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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2022

What we can learn from covering the hole in the ozone layer in the 1970s-1980s

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, we will talk about memberships vs subscriptions and what to consider before choosing the right model. And then I take a deep dive into how we covered the depletion of the ozone layer back in the 1970s-1980s, and what we can learn from that today.


What to consider before switching from subscriptions to memberships

Many publishers are either thinking about or planning to focus on a (voluntary) membership model, rather than doing subscriptions, and there seems to be a fair bit of misconceptions about it.

So, in my latest Plus report, I go over all the things you need to consider when choosing this model. Unlike what many seem to think, a membership model is not easier than a subscription one. In fact, in many areas, it's harder because it limits your flexibility of what model to use.

So take a look at: "What to consider before switching from subscriptions to memberships".


Change ... and journalism

I recently came across a wonderful video from VOX, talking about how we, in the late-1980s, managed to fix the problem with the growing hole in the ozone layer, and how that effort and focus has led to the problem being solved. We still have a depleted ozone layer today, but it is much better than it was, and it's expected to fully recover in another 20 years (40 years ahead of schedule).

It's a wonderful video, but it's also a very important illustration about how we need to do the same, but with climate change.

 

What I really like about the video is how they explain the "three Ps" that helped to get the public focused. These were that the problem was "Personal" (you will get skin cancer if we don't fix this); that it was "Perceptible" (we could clearly measure it), and that the solution was "Practical" (stop using the things that cause the pollution).

And with this focus, we very quickly got the world to change, and it's such an important lesson for journalists because those three Ps are just as clear about climate change as well.

I highly recommend you watch the video.

But, as a media analyst, I started to wonder how we actually covered this? Did we as the press help facilitate those three Ps? ... or did we confuse things? What did we actually do back in the 1970s and 1980s?

And so, I turned to the New York Times Archive (also called the NYT Time Machine), and I extracted a list of about 500 articles about the "Ozone layer" from this period to analyze what we had covered.

Let me show you a summary of what I found:

Ozone layer coverage, from the New York Times. Summarized timeline

The first article that really talked about the importance of the ozone layer was from October 1933, talking about how a very thin layer of ozone is protecting us:

C G Abbot says 1/8 inch in upper reaches of stratosphere stands between human race and destruction by death rays from sun

The following year, on August 1934, another article highlighted the importance of the ozone layer:

Smithsonian Reports Eight 'Killer Rays'; Would Affect Humans if They Pierced Ozone

And over the next several decades, we see how humans started to study how our atmosphere works.

In 1935 we learned some more:

QUESTS IN UPPER AIR YIELD STRANGE FACTS; Our Knowledge of the Atmosphere Is Vastly Increased Through the Unending Work of Science INTO THE MYSTERIOUS STRATOSPHERE

In 1941, we discovered how to measure the ozone layer:

Dr J D Strong devises method for measuring ozone height

In 1953, we wanted to send up rockets to learn more:

Dr S F Singer proposes launching rockets from high-flying planes to improve studies

And in 1962, these upper atmosphere studies yielded results:

Upper Air Yields Secrets to New Methods of Research; Findings in Last 5 Years Surpass All in Past Studies Theory Is Based on Layers Composing High Atmosphere

In other words, from the 1930s to the 1960s, we were basically on a quest for knowledge. At this point, it wasn't really news. It's more like a scientific curiosity. However, all of this changed in the 1960s as pollution became a huge focus around the world.

Mind you, pollution on ground level had been a talking point for decades. In the 1950s, we had the 'great smog of London', where every day pollution was so bad that people had to wear a mask when going outside.

And in the 1960s, we started to see the first articles raising concern about the upper-atmosphere. The first concern about the rockets being sent up, from 1963:

GASES OF ROCKETS ADD TO POLLUTION; Space Probes May Affect Weather and Radio GASES OF ROCKETS ADD TO POLLUTION 'Changes Are Possible'

And then when we hit the 1970s, things got bad really fast as we discovered that ... wait a minute ... the ozone layer is being depleted (!!)

It's an astonishing transformation, and it's equally impressive how fast it happened. Of course, now that it had become a problem, the topic also changed quite dramatically from a journalistic perspective.

Before the 1970s, the focus was merely something reported by the science desk, but now it moved into the main newsroom, and we started to "hold people to account" for it.

This was a good thing because something had to change, but we also saw some of the problems with this new journalistic focus.

The example was about nuclear weapons. Remember, officials had warned that this would damage the ozone layer. And so, in 1974, the New York Times asked the Pentagon about it, who said this:

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16-The Defense Department estimates that an all‐out nuclear war would significantly deplete the protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere but not to the point of endangering the continuance of life on earth.

