Pre-2002 Back Issues
Climate Scientists, Reporters Swap Insights
At Wilson Center Public Meeting
By Bud WardAugust 2006
Expert climate scientists having gotten used to, if not fond of, their role of cautioning reporters that their emphasis on "balance" in reporting well-accepted global warming principles is often leading them to understate the strong scientific consensus on key elements of the climate science story ...
... and now those same scientists thinking they might have to caution some reporters not to let their reporting get "too far ahead" of the scientific consensus area in some ways.
It's just one of a number of notions brought up by a panel of expert climate scientists and experienced science and environmental journalists at a July 25 public meeting at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C.
The meeting was the sixth in a continuing set of scientists/journalists workshops convened by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the publisher of this newsletter, under a grant from the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Paleoclimate Program. The Wilson Center meeting was conducted in cooperation with the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.
With an overflow audience of more than 150 in a Wilson Center theater and an adjoining anteroom, the day-long meeting was convened to help break down communications barriers between the scientific community and the media in informing the lay public about important climate science issues (see all info on this project).
Former Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz, now associate director with the Project for Excellence in Journalism kicked off the opening session with a review of "The State of the News Media 2006," the latest in the project's annual reviews. He outlined a host of challenges, along with some opportunities, facing the "MSM" (mainstream media) in the digital information age, including shrinking newspaper circulations, lower advertising revenues, and a seeming inability to attract young and wealthy viewers and readers who are of most interest to advertisers.
Among points made by the various journalists addressing the meeting, a webcast of which is available at www.wilsoncenter.org:
- Jim Detjen of Michigan State said demands for increased "transparency" as a way of the news media's re-establishing credibility with their audience may give rise to the notion of "certifying" journalists as having qualifications in some specialized beats. Detjen pointed to the AMS's program of certifying broadcast meteorologists and said the notion of certification is "one idea worth exploring." He distinguished reporter certification from any kind of licensing approach.
- Bruce Lieberman, science writer with the San Diego Union Tribune, told the meeting that editors need to recognize that weather and climate are not synonymous, but that particular weather patterns can provide "teachable moments" concerning climate and climate change "in the proper context." He said newspapers can play a unique role in providing local audiences in-depth understanding of what is known and unknown about potential climate change impacts in their own areas. He said the notion of "settled science" in the climate field has not yet sufficiently reached the broad public.
- Andrew C. Revkin, science writer with The New York Times, cautioned the meeting that "all the error bars expand" in size as journalists report on potential local impacts. He said also that editors' eyes tend to glaze over when reporters "introduce uncertainty and prospective journalism" into their stories. He cautioned at one point of "the tyranny of balance ... for every PhD, there's an equal and opposite PhD."
- Peter Dykstra of CNN told the meeting that scientists need to better understand the differences – and the different needs – of the electronic and broadcast media versus the print media. He said the differences are so great that it seems silly to use the single term "journalism" to encompass their varying approaches to providing news and information. He emphasized too that while there appears to be a mounting consensus on key parts of the climate science, the political and policy debate surrounding the issue will remain intense.
Scientists addressing the meeting had their own set of prescriptions and proscriptions for improving climate science reporting in the media:
- Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said that he feels reporting on issues of climate change science has improved over recent months, in part because "some of the main refuges of climate change denialists are beginning to shrink." He pointed in particular, as one example, to satellite readings of atmospheric temperature change in the lower atmosphere.
- Richard Somerville of Scripps Institution of Oceanography told the meeting that the "dueling-scientists syndrome appears less prevalent" in a lot of recent coverage. He suggested that the media abandon the term "climate skeptic" in favor of the term "climate denialist" and said the same public relations tactics used to defend cigarette smoking against health claims and used in the debate over CFCs and the ozone hole are being used again – sometimes involving the same individuals – in the battle against consensus climate science.
- Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego, pointed to several factors she said complicate reporting on climate change – the scientific field's "culture of double negatives" familiar to scientists but unfamiliar to non-scientists and the media; the scientists' culture of emphasizing unknowns and not focusing as much on areas of "settled science"; the scientific field's long time frames versus the media's short-term focus; and what she called "the deliberate dissemination of misinformation and even harassment of people who have told the truth" as they see it concerning the science of climate change.
- Tony Broccoli of Rutgers University said scientists long impatient with media reporting of skeptics' or "denialists'" claim to equal time may have to adjust to "letting journalists know when their coverage gets ahead of the science." As examples, he pointed to impacts on weather and on how tropical cyclones respond to climate change. "Scientists may have to hit the brakes and say, 'Not so fast.' Journalists may need to resist the pressure to get back to just the dueling-experts approach to reporting on such potential relationships." Broccoli encouraged reporters to develop close working relationships with scientists "who you feel are neutral brokers of information, those who want to get the best information out there, not influence a policy agenda." As for scientists, he recommended that they ask themselves, "What is the product of my efforts? Is a published paper the only product?" Or does it include working with media and students to improve public understanding of the work? Broccoli cautioned also that reporters keep in mind that uncertainties in a field "can cut both ways" – they may make a problem less formidable than it appears, or they may go the other way, making it more severe.
Additional information and reports about the Wilson Center report will be posted online at http://www.environmentwriter.org in the near future.
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