KNKX Public Editor report: science, politics, and Weather with Cliff Mass | KNKX

KNKX Public Editor report: science, politics, and Weather with Cliff Mass

May 15, 2020

Editor's note: The following review is in response to members of the community who raised concerns about our weekly "Weather with Cliff Mass" segment. This public editor review is half of a two-part process that included a scientific review, which you can download and read here.

Cliff Mass, a recognized expert on Seattle and Pacific Northwest weather, was hired by KNKX (then-KPLU) in 2011 to provide a weekly weather forecast for the region, along with some commentary about weather phenomena.  Each week Mass and KNKX’s environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp discuss the forecast and a deeper analysis of a current weather event for between four and seven minutes. The feature airs Fridays at 9 a.m., with repeats several times over the weekend (often with the forecast portion cut off so the content remains up to date). It is also archived online.

The topics of climate change and global warming make up a small portion of the commentaries. Nonetheless, for at least five years, according to the documentation KNKX provided me, the station has been receiving complaints about Mass’ commentary, related to what he does (or sometimes does not) say about climate change when talking about a weather event. In 2017, the complaints escalated to what I would characterize as an orchestrated campaign by a handful of KNKX listeners who asked that Mass’ commentary be taken off the air. The campaign started with emails and phone calls to the station’s staff. The conversation then moved to the station’s Community Advisory Council in late 2018; minutes of that conversation show wide support for continuing the commentary.

Following that discussion, Mass’ critics took their argument to the broader community. Last September, at Seattle’s Youth Climate Strike, four local chapters of the climate action group 350.org (350 Seattle, 350 Tacoma, 350 Eastside, and 350 Everett) unveiled an online petition that says “the weekly feature ‘Weather With Cliff Mass’ consistently breaches the boundaries of responsible journalism, ignoring or minimizing the relationship between the weather, wildfires, and our changing climate.” Mass, it adds, “makes statements that consistently and repeatedly misrepresent the central scientifically established facts of a changing climate.” The petition, which has been signed by just under 600 people as of this writing, does not call for Mass’ removal, however; it simply asks for KNKX “to respond to the growing number of listeners and scientists who have raised concerns about accurate reporting in respect to climate and climate impacts on ‘Weather With Cliff Mass.’” At another point it urges, “Please read and sign if you agree it's time for KNKX to do much better on the climate-weather connection!”

Programming decisions are, of course, the prerogative of station management. So far, the station has declined to meet the demands of those who want Mass removed and it has made no formal response to the petitioners. Given that the dispute is not going away, the station’s management concluded -- rightly, in my opinion -- that in this case they could benefit from an outside opinion. I say “rightly” because Mass, by his own and other accounts, played a key role in “saving” the station as an independent entity in 2016, when it was set to merge with KUOW. One of his strongest critics also played a role in raising the funds that allowed KNKX to become an independent community-licensed station. In other words, many people feel strongly invested in the station’s response to this controversy, as one would expect at any public radio station. Engagement with its audience is a strength of public radio.

The outside review process has been twofold. KNKX engaged a scientist on a pro bono basis to examine the content of on-air statements by Mass to which the critics have objected. My role has been to examine the concerns overall, taking into consideration the findings of the scientific review, and assessing them against relevant journalistic ethics guidelines. I was told I had free rein to make (non-binding) recommendations, should I come to believe that changes were necessary.

My opinion here is just that. I have no conflicts of interest that have swayed my independent conclusions. As NPR’s public editor (or news ombudsman) for the last five years (my tenure there ended April 3) I looked into hundreds of audience concerns about NPR programming, following the same process that I used for this investigation. KNKX does not have a publicly posted ethics code that guides its work, but Matt Martinez, the station’s director of content, told me that the station adheres to NPR’s code, found here. A code of ethics cannot cover every situation that arises, however, so I have also applied some generally accepted ethics guidelines followed by trusted news organizations, as I evaluated the complaints and KNKX’s response.

Who is Cliff Mass?

Mass, who holds a PhD, is professor of atmospheric sciences in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment and author of the 2008 book The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. For 15 years he had a weekly weather commentary on the university-owned KUOW; in 2011 he was let go after he weighed in on a subject (math education) outside his weather expertise.