This is the first time we see the problem with journalism. On one side we have the officials and scientists calling an alarm, and on the other side is the Pentagon downplaying the severity of it.

Those two sides are not equals, but in the press, we presented it as such, and then we left it up to the public to make up their own minds.

The same pattern followed just a few days later. On October 31, 1974, scientists called for action:

Halt Urged in Buying Sprays That Might Hurt Ozone: An immediate halt to the purchase of spray cans using a propellant that some scientists fear may threaten the earth's protective ozone layer was recommended yesterday by the chairman of a committee appointed to assess the alleged threat.

Notice how this is phrased. It's "some scientists" and an "alleged threat". In other words, it is being reported as doubtful. As something to be skeptical about.

Three days later, they posted another article where they asked the industry for a comment:

INDUSTRY DOUBTS THREAT TO OZONE: In response to warnings that fluorocarbons used as propellants in spray cans might deplete the protective ozone layer of the stratosphere, an industry spokesman was quoted yesterday as saying that no such effect had been proved.

Again, notice the way this is presented. Here it's presented as a statement of facts.

This is really bad journalism. Sure, the NYT did a good job bringing the topic into the public's awareness, but just as quickly they started undermining it.

The scientists, who have been looking to understand this since the 1930s are presented with skepticism, and presented as a 'both sides' argument against a single industry spokesperson who 'as a fact' says that there is no problem.

As a media analyst, things like this just make me go bonkers!

What followed then was a decade of 'arguments' with increasingly frustrated scientists on one side, and the industry on the other.

1974: all animals, including the human species, would be subject at the least to an increased incidence of cancer and at worst to disruption of the plant‐animal food chain which could "shatter the ecological structure that permits man to remain alive on this planet

... vs ...

The controversy surrounding possibility that propellent gases from aerosol cans may result in breakdown of ozone belt scores suggestions by experts and Defense Dept that risk should be taken in light of inconclusive evidence

Also in 1974:

Nov. 21 -The Federal Government has been petitioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council to outlaw spray cans using propellants suspected of breaking down the earth's protective ozone layer.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 -Mankind may some day need to "engineer" earth's atmosphere to preserve its ability to support life despite the harmful effects of man‐made pollution, a scientist told a hearing before the House today.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 12-A three‐year delay In banning the propellant gases used in aerosol cans might cause a reduction of nearly 5 per cent in the atmosphere's protective ozone layer, a scientist's calculations indicate.

Followed by:

EXPERTS DIFFER ON OZONE STUDY: CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb, 4-Sharp differences as to the significance of a four‐year study of potential supersonic transport effects on the stratosphere with regard to human health erupted here today as participants in the $20‐million Federal study met to discuss its findings.

Then we reach 1975, and see the same pattern:

First the scientifically focused articles:

And we also see the first states enacting legislation:

And then we had the article from June 1975 that said:

Aerosol Feels the Ozone Effect: Numerous scientific studies have confirmed reports of fluorocarbon-caused ozone depletion.

All indicating that something is not as it should be. But then, again, the New York Times seems to get scared of its own reporting, and so suddenly they try to balance all this scientifically-based coverage with something that can contradict it.

So, we get:

July 1975: Scientist Doubts Spray Cans Imperil Ozone Layer: A British scientist, here under the auspices of the chemical industry, yesterday described as "utter nonsense" the argument that fluorocarbons such as those used in some spray cans present a serious threat to the ozone layer.

So, one person (who happens to be working with the chemical industry) happens to disagree with the rest of the scientific community, but sure, let's publish that.

AEROSOL SPRAY BAN REJECTED BY AGENCY: Consumer Product Safety Comm rejects Natural Resources Defense Council petition for ban on aerosol sprays, which critics maintain is harmful to earth's protective ozone layer; says there is not sufficient evidence to warrant such move (S)

And, also:

August 1975: Look Up and Live. (The Ozone Is Still There.). Excerpts from speech by Russel A Bantham, legal counsel for a major aerosol marketing company, in which he disputes the theory that earth's protective ozone layer is in danger of depletion because of continued use of fluorocarbons.

Again, one person, who happens to be working for an aerosol marketing company, disputes what the scientists are saying.

This is such a demoralizing thing to see because this has nothing to do with balanced reporting. On one hand we have the majority of the scientific community, talking about the studies, analysis, and the data they have captured ... and on the other, random opinions by single individuals who also have a personal interest in creating doubt in the public.

