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Retired WCCO anchor and investigative reporter Don Shelby (left) speaks with University of Minnesota Duluth student Ryan Kieffer following Shelby's lecture, "The most important story since journalism began -- global climate change," during UMD's Sustainability Fair on Tuesday. (Naomi Yaeger / nyaeger@duluthbudgeteer.com)

Longtime Minnesota TV reporter digs into global climate change

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After spending 32 years in front of the camera as an anchorman and investigative reporter for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, Don Shelby wanted to apologize to people about climate change.

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"For those of you who are confused on this issue," he said, "you're forgiven. It's my fault."

Shelby was speaking at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Tuesday on what he called "The most important story since journalism began -- global climate change." His speech served as the kick-off for a two-day sustainability fair sponsored by UMD's Office of Sustainability.

The TV newsman's mea culpa about having misreported climate change came after of years of treating the story the same as he would any other, requiring the views of two opposing parties, Shelby told the packed lecture hall of the chemistry building.

But, he said, climate change is not a pro or con issue; it's a scientific fact. And journalists who work to "balance" a story present an inaccurate picture when they give equal weight to sources promulgating inaccurate facts.

"If I report a story on abuse of children, I don't go out and interview an abuser on the up-side of child abuse," he said as an example of how an effort to balance can go too far.

"I've put the same technique of investigative reporting to the climate change. I had to learn science. This is really difficult stuff, so I had to go back to school."

Shelby took courses at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, including statistics, chemistry and physics. Retired from WCCO television and radio work, he now reports online for Minnpost.com.

Shelby said that when he first began to report on climate change, much of the science was unsettled. Most of the "other side" coverage was really about those who disagreed over details of theory.

"When the science began to grow conclusively, the PR machines of the (right-wing and libertarian) think tanks ... began to hire and sponsor scientists with pretty good credentials. Those scientists 'cherry-picked' information from massive studies and found fault with them. Rather than taking the intellectually honest approach and saying that the body and conclusions of the study were strong, they wished to show that the entire science was flawed."

Shelby said he used the skills of any good investigative reporter and followed the money. "Once I began to trace back the source and the politics of that approach to science, it began to be clear that many of the same scientists were also on record as saying that acid rain was not a problem, that PVC and HVC did not damage the ozone layer, and, most ugly, was the cigarette smoke was not a carcinogen, and many of these scientists had been employed by the tobacco lobby. Things began to smell. I then started pointing out those facts."

Mindy Granley, UMD's sustainability coordinator, said Shelby was chosen to speak because he would be a draw as a respected reporter talking about climate change.

"Judging from the amount of people who showed up, (we were) right," she said. "We want students to be informed and to be able to think critically about what they see in the media, so they don't just believe ... and ask the right questions."

Granley said Shelby hit the mark.

"The goal of journalism is to be objective using the three-legged stool of fairness, accuracy and balance," Shelby said. "I've put the same technique of investigative reporting to climate change," he said.

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