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Climate Journalism Q & A

By Keith Kloor
May 11, 2010 2:10 AMNov 20, 2019 2:58 AM


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In the super-charged, heavily politicized climate change debate, we journalists often find ourselves getting scorched from all sides: We suck, we're biased, we're stupid, we're clueless, we're a pack of conflict junkies, a blob of false-balance jello. Yeah, we've heard it all. So what about it? It's all true. But not all the time. Which makes many people crazy delirious. To which I say, as I do to both teammates and opponents on a basketball court when I throw an errant pass or elbow: sorry, my bad. Or I can assemble some colleagues who I hope will offer something more meaningful and contrite. And so, without further ado, here's Charles Petit, science reporter and critic at the MIT-Knight Science Journalism Tracker website; Curtis Brainard, Editor of The Observatory, CJR's online science and environment news desk; Bud Ward, a veteran environmental journalist and editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media; and Stephen Leahy, a freelance environmental journalist, who has covered climate science for the past 16 years. Essentially, I wanted them to opine on whether we've screwed up the big climate stories in recent months--and whether we're still screwing up. (Please feel free to chime in.) It was a blind Q & A, conducted separately earlier today, and via email. Each person responded to the same two questions: Q:Climate advocates and climate scientists alike have asserted (often bitterly) that the press has blown Climategate and the recent IPCC miscues way out of proportion. What do you think? Charles Petit: I think some media have swayed toward berserk coverage, and many other media avenues have largely ignored the whole affair. If the IPCC cleans up its act - after all, its underlying message is solid - the end result might be fine. Besides, media exaggerate so many things - why DO we hear so much about non-events in the lives of celebrities? - it's hard to pin any special incompetence on news outlets for their handling of this news. Generalities are always dangerous too. The ways the Guardian and Telegraph handled it in the UK are poles apart. By which does one judge overall industry performance? While the UK coverage was obsessive, in the US, climategate was largely a creature of the internet, not mass media. In both countries, the primary rap for overblown reaction is not on media but on politicians (and others paid to know better) for their overreactions - which inevitably and properly had to be reported. Finally, in media, most of the egregiously hysterical reactions to IPCC's sloppy discipline and to the CRU's emails was by opinion columnists, not in the straight news reports. The East Anglia emails are a special case, of less significance than IPCC's summary report errors. Reporters and their editors should know better than to take seriously what amounted to bar-talk among a few researchers furious at their relentless attackers - and venting to one another with meaningless, unrealized threats against their foes. Big whoop. Curtis Brainard: Yes, the press absolutely blew Climategate and the recent IPCC controversies out of proportion. The British press led the way, leveling false accusations of data manipulation and scientific corruption where none existed,in the case of Climategate, and exaggerating the significance of minor errors, in the case of the IPCC report. That is why I and other media critics called upon the American press to become more involved in these stories - not to fan the flames of hype, but rather to carry out more nuanced reporting and set the record straight. The leaked emails and IPCC were, after all, newsworthy and exposed notable flaws in the scientific process. Unfortunately, when the American media finally came around to the story, their coverage was not very constructive. Articles were poorly structured, poorly sourced, and failed to deliver a "bottom line" for readers in terms of climate science, on the one hand, and climate politics on the other. Displaying typical adoration for the conflict narrative, the headline became, "Skeptics attack scientists' credibility, poke holes in climate research," rather than, "Scientists respond to criticism, seek to correct minor flaws and improve their methods." So, yes, I agree with climate advocates and climate scientists' criticism that the press blew the Climategate and IPCC controversies out of proportion. On the other hand, I think some of their criticisms went too far. Many in those communities tried to argue that leaked emails and minor errors in AR4 were non-events, and wanted journalists to ignore them completely. That attitude is evasive and irresponsible. The recent controversies should remind journalists that we do in fact need to be more skeptical about information that is presented to us and ask tougher questions our sources, especially the familiar ones. If reporters were more proactive in this regard, things like the leaked emails and the IPCC errors would not seem like such a big deal. Instead, however, they are ceding important stories to skeptics and pundits