In the wake of KUOW’s decision to drop his popular commentary, Mass was hired by KPLU (now KNKX). The station’s current general manager, Joey Cohn, was the program director at the time and made the decision.

Mass joined several other commentators on KNKX, including sportscaster Art Thiel and food expert Nancy Leson. Commentators are not part of the news staff, and the very title of commentator implies that they are there for their opinion and expertise. But the format KNKX uses – a news employee interviewing the commentators – pushes the features into what could arguably be called news-like content.

As laid out in his contract, Mass’ role is to select a “weather-related topic” each week. Each broadcast is to include the current weather, followed by the weekend forecast, and then, the contract says, an in-depth examination of “a particular weather issue so the listener learns the ‘why’ behind what’s going on in our environment. Some examples of the types of topics include climate change, snow pack precipitation, wind gusts, tornadoes.”

That 2011 contract remains in effect. When the KNKX hosts promote the feature on the air they say, “Stay tuned for this weekend’s forecast” and occasionally reference the specific weather event that will be discussed.

Given that KUOW had ended the relationship when Mass went off script, Cohn told me that their agreement specified that the conversation would be prerecorded, so that any off-topic commentary could be edited out. Cohn and Martinez said that to their knowledge the conversation has never been edited for those reasons.

On average over the past year (April 2019 to March 2020), according to audience numbers provided by the station, some 24,200 people have heard the segment each week. The podcast version is downloaded about 6,000 times each month.

There are a few other relevant points about Mass. In some ways a Seattle celebrity, Mass calls himself a “public scientist” who fosters a direct relationship with those in the community. Many people have told me how valued he is for his work around weather safety. His lobbying helped lead to coastal radar improvements in the region.

He has a personal online blog, the “Cliff Mass Weather Blog,” which “discusses current weather, climate issues, and current events.” His posts often express strong opinions. Most recently, he has devoted a half dozen columns to the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, Mass has taken public positions in recent years on two carbon-tax initiatives that were put before Washington voters, I-732 (2016) and I-1631 (2018). Mass’ views on both appeared on ballots; he was in favor of the first and opposed to the second. (Both failed.)

Finally, a quick online search shows that Mass is a polarizing figure in the academic community and elsewhere. That’s not unexpected in academia, but I’ll discuss below why that is or isn’t relevant.

The Complaints

KNKX provided me with the voluminous correspondence it has received about Mass and the minutes of the Community Advisory Council meeting where the issue of commentators was discussed. I looked closely at the numerous arguments made to remove Mass from the air. In addition, I talked to a few of his strongest critics to make sure I understood their concerns.

The criticisms have changed over time, but a couple of things stood out. What’s most striking about the letters of complaint is how little they refer to something Mass actually said on his weekly commentary. There are some specific complaints about on-air content, and I solicited other examples to make sure I understood the breadth of concerns. But most often, the complaints seem to be about statements made on Mass’ blog. I say “seem to be” because the complaints do not always specify, referring at first to remarks made on air but then quoting from the blog, or not specifying at all. Other complaints are about his political activities and a couple are about his 2008 book.

Some of the complaints don’t deal directly with his work, at all, but are more about his personality. Like many in the academic world, Mass has strong opinions which he states boldly and he has had his share of academic scholarship disputes. He sometimes has spoken dismissively of other academic work he does not agree with, and that has generated complaints.

Some of the critics also impute the motive of “climate denial” or “doubter” to what Mass says, motives for which the offered evidence seems quite tenuous to me. When Mass does not include a climate reference in a commentary then some of his critics charge it is because he is trying to sow climate skepticism. Alternate interpretations could be that he doesn’t believe the science supports it, or that the scientific support is insufficient.

Finally, I could find very few complaints that accurately described the overall content of the on-air commentaries. Many of the emails referred to the Friday feature as “climate” reporting, which it is not. (A recent email contained this statement: “Dr. Mass fails to report on matters that we feel should be included in a segment that purports to address climate science.”)

Tad Anderson (more on him below) looked at all the topics Mass talked about in 2018 and 2019. By his calculus, roughly 10% of the commentaries touched on climate change. Other topics included “bird migrations, dust storms, cherry blossoms, Springtime pollen, Fall leaf color, Winter ski conditions, driving hazards, water reservoirs, optical illusions, strange cloud formations, holiday gifts for weather enthusiasts, Seasonal Affective Disorder, accuracy of weather apps, accuracy of seasonal forecasts, El Nino/La Nina, weather events in Washington history, and how the Earth got its atmosphere.”  

