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Media Coverage of Climate Science: Broader Lessons for Science Journalism?

Since 2003, a group of eminent scientists and media leaders have participated in a series of workshops to better understand the dictates of their respective professions and improve coverage of climate science. Participants discuss the issues reaised at the workshops about the roles of the media and the science community in relaying information to the public.

Date & Time

Jul. 25, 2006
9:00am – 3:00pm ET


From Hurricane Katrina to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and this summer's sweltering heat waves, climate change has made its way into the spotlight. Yet the media coverage of this hot topic does not often reflect what most scientists agree to be true: that climate change is happening, and that humans are playing a part. Since 2003, a group of eminent scientists and media leaders have participated in a series of six workshops to better understand the dictates of their respective professions and improve coverage of climate science. At the Wilson Center on July 25, 2006, some of the participants discussed the issues reaised at the workshops about the roles of the media and the science community in relaying information to the public. "This discussion is not just germane to reporting of climate science, but science in general, and maybe reporting in general," said Anthony Socci, senior science and communications fellow at the American Meteorological Society and one of the organizers of the workshop series. Sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program, the day-long event included a morning session on the state of the media, two panel discussions with lively audience participation, and a lunch session featuring The New York Times' Andrew C. Revkin on his new climate change book for young adults, The North Pole Was Here.

The New News

Blogs. Podcasts. Online publications. The way the world gets its news is vastly different from even five years ago. "New technology has dramatically increased the number of places where you can get news and information, often with an emphasis on speed," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which publishes the annual news industry review State of the Media. The sheer number of news sources has challenged the notion of traditional media. The nightly news used to be a family affair, he noted. Today, however, the pillars of the news industry—national daily newspapers and the "Big 3" nightly newscasts—face uncertain futures. Newspaper circulation is down 3 percent, and nightly newscast viewers are largely drawn from the older, less desirable demographic. As a result, traditional news organizations are devoting more time and space to the bottom line: The Wall Street Journal will begin running advertisements on its front page, while The New York Times will trim inches from its broadsheet size. According to Jurkowitz, the public has taken notice: "The public sees cuts and changes and believes that newspeople are less concerned with the public interest."

At the same time, traditional news outlets are facing fierce competition from a relatively new sector: blogs. "They are the new frontier of journalism," Jurkowitz said. On a daily basis, more than 12 million American adults blog, and more than 7 million Americans read blogs. Yet only 5 percent of blog postings contain original reporting. He noted that this trend is not unique to bloggers; more news outlets—including the Internet, print media, cable, and radio—are covering more of the same news. Jurkowitz likened the media smorgasbord to a cafeteria line, in which news is chosen on the basis of taste: "The Project on Excellence in Journalism calls this the journalism of affirmation." With the decline of traditional news, Jurkowitz questioned the future of journalism: "In a proliferating and fragmenting news media, are we losing the idea of shared truths? Who or what will continue to invest to create sustained quality journalism?"

When Scandal Leads, Science Recedes

Over the past 20 years, environmental issues have captured the media's attention on more than one occasion, noted Peter Dykstra, executive producer at CNN, who cited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in 1986, the 1988 summer heat wave, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as examples. In more recent memory, the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina catapulted the environment onto the front page. Dykstra noted that the disaster element of each of these stories earned it lead-story status, while climate change has yet to reach such heights: "There is still a belief that climate change has not happened yet, so climate change will always lose out to more in-your-face news."

The Times' Revkin believes that the insufficient media coverage of climate science is due in part to the definition of news. Traditionally, "the news" consists of the day's current events. Since climate change must be viewed on a broader scale, it loses out to simpler, shorter-term stories. Revkin explained:

The reason that a story that is nuanced, that involves uncertainty, that is multi-disciplinary, that is a future-oriented story, [does not] get into a paper readily is because you're competing with all the things we already know. You're competing with the Yankees, and you're competing with Wall Street, and you're competing with drugs for cancer that we all care about, and you're competing with fitness questions, and pop psychology, and…war. That is not a competition where a story on climate change is going to win the day if it's true to the nuances of climate change.

Beyond the quantity of climate change coverage, the panelists called attention to the quality of coverage. Commenting on her 2004 Science article on media coverage of climate change, Naomi Oreskes, associate professor in the Department of History and the Program in Science Studies at the University of California at San Diego, said, "There was an enormous disconnect between what the scientists were saying—that the basic reality [of climate change] was not in dispute—versus the way it was being presented in the mass media, as if the basic causality was up for grabs."

Causality of climate change is not up for grabs, according to the participants, and has not been for some time. Ben Santer, physicist and atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, called attention to the progress of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which, in 1990, concluded that the determination of human-induced alterations to the global climate should not be expected for more than a decade. Nevertheless, only six years later, the IPCC agreed that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on the global climate." By January 2001, the IPCC was prepared to make a stronger statement: "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." Santer expects the 2007 IPCC assessment to continue on this trajectory, given the compelling evidence of global warming that has emerged since 2001.