who manipulate and distort them. Bud Ward: Generalizing about how "the press" or "the media" cover an issue is as fraught with problems as generalizations, in this case, about the hacked e-mails themselves. This story amounts to one of the rare "fast-breaking" science news stories, and in that sense many of the media missed the boat...early and often. A fatal early flaw may have been the acceptance, without qualification, by many media outlets of the suffix "gate" as being suitable. We've become "gate" anxious in our society, but what happened with the hacked e-mails in no way measures up to the standards of Watergate that gave birth to this craze. The media's early and unquestioning acceptance of that suffix in effect amounted to game-over-early in the battle for public opinion. The A.P.'s December review of all the e-mails, and its conclusion that the science remained unscathed, was important and timely...and well-done, and The Economist's March 20-26, 2010, cover story -- "Spin, science and climate change" -- are outstanding examples of the best coverage of this whole mess. But they stand out as exceptions to the rule of generally mediocre coverage overall. Stephen Leahy: Right off the top it was easy to see there was nothing in any of it from a substantive climate science point of view. The reason it got so much press in my opinion is that media eventually looks for contrarian stories to cover even if it's a bit thin in terms of content. This varies tremendously with each publication; some actively torque quotes/info to fit their current theme of the month: 'scientists with feet of clay'. The entire episode says far more about media and how it operates, the lack of knowledgeable reporters and editors, etc. My interview with science historian Naomi Oreskes offers a similar perspective. ***** Q: We have another mini-controversy enveloping climate science, in which Science magazine used a Photoshopped image of a polar bear to accompany a letter from 255 scientists (all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences), warning about the looming dangers of climate change. (The thrust of the letter assails "recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers.") Again, some scientists are complaining that undue attention is being focused on the image and not the content of the letter. What do you make of all this? Charles Petit: This is dumb, but a mere kerfuffle. It was a mistake to use that image not just because it is a montage, but perhaps even more because it is a lame cliche. It's on the editors at Science - who have apologized for it, not the NAS signatories. These editors should have known better even had the photo been legitimate. A polar bear? Puh-lease. Science's readers would have gotten more out of a Keeling Curve, even a hockey stick (amended of course to apply all the latest statistical fixes). The shouting about this phony image as a matter of genuine substance is as tiresome as the environmental activists who simply dismiss climate doubters as stooges of fossil energy interests and right wing thing tanks. There is some truth to that but we've heard it a million times already. My impression is that it is the list of signatures on the petition that got more news coverage in media and will, I'd hazard, have the greater impact. I hope so. Curtis Brainard: I haven't been following this story too closely, but I'll make two observations. First, it is of course ridiculous that that people should focus on superficial images rather than substantive texts. But it is perhaps more ridiculous at this point that a sensible publication like Science would give people the opportunity to do so. They should know by now that even a real photo of a polar bear stranded on an ice floe, let alone this manufactured one, is likely distract attention from whatever runs next to it and cause needless controversy. When are journalists going to learn that polar bears and not the greatest poster children if your goal is generate concern for climate change? Bud Ward: Another distraction from the major issue, the real story, of a changing climate and the what/how/and how much of what to do about it. No excuse for this kind of editorial clumsiness, though clearly not of the scientists' making. This simply hands your adversaries the megaphone that they can use to bury what would/could have been the real story here. They handle such megaphones well, and have done so in this sorry case. Again, the real message gets buried, and the real science and real scientists are the worse off for it, let alone the public. This kind of editorial lapse is unacceptable, and it plays right into the hands of those wanting to continue distracting from the real issues at hand. Stephen Leahy: Another red herring. This is like whinging about the colour of car that's about to hit you. So a photo editor at Science used a 'shopped image as an illustration. Big deal and maybe bad judgement by some lowly editor. What's that got to do with the content of the letter? ***Postscript*** For additional perspective and analysis on the polar bear photo episode, see Andrew Revkin here, Roger Pielke Jr. here and here, and Randy Olson here.

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