“Weather” and “climate” are not interchangeable terms; “weather” generally looks at shorter term events and “climate change” at longer patterns. Some current weather events are indeed affected by these longer-term changes in the climate, and scientists have worked to show that many weather events are getting more extreme due to climate change (fires can burn more intensely because vegetation is drier as the planet warms; storms can dump more rain). Many meteorologists now include discussion of climate change within their weather reports. But not every weekend weather pattern has immediate roots in climate change.

Some climate change deniers and skeptics exploit this uncertainty about specific events in order to sow doubt about the broader effects of climate change or even its existence. But there’s no evidence that that is the case with Mass. He and his critics do disagree strongly about the timeline of the most serious implications, but Mass has said, on KNKX and elsewhere, that climate change is a serious issue with serious implications that the Seattle-area should plan for now, even if he believes the effects will be felt later.

This conflation of “weather” and “climate” by his critics was somewhat addressed in the online petition, which more accurately notes that while Mass’s on-air commentaries are about the weather, “weather is affected by longer term climate trends.”

Still, I find that the title of the petition – “Petition for Accurate Weather and Climate Reporting on KNKX” – is misleading, implying that KNKX’s climate reporting is not accurate. In fact, the petitioners specifically refer only to Mass’s KNKX commentary (which, again, rarely deals with climate issues) and in the body of the petition they say they “support” KNKX’s news reporting on local climate issues. Not all of that reporting is archived online, but it is extensive. To cite just one example, on the day of the 2019 Climate Strike, KNKX had five reporters in several locations including Seattle and Tacoma, producing live and taped reports that ran over two days.

The heart of the matter

When I distill all the concerns, and eliminate those that I do not find relevant here (including an assessment of KNKX’s climate reporting) I come up with three journalistic issues.

The most important, by far, is whether what Mass says on KNKX is accurate or not. A public radio station should provide a home for lively debate and diverse viewpoints, but all of that, including commentary, must be rooted in factual content. I include in this consideration the “sin of omission.” In other words, what is said must be accurate, but the debate should not leave out relevant facts and information, either.

Second, does the KNKX platform convey a legitimacy on Mass’ other work that is inappropriate?

And finally, is Mass’ association with political campaigns inappropriate for a KNKX commentator (as opposed to a news staffer)?

The science

The first challenge is to evaluate the most crucial component of the complaints: Does “Weather with Cliff Mass,” as the petition argues, “consistently breach[es] the boundaries of responsible journalism,” by “ignoring or minimizing the relationship between the weather, wildfires, and our changing climate”?

To assess that, KNKX engaged Anderson. He spent 25 years, from 1986 to 2011, doing climate-related research at the University of Washington, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, as both a PhD student and then as research faculty. To make clear, that is Mass’ department.

As a former colleague of Mass, Anderson has a conflict of interest. As he says in his final report, he “knew and liked” Mass while they worked together, although “we never directly collaborated to the best of my knowledge.” He said he has “great respect for his work advancing both the science and application of weather forecasting.”

Anderson also discloses that since retiring he has spent “considerable time volunteering as a climate activist,” and is a member of 350Seattle, a sponsor of the petition. That gives him another, opposite, conflict of interest.

Both Mass and his critics objected to the choice of Anderson, KNKX’s Martinez told me. Mass, he said, was unhappy that “someone who is a member of 350 is conducting the science review, and members of 350.org called Anderson a ‘Cliff Mass disciple,’ and wrote to me expressing their displeasure and making clear that they thought he was a bad choice for the review.”

Martinez explained to me how he landed on Anderson to do the review. After the petition was launched, he told me, he was forwarded an email from Anderson that critically examined the petition against the station. His initial thought was that Anderson would not be an appropriate reviewer because he was too close to the issue, but reconsidered for a number of reasons. He had an “intimate knowledge of Dr. Mass’ scholarship and writing,” as well as an understanding of the aims and goals of 350.org, Martinez said. And, Anderson understood the context of Mass as “scientific colleague and local cultural figure,” he said.