And this pattern went on and on throughout the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s:

...and in 1981, after more than 50 years of study, and two decades of knowing that we have a problem, the New York Times thought it would be relevant to discuss if this was even a man-made problem:

NEW SATELLITE MAY FINALLY DETERMINE WHETHER MAN IS DAMAGING OZONE LAYER: AN American satellite circling the earth from pole to pole has begun to return data that could resolve the issue of what impact manmade fluorocarbons have on the fragile upper-atmospheric layer of ozone that shields life from the sun's deadliest rays.

What was so frustrating about this was that, in 1981, it wasn't like we couldn't see it happening. Every year, we measured the ozone layer, and every year, it got worse.

In the late-1970s and early-1980s, the trend line for the depletion of the ozone layer very rapidly went up. So, it wasn't like the press didn't know. I mean, the New York Times covered what the scientists had found, and the data they had measured ... and yet, they still felt it was necessary to do 'both-sides' journalism, and give a platform and exposure to individuals who, based merely on their opinions, could create doubt and confusion.

And so, in the mid to late 1980s, things just got worse and worse. Instead of having an effective focus, we kept delaying and debating. Instead of doing something, we kept focusing on the need for "more studies".

And again, and again, we started focusing on all the examples we could find to downplay the severity:

"April, 1982: SCIENTISTS MODERATE ESTIMATES OF OZONE DEPLETION: The National Research Council today cut by more than half its previous estimate of how much the earth's protective layer of ozone was being depleted by man-made chlorofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere, although it indicated it still saw reason for concern.

February 1984: OZONE DEPLETION RE-EVALUATED IN NEW STUDY: A National Academy of Sciences study made public today further reduces the estimate of how much the atmosphere's protective ozone layer is being depleted by man-made gases from aerosol spray cans, refrigeration and other sources.

In other words, the New York Times kept telling the public that, despite the data still showing that the problem was getting worse, just don't worry about it.

And the crazy thing about this was that it was pretty obvious where things were going, and so in 1985, things got a bit out of control.

November 1985: LOW OZONE LEVEL FOUND ABOVE ANTARCTICA: Satellite observations have confirmed a progressive deterioration in the earth's protective ozone layer above Antarctica, according to scientists who analyzed data recently sent back from space.
January 1986: SCIENTISTS WARN OF EFFECTS OF HUMAN ACTIVITY ON ATMOSPHERE
June 1986: Ozone Team To Brave Antarctica: Teams of scientists will soon make an unusual trip into the perpetual darkness of Antarctic winter to study a mysterious and alarming ''hole'' in part of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from harmful solar radiation.
June 1986: Will the Planet Remain Habitable? With unusual unanimity, scientists testified at a recent Senate hearing that using the atmosphere as a garbage dump is about to catch up with us on a global scale. The Earth's climate is changing rapidly and its protective shield of ozone is shrinking.
September 1986: Ozone Depletion: An analysis of the potential reduction in the ozone layer by manmade gases has found that resulting ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth would cause 1.4 million extra skin cancers in the United States over the next 40 years.

And from this point, things finally started to move forward. Look at these headlines between 1986 and 1989.

And so, finally, we fixed the problem. And the result was astonishing. Immediately after all the nations finally understood the severity of this and banned these harmful gasses, we eliminated their use.

Look at this graph. This is an astonishing display of human determination and focus.

So, we did it. We fixed the ozone layer. We got together, and we got it done.

In the late-1980s, we (the press) did a good job too (generally speaking). We wasted twenty years on bad journalism, and waited so long that the hole in the ozone layer had reached 18 million square kilometers. But eventually, we got it, and our coverage was instrumental in that final push.

Of course, the New York Times just couldn't help itself to try to undermine it one more time. Before the ban was enacted, in March 1989, just four days before the first pact of 20 countries was agreed upon, they posted this:

The Next Refrigerator May Take a Step Back: In recent decades, refrigerators have gotten bigger, more stylish and - since the mid-1970's at least -more energy efficient as well. But a growing conflict between rules intended to improve the energy efficiency of appliances and measures to protect the earth's ozone layer may produce a new generation of more costly, less convenient refrigerators and freezers in the 1990's.

I mean, seriously NYT. Look at this narrative. They are still presenting this as a conflict, and turning the public against climate measures by telling them that their refrigerators will be worse because of this coming ban.

So, did the refrigerators get worse and more expensive? No, of course not. Today, refrigerators are even more convenient than they were back then, and the price is less than half of what was (when accounting for inflation).

I tell you this story because the patterns that we see here persist to this day. Look at how we have covered climate change over the past 5-10 years. Look at how we covered the pandemic and many other topics. We are still doing this.

Yes, we eventually fixed the ozone layer, but we haven't fixed our journalism yet. And so, the uncomfortable question is... did we help?

