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Published on December 25th, 2017 | by Nicolas Zart

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A Cautionary Tale About Mainstream News Media

December 25th, 2017 by  


Warning: this is a cautionary tale about mainstream news media, distortions, and beating others to the punch. It is also followed after many paragraphs by a CleanTechnica fundraising pitch.

Of course, regarding the mainstream media frustration, we are very well aware that we are preaching to the choir here. CleanTechnica is made up of independent journalists, writers, and enthusiasts. We write, talk, and film for independent media outlets. As such, we don’t owe allegiance to companies, executives, editors (well, sort of — right, Zach?), or ideologies. Nor do we bow to any lobby groups. As such, we get to choose the stories we want to write about and the way we’d like to see them covered — ideally, impartially and in an unbiased way. We are also free to leave certain stories alone.

No one is perfect. Over the years, we’ve made plenty of mistakes, but we’ve also seen consistent errors in logic and seeming bias in the mainstream media that we felt went beyond mistakes. We have cautioned on the dangers of listening to, viewing, or reading solely mainstream media. Here’s another story offering that caution.

Mainstream News Media Is At It Again!

By now, you probably know the drill. About three times a year, naysayers come back in force and rehash old debunked so-called “facts.” The latest one was that of how electric vehicles (EV) pollute more than gasoline cars. Let me know if you’ve heard that one before?

The original MIT study was pretty clear. It basically said what we all know here. EVs pollute less well to wheel. Of course, the cleaner the energy source, the cleaner the electric car is. Also, the smaller the EV, the cleaner is its overall footprint. But the Financial Times (FT) decided to take a great MIT study and present it in a strange way. Am I being diplomatic enough? You’ll need to register if you haven’t done it by now and want to read the full piece. A fair and well-balanced report turned into an odd conclusion that EVs pollute as much as internal combustion engines (ICE). How can such a venerable mainstream media outlet miss the point that much?

Well, that’s simple. Take the heaviest electric car out there — say, a Tesla Model S P100D — and compare it to the lightest and most fuel-frugal gas car — say, the Mitsubishi Mirage. Savvy readers are probably laughing. How is that a fair comparison? Looking at a fairly clean elephant and comparing to a mouse and its droppings is skewed, at best.

In a letter to the Financial Times editor, the MIT team called out the newspaper for doing what mainstream news media does expertly — take a few points out of context and build a conclusion the researchers never made. To the Financial Times’ courage, the company published all articles and this time clear and free from the paywall.

It’s a shame that we still rely on technology that’s hundreds of years old to manufacture even the cleanest products. Compressors still use an archaic 200-year-old design and haven’t evolved much since — at least, not as far as what is distributed to the general public.

The Problem With Naysayers

It’s easy to get lost in numbers, and the saying is right: Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. One point naysayers often like to talk about is how a dirty energy power station pollutes more to charge electric cars than millions of efficient gasoline cars pollute. First, the point is moot. We don’t have millions of electric cars running off of dirty coal and CNG power stations. We have an increasingly clean energy grid and collapsing coal already has less than 50% market share. Also, because they are so slow to shut off and on, coal plants on the grid already are often running steadily through periods of higher and lower electricity demand. If demand drops, they are still running. If demand rises, other cleaner sources fill in. If EVs are charged at the right time (as they often are), they can provide only a negligible impact on electricity production. Another very simple point is that it is far easier to regulate the emissions of one power plant than is it to do so for millions of cars’ exhaust pipes.

The point that battery production is an energy-intensive system that pollutes is correct — no one can contend that. But once they have been made, that’s it. Their second life can be used as a stationary energy storage unit. In study after study and claim after claim about how “dirty” electric cars actually are, a fatal assumption is that the battery and everything in it will be used only once. In actuality, 95–99% of the battery can often be recycled and used in a new battery or product — if the battery isn’t simply taken out of the vehicle and put into a new use (like stationary home storage) as an entirely new (but used) product.

And unlike their ICE counterparts, you can fuel them with clean and pure sunshine electrons via photovoltaic panels (PV), or if the wind blows in your part of the world, wind turbines can provide the power. And if you have abundant hydropower, the same applies. The electric cars, trucks, vans, and trains themselves can run on sunshine if that’s what you collect to produce the electricity. The electricity production is a separate matter and isn’t on the shoulders of the auto company to fix (unless that company is also an energy company).