Since most of the scientific community has moved past the question of the existence of climate change, the panelists agreed that the media needs to accurately depict this development. Yet most stories about climate change read like political news, in which "dueling experts" are given equal space to provide opposing perspectives on one issue. Giving a voice to the few scientists who oppose climate change only promotes a climate of "misinformation," Oreskes said: "Rather than looking for dissent, [reporters should] find out what is the consensus within the [scientific] community. In climate change, the consensus is that it is real and that humans are having an impact. The few people who dispute this have a history of intimidation, not to mention a lack of credible scientific background to back them up."

Learning to Speak the Language of Science

Part of the problem with climate change coverage, or lack thereof, is due to poor communication between scientists and journalists, said Jerry Mahlman, senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Reporters seek brief quotes that synthesize complex information. Yet Mahlman noted this is difficult for scientists: "My job is to educate the world about climate warming, its cause, and what the global scale implications are—and that is very difficult to stuff into a soundbite." Scientists may not be great communicators, but poor news coverage, and the tendency to fall back on scandal, also reflects educational weaknesses within newsrooms, said Richard Somerville, distinguished professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography: "More salacious and scandalous stories related to science are covered, rather than scientific discovery, which certainly takes more knowledge to report on."

Many of the speakers lamented both the paucity of science beats in newsrooms around the country, as well as the largely American fear of all things science. Editors present another barrier: Bud Ward, founder of the online journal Environment Writer and one of the organizers of the workshop series, explained that editors act as information "gatekeepers," deciding which stories are worthy of attention. As editors are generally promoted from the politics desk, they often know little about science. Unfortunately, this limited understanding often means science stories are relegated to the back page, reported poorly, or excluded completely. The frequent link between weather and climate is one example of poor reporting. "News organizations latch on to these major weather events, but don't understand the distinction between weather and climate," said Bruce Lieberman, a science writer at The San Diego Union Tribune. Yet, he noted that this particular miscommunication can be used to everyone's advantage. For a good reporter, unusual weather such as the recent national heat wave can act as "teachable moments" for reporters to place local events in a larger context.

Creating the New Science Story

The heavy focus on weather, hurricanes, and climate change scandals has led the media to overlook stories on climate change's impact beyond the environmental desk. Panelists pointed out potential stories for the business, technology, and political beats; and both Santer and Revkin remarked upon the untold economic effects of climate change. "So often in'll hear discussions on what to do about [climate change] cast in terms of ‘regulate emissions of greenhouse gases or preserve millions of American jobs,' as if these things were mutually exclusive. That is a false dichotomy," said Santer. "I believe that this problem, as serious as it is, offers tremendous economic opportunities...There are enlightened companies out there, like BP and Shell, that are spending millions of dollars investing in alternative energy. I think that is an important part of this debate, too: the recognition on the part of the business community that the times they are a-changin' and you better change with them."

Panelists offered several suggestions to improve the media's coverage of climate science. Anthony Broccoli, associate professor at Rutgers University, proposed that journalists establish a relationship with a scientist they trust as a neutral broker of information. Yet the panelists also noted that the media must be aware of scientists' limitations, cautioning that there is no single climate scientist who knows everything about the subject and that there is still uncertainty about the outcomes of climate change. In the case of Greenland, for example, the panelists questioned whether the land mass' melting zones would help cool itself off and prevent more melting, or whether melting would continue at a more rapid pace. "There is no scientist who understands all the facets of global warming," said Revkin. "[The study of climate science] is everything: it is glaciology, it is physics, it's atmospheric chemistry, it's oceanography, it is biology, and on and on and on. There is no one who can speak with authority about how [Greenland] is going to play out."

For reporters to find the right scientists to speak to, scientists must feel comfortable enough to speak on the record. According to Jim Detjen, director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, many universities discourage scientists from speaking to the media. "A big issue to me is that until people at universities, scientists, get tenure they're very much afraid to speak out," he said. "If you can change some of the tenure policies where meeting with journalists is valuable…you'll get people willing to talk." If public policy is to be based on sound science, then university tenure policies must not deter scientists from informing the public of their findings.

A Call to Action

Climate change presents an enormous challenge that requires dramatic changes across the planet, and the media and scientists will have to overcome their cultural differences to educate the public and prepare for the future. The time of debate has passed and it is now the moment for action, the panelists agreed. "My recurring nightmare," said Santer, "is that if I survive to 2056, which is very unlikely, that my son would say to me, ‘Hey Dad, you were a scientist, you knew that all of this was likely to happen. Why didn't you folks do more about this?'" Somerville called attention to the need for global action: "The molecule of carbon dioxide that came out of your tailpipe yesterday will be in the atmosphere for 100 years, which is plenty of time for the wind to equalize it, so the CO2 concentration anywhere on Earth is a result of what all 6 billion of us have done, and it's not going to be solvable unless all 6 billion of us are on the same page."

Drafted by Marybeth Redheffer and Alison Williams.


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