researcher, Nicole Hernandez Hammer, who says she and others she worked with were pressured to remove the term from a paper they were working on on the state’s transportation infrastructure and getting it ready for sea-level rise.

Assuming the truth of Hammer’s unverified report, does it follow that the state government banned all state employees from discussing climate change?

Hammer, for what it’s worth, left academia to work as a climate change activist. The linked article includesr Hammer’s own account of the events paraphrased by NPR. Readers will find it light on detail.

On Twitter, we pointed out to Huertas that the NPR story likewise offered nothing to blunt our criticisms of his story.

The Orlando Sentinel

Huertas second link led to a story at the Orlando Sentinel. We think it fair to call this citation a scrape from the bottom of the barrel.

Gov. Rick Scott has denied reports that he unofficially banned the terms “climate change” and “global warming” from state reports and in official documents, but Florida Division of Emergency Management director Bryan Koon isn’t taking any chances.

Speaking before a Senate panel Thursday, Koon was asked about federal requirements for states to have a plan to combat climate change to receive grant money. He avoided using the term.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, raised the question, then cheekily suggested using the phrase “atmospheric reemployment” instead to meet with Scott’s alleged wishes and still pull down grant money.

Koon noted that Florida’s deadline to resubmit a hazard mitigation plan to receive grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn’t due until 2018. But he refrained from saying the words “climate change.”

With apologies to the Sentinel, that is the entire story. We’re not trying to steal traffic or credit from the Sentinel. Rather, we are showing unequivocally that the story, like the one from NPR, contains nothing to blunt our criticisms.

Is Koon’s avoidance of “climate change” an attempt to follow a supposed “gag order”? Consider: The subject of the hearing is obvious: The hearing concerns state mitigation efforts as a response to a federal policy based on responding to climate change. The subject, even if Koons avoids saying “climate change” is, in fact, climate change. So has Koon obeyed the “ban on discussing global warming” that Huertas described in his article? Hardly. And Koon would as surely discuss global warming if they called it “atmospheric reemployment.”

We asked Huertas if his citation of the Sentinel was meant as a joke.

Conspiracy?

Huertas ended up excusing his lack of evidence with a tweet worthy of a conspiracy theorist, addressing the lack of documentary evidence:

This also explains why we do not have Bush’s instructions to his subordinates when he directed the deliberate destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

It serves as an unworthy excuse for making statements of fact without the evidence to back the statements.

Do people in the mainstream media continue to wonder why the public places little trust in their work?

Do a better job of reporting.

How to better report the “gag order” story

A journalist cannot rightly call reporting “objective” when making a judgment call on which of two groups of people told the truth.

We offer a few suggestions that might have helped the reporting from the FCIR, the Miami Herald and PBS:

  1. Get “gag order” witnesses’ names on the record
  2. Get witnesses to name the people who issued the gag order
  3. Interview the people named by the witnesses
  4. Ask the accused persons whether the charges are true and get their side of the story
  5. Find out from the accused who directed them to carry out the gag order
  6. Get the accused to name names, if possible
  7. Interview the persons the accused, in turn, accuse.
  8. Follow the chain of responsibility as far as possible
  9. Report the whole story, naming names
  10. Avoid reporting conclusions that lack full support from the evidence

The reporting on the supposed gag order doesn’t pass muster. It fails to name enough names and fails to supply documentary evidence supporting the charges.

Aaron Huertas and the Poynter Institute should run a correction or clarification on their story, making clear that thin evidence supports the “gag order” anecdote.

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