The Problem With Mainstream New Outlets

In this other FT article, the magazine tries to tackle the cost of EV ownership. You’ll notice again that points were cherry-picked and gathered together. It’s not the only other anti-EV article either. Last year, the media outlet wrote about another study on the burden EVs place on the European energy grid. Perhaps FT doesn’t like EVs.

The problem today with mainstream news media outlets is that quick stories sell. We can thank Google for continuously improving the frantic search engine optimization (SEO) algorithms imposed on writers and outlets, but it is sometimes more counterproductive than helpful. Simple, repetitive, and computer-optimized keywords used to help to score higher results on Google’s search engine and optimizing for those wasted a lot of editorial time and budgets — they are no longer as important for what you need to do to rank, but they were a big matter for a long time. Google does try to funnel searchers toward reputed, considerate, in-depth content, but consider for a moment how well that flawed FT article about EV batteries will rank in Google searches, just because the Financial Times is a big media outlet with a big budget. (Well, also, it will get a Google boost from so many websites linking to it in order to refute it, ironically.) Flashy headlines catch attention — that’s still something that makes misleading “you won’t believe this isn’t true” stories popular. The more people click those stories, the more Google recommends them to others. It’s a counterproductive feedback loop.

Crunched budgets and focusing on SEO instead of the content limits and rushes editorial due diligence and fact-checking. All the while, outlets must produce more and more content or get left behind.

This is not an apology for the way journalists or bloggers work. It’s the way the system now works. Readers demand free and quick news that outlets need to constantly feed. Something gets lost along the way, usually quality. (Let’s not go into why there are only 6 companies that hold all of the US news outlets.) There has been a shift toward political agendas and skipping over inconvenient facts, and the state of the news is as divisive as the country’s politics. More than ever, we need to read the not-so-distant history on how countries went to war less than a hundred years ago. Am I still too diplomatic?

Methane emissions estimates by source (IPCC AR5 WG1data interpreted by Sam Carana for arctic-news.blogspot.com)

There is one constant, however. The specialized media might take a little longer to break a story, but it does it with writers who not only know their industries well, but also have probably spent more time to add context and get the takeaways right. Since they are usually more connected and specialized, they are able to go deeper into a story than general mainstream journalists. In fact, many of us can tell you that going to press events means listening to mainstream journalists asking the most uninformed questions. [Editor’s note: hahaha, too true!] And they get to deliver the news? It seems more like a disservice than what they are supposed to do.

Mainstream news media has consistently failed to deliver impartial and neutral stories, for the most part.

Like many, I got fed up and started writing about what was happening. I found plenty of others who felt the same. Although I wasn’t trained as a journalist, I uphold something that is becoming as elusive as the Dodo bird — journalistic impartiality.

Was the interview highlighted below — captured in a screenshot to live for “eternity” on the internet — real news? No, but it’s what kept viewers comfortable, sponsors happy, and executives in their high-paying jobs.

CleanTechnica makes good enough revenue via Google ads and some other means to deliver you an abundant serving of both obsessive cleantech (and related) news coverage as well as in-depth journalism, product and company explorations, and genuine analysis. But we are not funded by any billionaires and certainly don’t have the budget to do as much as we’d like for all the people eager for more, better, and deeper cleantech journalism, analysis, and blogging.

So, we thought we’d just come out and ask for some support to help make the site better, the coverage deeper, and the articles more interesting and entertaining. If you can lend some cash, we’d appreciate the moral support for what we’re doing.

You can contribute by sending money via a brand new (published seconds ago) Patreon campaign, via PayPal (an original Elon Musk company, interestingly enough), or simply by buying CleanTechnica merchandise in our store.

Or, if that doesn’t work, we could just go look for some funding from David or Charles Koch. 😉

Thank you for the support!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays from our diverse, 4-continent team.


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About the Author

Nicolas was born and raised around classic cars of the 1920s, but it wasn't until he drove an AC Propulsion eBox and a Tesla Roadster that the light went on. Eager to spread the news of that full torque, he was invited to write for various CleanTech outlets in 2007. Since then, his passion led to cover renewable energy, test drives, podcasts, shoot pictures, and film for various international outlets both in print and online. Nicolas offers an in-depth look at the e-mobility world through interviews and the many contacts he has forged in those industries. He particularly enjoys communicating about the new e-mobility technology and what it means to us as a society. Today he focuses most of his writing effort on CleanTechnica, a global online outlet that covers the world of electric vehicles and renewable energy. His favorite tagline is: "There are more solutions than obstacles."



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