Is There a Slant to Climate Reporting?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 28, 2013 12:49 AM


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Here's a trick question: Is climate journalism slanted? Before you answer, let's look at a series of tweets by atmospheric science researcher Ryan Maue, who clearly has an opinion on this. We'll start with this one from today:

Every AP story on weather starts fine then at end includes climate change advocacy ... it's "left wing weather" bigstory.ap.org/article/2nd-bl… — Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue) February 27, 2013

The story he's referring to is mostly about the second major blizzard in two weeks to hammer parts of the Midwest. The piece is straightforward reporting on a nasty winter storm, until near the end, when the journalist weaves in a climate change angle. Maue views the insertion as "left wing weather." His next tweet emphasizes this point:

Leftist climate scientists are natural bedfellows for liberal journalists & all reporting should be seen thru partisan prism for bias. — Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue) February 27, 2013

This strikes me as a bit feverish, but hey, everybody is entitled to his own prism. At this point, I've read the AP story and actually, it does suffer from a bias. It's just not a political one. I'm now starting to write a post in my head, when Maue takes it down a notch with his next tweet:

There are many top-notch meteorology universities in US -- why don't you hear any of those professors quoted on "weather" stories? — Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue) February 27, 2013

Bingo! Or almost bingo, because the reporter can't speak with any old top-notch meteorology professor about "attribution" climate science, which is a relatively new subfield that is concerned with teasing out climate change signals (or not) from big storms or disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, Pakistan floods, a summer-like heatwave in April, back-to-back blizzards, etc. As it happens, there are numerous highly credentialed climate scientists who can speak to climate trends, atmospheric models, and single weather events. But this AP story quotes Michael Mann, who is, if nothing else, ubiquitous. Mann, along with Kevin Trenberth, are the two most frequently quoted scientists in stories about severe weather and climate change. Is that because they are leftist, One World government pinkos? No, and I haven't got a clue what their politics are. I also don't care. And I'm sure every hard-working reporter on the climate beat could care less, either. But I'm willing to bet that every reporter who writes about climate change in the context of a major drought, hurricane, heat wave, or blizzard pretty much knows what Mann and Trenberth are going to say ahead of time. And in fact, if you look at quotes from these two esteemed scientists that have appeared in stories the past few months, you'll notice that much of what they say has a familiar ring to it. So why do reporters turn to them again and again? Hint: It's not about leftist weather. Before I give my take, let me hear what you think, and I'll come back later with an update. UPDATE: Many of the comments hit partly on why some reporters seem to rely on certain scientists. It truly is a combination of factors. Over time during a journalist's career, he or she will amass a roster of experts/sources in a particular field. These are sources that will gain a track record for their ability to 1) respond in a timely manner--before a reporter's deadline; and 2) speak concisely in clear language (no jargon!) that helps explain/sheds light/makes an important point. So a scientist who is an articulate communicator and who promptly returns emails/phone calls will become a go-to person. Bear in mind that reporters aren't calling/emailing just one source. For that AP story discussed above, it is a good bet that a number of scientists were contacted and that some of them responded similarly. Maybe they all make the same point, but the scientist who says it in the most concise, reader-friendly manner is the one who makes it into the story. Now, it's true that some scientists gain a reputation for being colorful, outspoken and known for certain memes or theories that have become part of a larger narrative that takes hold in the media, such as "weather on steroids" and " the "new normal" or whatever. If a scientist becomes closely associated with one of these memes/theories, he or she is going to be among the first contacted in a story that is exploring a potential climate change angle into a severe weather event. It would be nice if the same handful of scientists weren't always quoted--this is a pet peeve of mine--but I understand all the factors in play (tight deadline, sound-bite quality, etc). At some point, when scientists become fixtures (appearing regularly in stories) and they start mouthing predictable answers, I do think it behooves a reporter to expand the circle of quotable sources.

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