Well, the answer is complicated. Focusing on the ozone layer in hundreds of articles obviously did something. So, yes, we did help as the press. But we also delayed things.

When we look at the data they had in the early 1970s, it was pretty clear that there was a problem. But it took 15 years of 'both side'-ism to actually get to the point where we really focused on doing something, and so many of these delays were based on arguments that were facilitated by the press.

So yes, we helped. But in the most inefficient and inconsistent way possible. This is what we need to change because we are at the exact same point with climate change.

However, today, I see an even bigger problem... Let me explain.

We never gave up

When I look back at the hundreds of articles about the ozone layer in the New York Times Archive, what we see is a very clear pattern of 'both sides'.

On one side, we had the majority of the scientific community, who, based on decades of work and data, presented evidence that there was a real problem. And then on the other side, we had the industry spokespeople and other random elements making the argument that it "isn't a problem".

I'm simplifying it here, of course, but those were the two sides. Those who said there was a problem, and those who said there wasn't.

However, today, I see three sides, and the third side is absolutely scary.

You see, the third side are the people who say "Yes, there is a problem" but "we should just live with it" (i.e. do nothing to stop it).

When I look at the articles from the 1970s and 1980s, I never saw this. But today, I see this all the time, and it's massively undermining our ability to do anything.

Think about something like COVID. This has become the message in the western world. We are saying: "Yes, there is a problem. Yes, thousands of people are getting infected every day, leading to many suffering from long-COVID. And yes, we are seeing an excess level of mortality. More people are dying because of this."

But ... "let's just live with that. Let's not try to fix this. Let's not even focus on it".

With the pandemic, we have seen this narrative again, and again, and again. It's coming from the officials, from politicians, from 'experts', and even from editorials published by editors-in-chief.

And we see the same pattern now with other stories. Because of the rising level of inflation, I see articles where the narrative is that this is just how it's going to be, and that we should just accept a high level of inflation.

And, of course, with climate change, we see this all the time.

We see stories that promote the narrative that "the heat is here to stay", or "this is the new normal", "that it's already too late to do something", and that the people who still try to fix it are "utopians".

I mean, look at this:

This is the worst possible thing we can do. And, again, I did not see this back in my analysis of how we covered the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s.

This is a new narrative in the press that: "yes, this is a problem, but... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"

I mean, just think about what is happening here. Imagine if our parents had behaved this was back in the 1980s. Imagine if back then, they looked at the depleting ozone layer, and then in the large national newspapers, you saw this:

Just imagine how incredibly damaging this narrative would have been. If our parents had done this back in the 1980s, we would still have a depleting ozone layer, and the hole would have grown even larger ... causing thousands of people to get skin cancer, and forcing people to wear more protection on sunny days.

But they did act. It took them 15 years to actually do it. But they did it, and we don't have to worry about the ozone layer anymore.

Today, however, we are not doing this. Look at the pandemic... which we now just have to live with. Over the past two weeks, about 30,000 people died of COVID around the world ... but, the newspapers tell us, we should just accept that. Just live with it because this is now the "new normal".

Climate change is going better. We are making real progress to reduce CO₂ and other elements that are causing the problem, but every day I see stories in the press where we fundamentally undermine this by telling people that "it's too late", "it's too complicated", "it's too inconvenient", etc.

This is a new narrative.

The reason we were able to do something about the ozone layer was because we never gave up. Instead, we identified the problem, found the cause of it, and banned the freaking thing out of existence!

Sure, some people, like a person working as the legal council for a marketing company for the aerosol industry, claimed it wasn't a problem, but that was just one idiot.

As a society, we understood the problem. We focused on the three Ps. We made it personal (you will get skin cancer if we don't stop this), we made it perceptible (we have tons of data, and here are some pictures), and we made it practical (these are the things we need to ban).

We are not yet doing this today. Instead, we are telling people to "just live with it."

As a media analyst, I consider it to be the single biggest problem in journalism today. There are a lot of things we needed to do better compared to what happened in the 1970s, but those problems pale in comparison to a newspaper industry telling the public to just "give up".

We have to stop promoting this narrative. We have to stop interviewing people who talk like this, and we have to stop both-siding an issue that does not have both sides.

Our parents faced their test, and they got it done. It wasn't done perfectly, but they got it done. I don't have to think about the ozone layer anymore.

Today, we are facing the same test...so...what will you do?


Want to know more?

If you want to know more about climate coverage, I wrote a much more detailed Plus article about that last year called:

And don't forget the article about formats and journalism I mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter.


Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

The result was a news coverage that sound more and more paniclike.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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