The Sciences

Live from the Biggest Science Conference in the World: Does the Media Suck at Climate Coverage?

DiscoblogBy Jennifer BaroneFeb 16, 2008 11:42 PM

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News about climate change has skyrocketed in recent years, but how good is the information that reaches audiences? Do newspapers, magazines, and TV accurately reflect the science behind the issue? Is reporting "balanced," and what does that term mean for an issue where most scientists agree about the big picture, though differences on the details abound? Scientists and journalists gathered at today's conference to look at how global warming plays out in the media (though, as one commenter noted, the simplistic term "global warming" has fallen from favor, replaced by the all-encompassing "climate change"). The New York Times' Andrew Revkin, who has covered climate intensively, voiced the challenges journalists face in writing about the changing environment. When competing against a roller-coaster stock market, the Iraq war, and steroid-pumping baseball stars, getting any attention to another new climate study in a newsroom is an uphill battle. ("Global warming? Didn't we write about that already?") As a result, science and environment reporters are often forced to take on a headline-mindset, and may feel pressured to hype news to get any airtime or page space at all. When they do succeed in getting approved for a story, it's unlikely that they'll be granted the time and space needed to convey all of the scientific details, caveats, nuance, and context that allow readers to interpret a recent study meaningfully. At the same time, Revkin emphasizes, while there are differences and uncertainties in specific predictions about what will happen to our climate and when, the science that says carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases will change the climate (and are already doing so) is rock solid. At this point, he advises journalists, "If you're talking to a scientist who 'doesn't believe' in global warming, you're being irresponsible." (I think he's dead on here.) [

UPDATE: Please refer to Andy's note below for a clarification of his views on sources.

] [

UPDATE #2, 28 Feb: To check the preceding quote, we found an audio recording of the session (Global Warming Heats Up: How the Media Covers Climate Change), available for purchase from AVEN here. The raw, word-for-word transcription of the section of Andy's talk I was interested in goes as follows: "This idea that we know it all now, that everyone, you know, if you talk to a scientist, as a journalist, who doesn’t believe in global warming, you’re being irresponsible, you have to know what you’re talking about. Is it a story about global warming, CO2 making the world warmer? If you’re talking to a denier there, you’re probably in trouble." Of course, as he described in his comment, he has written on this question before and has made his position clear in much more detail than was possible in the closing minutes of his brief talk at the conference.

] While there is a journalistic tradition of balance, and while he-said-she-said may make for a compelling story, the idea of balance can be exploited when it gives equal weight to views not supported by data. According to Revkin, it's time to move past the global warming "debate" and talk about solutions. Just about everybody can agree that the world's dependence on fossil fuels in not sustainable; the real story behind climate change is energy and where it will come from in the future. American University's Matthew Nisbet suggested that despite increased attention in the media, the science is somehow not reaching audiences in a meaningful way. While research has been becoming more and more certain about the overall effects of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, public opinion on the matter has hardly budged, and remains split by party lines: Far more Democrats than Republicans express certainty that climate change is real and that human actions are behind it. Nisbet suggests that as long as people are looking at the issue through an ideological lens, they'll continue to rely on their gut instincts--and on their political leaders--when deciding what to believe, rather than deciding based on data. Both environmentalists and global warming skeptics/denialists share some blame in how the issue has been discussed, Nisbet says. On the one hand, some have tended toward alarmism, painting climate change as a catastrophe, while those on the other side have tried to bury the science by claiming it's all too uncertain to do anything about. To get past this mentality, he says, it's time to look at other aspects of the problem and its solutions: green energy as an economic opportunity, the public health aspects of climate change, and leaders from New York to California who are taking steps to become cleaner and greener at state and local scales. Harvard's John Holdren says that when foreign journalists interview him about climate science, they often wonder why flaky skeptics get so much coverage in the U.S. He says a big part of the problem for scientists is that for a researcher, there are grave consequences for exaggeration and overstatement, leading scientists to sound overly cautious when speaking to the media. But for someone on the fringes of the field (or even completely outside of it), there's essentially no penalty for blatant misrepresentation of facts, or for being a complete charlatan and making claims way outside your area of expertise. (Holdren speaks with particular annoyance of Michael Chrichton -- a science-fiction author who studied medicine -- testifying on climate science before the U.S. Senate.) In the discussion that followed, one scientist from the audience raised an interesting point: he said that as researchers, climate scientists are fully accustomed to skepticism, and are happy to respond to it. Part of being a scientist is testing ideas and backing up your claims with data. But on this issue, he feels that some people have gone beyond skepticism to cynicism. With politicians or pundits claiming that climate change is a hoax and a conspiracy, he feels that it's reached the point where no data, no matter how convincing, will change these closed minds. Scientists who are sharing their results are accused of having an ulterior motive. What do all of you out there think? How is the media doing on this issue? What would make environmental reporting better? And finally, do better coverage and better data really make a difference, or is everyone's mind already made up?

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