Why a TV station recruited climate skeptics to go on a fact-finding road trip

November 18, 2019
Category: Business & Work

A Dallas TV station is trying an innovative approach to teach viewers about climate change.

The station took a viewer who considered himself a climate change doubter on a road trip to meet with world-class climate experts and then to Alaska to witness the effects of climate change first-hand.

WFAA reporter David Schechter coined a new phrase to describe his work: “citizen assisted reporting.” In late summer, Schechter posted a Facebook invitation asking anybody who doubted whether climate change was real to nominate themselves to go with WFAA to meet experts and to explore the issue from a different perspective.

“We got like 200 people who wrote in,” Schechter said. “I wanted somebody who was pretty strident in their opinion. I wanted somebody who was not intimidated or afraid to ask questions.”

“If (after we work on the story together) they don’t change their mind, which they usually don’t, I am OK with that.”

After going through the applications and talking with nominees, WFAA picked Texas roofing contractor Justin Fain, who told Poynter that just about everybody he knows does not believe climate change is a big deal.

WFAA viewer David Fain was selected for the station's Verify project on climate change. (Courtesy of WFAA Dallas)

“I did not believe that mankind had anything to do with it,” he said. “But then I didn’t really have much knowledge; I didn’t study about it at all.”

Schechter said the whole project posed three main questions for Fain to explore with the journalist by his side.

First, is the climate changing abnormally? Fain started the project saying, “No. Not from when I was a kid. My whole lifetime I haven’t seen anything different.”

Second, are humans to blame? Fain said, “Do I think that people can change the climate? I don’t think so. I don’t think they can change what the world is doing.”

Third, on a scale of 0-10, how urgent is it that we address this problem? Fain started this exploration by saying that on a scale of 1-10, whatever is going on with the climate is no more than a 3 on the urgency scale.

Then, the journey of discovery began.

Journalist David Schechter and viewer Justin Fain land on an Alaskan glacier. Together they spent five days in Alaska exploring the effects of climate change. (Courtesy of WFAA Dallas)

WFAA started by connecting Fain with John Christy, the state climatologist of Alabama who’s made headlines for questioning current climate science. Christy said the earth is simply doing what it has done before — temperatures, along with the sea, have risen and fallen before. Christy armed Fain with questions to ask as he confronted other experts who would tell him that the situation is dire.

Next, WFAA introduced Fain to two professors who are climate experts. Each explained in detail why they believed, as the overwhelming number of climate experts do, that Earth has never experienced a warming as rapid and threatening as it is now.

One scientist, Jay Banner from the University of Texas, told Fain CO2 levels, which trap the earth’s atmospheric heat, is rising 40,000 times faster than in previous decades.

Fain said he was particularly impressed by world-famous climatologist Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University.

“If you want to learn something, go to school,” Fain said. “That professor at Texas Tech gave me a full hour of teaching and she is known worldwide as an expert. I was pretty impressed with how passionate she was at telling me what she knew. When I left that I had a lot to take in. I never heard a lot of it.”

But the big road trip was still to come. Schechter and photojournalist Chance Horner then flew with Fain to Alaska, where they explored a glacier to learn about how warming is melting glaciers and permafrost. They heard from salmon experts about how climate change is affecting salmon runs.

A University of Alaska scientist explains to the WFAA team that streams are warming. Even a 1 degree increase in water temperature can prevent salmon from being able to reproduce. Scientists have seen a significant drop (50%) in salmon population in some places. (Courtesy WFAA Dallas)

“The thing that impressed me the most is how much a 1 ½ degree difference makes in a place like Alaska,” Fain said. “There, when it is supposed to be snowing and freezing but it is 32 ½ degrees, it makes a huge difference. Glaciers melt; it affects nature. When you start to see it first-hand, it teaches you that something is going on.”

Schechter has reported more than 60 of his Verify Road Trip stories. He has taken a viewer to find out whether the border wall effectively controls illegal immigration. He has explored viewer questions about river pollution and Internet rumors. But until now, he said, local TV stations have not deeply explored climate change. He thinks he knows why.

“I think as a reporter you really need to know your material before you make it digestible for the public,” Schechter said. “When it comes to covering climate change, there is so much to learn that it is intimidating. It was for me. You have to know so much to understand it enough to defend the points that I was going to put into my story.”

The Verify project depends on research. Schechter often seeks out government and academic research to get to the core of complex issues. And that is where he said the climate story surprised him.

“I have never seen so much research on anything as I did on climate change,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds of studies and they all basically come to the same place. I do not consider there to be two sides to this story.”

A recent poll found that 63% of Texas voters worried about climate change and nearly two-thirds supported the government doing something to tackle it.

But the study says that a substantial number of Texans doubt climate science. WFAA decided that the best way to gain viewers’ trust in its reporting was to take along someone who was more like those skeptical viewers.

WFAA’s David Schechter and viewer David Fain explore cracks in Alaska’s permafrost that are rapidly expanding. They learned that much of the year Alaska now experiences rain where it once recorded snow.

After weeks of listening to experts and traveling all the way from Texas to Alaska, Fain said that he is now convinced, “that something is happening at an alarming rate.”

“My opinion was changed. What we have seen in Alaska, like how quickly things are melting, there is something going on with the climate. But how much is caused by man? I would say we humans are probably doing something, but how much, who knows?”

As the WFAA segment ends, Fain stands against the retreating ice of Alaska. He’s asked on a scale of zero to 10 how big a problem climate change is. He says that when he started this discovery process, he’s rank it at about a 2. Now, he would “probably be up to a 6 or 7 at least now,” he said.

Fain said that since the WFAA stories began airing, his friends who remain doubtful about climate change roll their eyes when he talks about his adventure with the TV station.

“They still think the climate thing is all a scam.” But Fain said that since his trip to Alaska, he has begun thinking about his own experiences.

“A native Alaskan told us that animal migrations have changed and that birds that they once saw now are not around any more; they have moved on,” Fain said. “I have noticed that in Texas, where I go dove hunting. We would get a whole lot of birds on the first day of the season. Now, it’s about three weeks into the season before we see any birds fly through and it’s not as many as it used to be.”

Schechter said his Verify Road Trip concept has huge potential to explore a range of complex issues. (Here’s all the places they’ve been.)

“How cool would it be to take a mother from Plano (Texas) to Syria?,” he wondered. “I would love to take somebody to Iowa to see the caucuses.”

The Verify Road Trip project forces the news organization to let the public in on the reporting process. Instead of watching a reporter search for the truth, it allows the viewer to see someone just like himself search for the truth. It is about building connectivity and credibility with the audience, which is exactly what journalism needs.

Al Tompkins is Poynter senior faculty. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org.

The Road Trip project included two photojournalists on each shoot. WFAA photojournalists Chance Horner and Bradley Blackburn were the photographers in Alaska while Martin Doporto (not pictured) was the second photographer with Horner on location in Texas. (Courtesy WFAA)