Most importantly, Martinez said, “was that his concern was about getting the science right.”

Anderson was not paid for his scientific review, so that his work would be seen as independent.

You can read his report here.

I find it to be a solid report, free of any obvious bias. Anderson writes that he listened to all the segments recommended by the petitioners, as well as “all segments where the description in the KNKX on-line archive suggested a climate-related topic,” and many others, for a total of 45. Based on his sample, he found that global warming was mentioned 10 times in 2018 and 2019, every other month so. Given that there were 104 commentaries in that time period, that suggests that the topic is raised in less than 10% of them.

(I’d note here that the petitioners are not Mass’ only critics. Another strong critic pointed me to a half dozen KNKX Mass commentaries that she felt also distorted the science. Two of them fell outside Anderson’s 2018-2019 parameters. If one were to include the four that were broadcast during those years, the percentage of commentaries where climate was discussed or critics feel it should have been discussed rises to a still minor 13%.

The commentaries she singled out were cases where Mass did not raise a possible connection to climate change, a “sin of omission,” if you will. I looked at the four and had Anderson look at them, as well, and we independently agreed that they did not distort the science.)

In his report, Anderson judged the ten commentaries he looked at on two factors: tone and accuracy. Of the ten commentaries he evaluated, two “warned” listeners about global warming impacts, five were “neutral” and three downplayed their importance. As a result, he said, “I find no clear pattern of downplaying its impacts.”

On the question of accuracy, Anderson concluded that the Mass commentaries are “for the most part, scientifically valid and do not misrepresent well-established science.” He did find two cases where, he wrote, “my judgment is that Dr. Mass did not accurately convey the current state of scientific understanding and/or failed to alert his listeners that he was presenting his own opinion on matters of ongoing scientific debate.”

Anderson sent his findings out to a number of scientists. One concurred, although he later told me that while he found the KNKX commentaries technically accurate, he also feels that Mass minimizes the impacts of climate change in his overall work. Comments from others were extensively incorporated. Other outside comments are also included, although those who made the comments are not named, because Anderson said they want to remain anonymous.

As I noted earlier, it’s possible to mislead by what is left out, not just what is said. The subtext to many of the complaints I have heard is that Mass should talk more about climate change and global warming and how it relates to weather, or bring in possible climate change connections whenever there is an opportunity. In addition, critics told me, they believe he should stress the urgency of acting to address global warming now. As the petitioners wrote: “Weather reporters can help the public understand the connections between climate change and weather, yet unfortunately they often avoid the issue.”

That’s an advocacy role and many meteorologists and news outlets have chosen to do just that, as I said earlier, since they feel climate change is such an urgent matter. But not doing so is decidedly not the equivalence of climate denial, as some of Mass’ critics have charged.

Mass is being tapped by KNKX for his weather expertise, not climate expertise. He talks about climate in a small percentage of the commentaries and as the critics have charged, it is not his area of expertise. Nor does the length of the commentaries lend itself to detailed reviews of scientific literature that continues to evolve. So, the opposite remedy would seem to me to be applicable, which would be to keep the conversations focused on weather and not climate.

The halo effect

Critics have expressed a repeated concern that the KNKX weather segment regularly promotes Mass’ blog. There, Mass has indeed weighed in on climate change topics that he has not addressed on air, and he has expressed strong criticism of others’ work. A 2019 blog post where Mass argued the contrarian view that global warming is not an “existential threat,” drew a good deal of attention and pushback.

The blog has also taken controversial positions on topics that have nothing to do with weather or climate. In mid-March, for example, Mass compared the coronavirus pandemic to the seasonal flu, downplaying fears that the coronavirus would overwhelm the immediate capacity of many hospital systems. His post drew swift condemnation from some quarters. That said, Mass has since updated his own arguments on this issue.

KNKX made on-air references to the blog fairly regularly in the past. But I don’t find many recent examples to support the charge that the on-air conversation systematically promotes Mass’ blog, except for an offhand reference I heard on the January 17 segment. In the written summary of each week’s topic, however, Mass’ blog is prominently linked, sometimes in the story but also each week in the end note that describes who he is.

Those links are inappropriate, in my opinion. A link to his professional work at the university is expected. But a commentary slot should not be a platform for self-promotion, and furthermore Mass’ blog carries a modest amount of advertising. But the most important reason, in my mind, is that Mass’ blog increasingly covers far more than weather.

Even without linking to the blog, KNKX does in some way confer credibility on Mass’ overall work. Five minutes or so of airtime on KNKX each week (multiplied by the repeats, for a total of 17 to 20 minutes each week) is a significant platform.

Is that halo effect problematic? Mass’ critics feel strongly that it is. I do not. I’d argue that Mass’ ultimate credibility stems from his position at the University of Washington and his long track record of service to the community on weather-related concerns.

The political connection

KNKX heard from a number of people concerned that Mass took a public stand on I-1631, the 2018 statewide carbon tax initiative. Mass’ argument opposing the measure was included on the ballot guide seen by voters.

KNKX’s Martinez told me that he was not aware of similar complaints about political activism in 2016, when Mass supported a different carbon tax initiative, I-732. Mass’ comments also appeared on voters’ ballots that time.

Given that the station received complaints only when Mass took a stand with which critics disagreed, it seems logical to conclude that these complaints were rooted in politics. Nonetheless, Mass’ political activism does create an ethical question for KNKX.

In both cases, KNKX did not let Mass talk about the initiatives on the air, and Martinez told me Mass has never been allowed to lobby on air for any political position. That is appropriate. If a member of KNKX’s news staff were to stake out a public position on a political issue, they would be removed from reporting on that issue.

There’s a clear reason for that. Reporters may have personal opinions, of course. But their journalistic work needs to be seen as fair, which would not be the case if they are advocating publicly for a position.

Mass is not under such constrictions. I believe commentators have every right to their opinions and to express them publicly in venues other than KNKX.

All that said, there is a component of transparency that I find missing here in how KNKX handled this issue, both in 2016 and 2018. Contrary to the views of some of his critics, I don’t think that the vast majority of listeners would have concluded that KNKX was expressing tacit approval of his political stands by running his commentary each week, particularly since the political issues were not addressed there.

But there was a way to make sure that they didn’t jump to a conclusion that the station itself had taken a political stance. That would have been to say so. Pailthorp reported a number of times on I-1631 and her reporting looked at arguments both for and against it. It would have been fairly simple to insert a disclaimer there and in any other news reporting on the topic, noting that KNKX had a commentator who had taken one side in the issue and that KNKX did not endorse his views. It should have done so, in my opinion.

Conclusions and recommendations

Like Anderson, I do not find that Mass’ KNKX weather segment consistently misrepresents climate science, as the petition claimed. There are indeed the two examples that Anderson found, and they should not be underestimated because no misrepresentation should be acceptable. But the petition overstates the case, I believe; the commentary is rarely about climate and the mistakes have been rare.

To make sure that no other misrepresentation occurs, KNKX can keep the conversations to Mass’ expertise, the weather, and it can emphasize that he is on air as a commentator. If climate issues come up, Pailthorp can press him to defend his position. If concerns are raised after the fact about something he says on air, KNKX can also do what it would do with any of its staff reporting and either correct it or allow for a dissenting opinion. (There is one case from 2014 where KNKX linked to a written dissenting opinion, which is appropriate.) As Anderson pointed out in his report, academic research is evolving and not every issue is settled. Thus, allowing an occasional dissenting opinion would add to listeners’ knowledge of the issues.

The accuracy of the blog is a separate issue; neither I nor Anderson fact-checked it. KNKX can only be responsible for what it puts out on its airwaves or website. To make sure it is not endorsing work it has not itself checked, KNKX should stop linking to Mass’ blog.

There is no ethical obligation for commentators (as opposed to news staff) to avoid political activism. But if Mass, or any other regular commentator, gets actively involved in a political campaign, KNKX should be transparent about that and make clear that such activism has no effect on its reporting.

Finally, one place where I find that KNKX and Mass’ critics agree is the need for strong reporting on climate change, one of the biggest stories of our time. If resources are available, KNKX could consider making a place for dedicated reporting on local environmental issues, and give it as much prominence as it does its weather commentary. But that, too, is a separate issue.

Elizabeth Jensen was NPR's Public Editor from 2015 to 2020. Before NPR, Jensen covered public broadcasting and the media industry for The New York Times, Current and the Columbia Journalism Review, among others.