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November 2005 Workshop Report
(5th in a series)
June 2005 Workshop Report
November 2004 Workshop Report
March 2004 Workshop Report
November 2003 Workshop Report
and the News Media
University of California, Berkeley
Journalists and scientists need to update and enhance their multi-media communications skills to better meet the new realities of the information age and the revolution under way among traditional news organizations. Only by doing so can they effectively better interact with each other and help the general public better understand important science issues.
Those are among key points made by invited climate scientists and science and environmental journalists participating in the fifth of a series of communications workshops supported by the National Science Foundation's Paleoclimate Program, in the Division of Atmospheric Science. The workshop series is managed by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, housed at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. The workshops are part of a nationwide series leading up to release of a report on science communications and the mass media.
Climate change continues to be among the most challenging and newsworthy science issues facing the public, but workshop managers and participants anticipate that lessons-learned from these workshops will be applicable also to other science communication issues important both nationally and internationally.
Meeting at the November 7-9 workshop at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, leading journalism academics cited sobering statistics on the quickly changing face of "mainstream" news media as a result of continued consolidation of media ownership; bottom-line financial pressures, declining audiences for many news and media outlets; and intense competition from "new media" and information sources widely available through the world wide web. Since the first workshop in November 2003, the focus of the workshop series increasingly has focused on the changing media realities and implications for journalists and scientists as science communicators.
"We are in the middle of something that may last many years and get worse before getting better, with the power shifting from producers of information (the media) to consumers (the audience), Project for Excellence in Journalism Director Tom Rosenstiel told the journalists and scientists in kicking off the Berkeley workshop with a sobering assessment of the state and future of the media.
"Are we just training monks for monasteries in the middle ages?" Berkeley Journalism School Dean Orville Dean Schell asked rhetorically in his opening remarks. "Something needs to be done at fundamental levels to counter an institutional mutation that has taken place in the evolution of the media that does not bode well for the future of public intelligence."
Despite the enormity of the economic challenges facing contemporary journalism and the news media at large, however, there are some encouraging signs. Several journalists said that with more and more information sources available to the public, simply having more information "out there" will itself spur public discourse. "The public ends up more robust against rumor by being exposed to a lot of misinformation," one reporter said, all the same agreeing that the burden for confirming the validity of that information is falling increasingly on news consumers, with the media increasingly playing a role as information and news "authenticators." (See discussion below) Others pointed to the potential of the "new media" and widespread Internet availability to tell stories in ways that are infinitely richer than traditional means, offering more extensive use of graphics, providing electronic links to original source documents and background information, and simply addressing issues at more length than is feasible in a daily newspaper or TV news program.
Over one and a half days of intense discussion, the journalists and scientists at the Berkeley meeting offered a number of suggestions on how to cope, and ultimately perhaps also benefit, from the new information age realities. Among these points:
George Lakoff's presentation on the second day of the workshop stimulated a lively interchange on how frames affect press coverage of climate change, and how journalists and scientists can benefit from understanding how frames work. Frames, Lakoff explained, are mental structures that shape the way we as individuals see the world. Frames are created by movements and institutions. "Unless you come up with a unified way of approaching misinformation, you are going to lose in the court of public opinion," he said.
Journalists and scientists both have frames. Lakoff said. "Most responsible journalists have chosen their stories for the public good - a progressive frame. Journalists who have dedicated themselves to a profession for the public good have a frame. People who accuse media of being liberal in that regard are right. What's crucial is that everybody has both frames. Progressive media have been intimidated to the point of ignoring their frames in the interest of 'fairness.'"
.... It's time for journalists ... to declare outright
that truth is a higher calling than fairness."
Political and economic policy dialogue uses frames and metaphors rather than logic, according to Lakoff. There are common everyday frames, like the one radio talk show host and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh uses in addressing climate change: "You can't change the weather."
Scientists who attempt to argue against such a frame with terms like "junk science" or "sound science" he explained, can actually end up reinforcing the initial frame, in the end bolstering a perspective they themselves meant to contest.
Similarly, news media notions of "fairness" and "balance" can help perpetuate the popular notion of continuing widespread scientific controversy over scientific matters of climate change about which mainstream scientists share a common view. Journalists, Lakoff explained, must confront a perceived balance frame where fairness equates to balance rather than necessarily to truthfulness or accuracy. Balance thereby is represented as giving relatively equal attention, or at least unquestioning coverage of, two sides of an argument, without sufficient regard for the technical merits of those differing perspectives. Lakoff advised journalists and scientists that both must thoroughly understand how frames guide their own thinking and that of their intended audience.
For scientists: You need to rethink how you talk to reporters and present your results. When you talk to reporters, emphasize the importance of having converging evidence in support of a position.
And for reporters: the public is not ready to understand convergence of evidence behind a scientific finding. Reporters need a story frame to explain how various bits of evidence fit together, how they converge, and why it is important. The story must be repeated, along with an explanation of the significance of converging evidence and sources.
Coming to Terms with New Media Realities
At earlier workshops in the series, explanations by media professionals and academics about the extent of the mass media "revolution" had been met with surprise by some, and there had been some discussion focused on efforts to minimize the potential adverse impacts on mainstream news organizations and their audiences. Those trends over just the past two years have become so much more pronounced, and the "revolution" has progressed so far and so fast that the discussions at the Berkeley November 2005 workshop took on a decidedly different cast.
Journalists and scientists at this workshop appeared increasingly prepared to come to terms with the media evolution as a reality best managed as an opportunity and not solely as a threat. "We need to accept the fact that this behavior change in our audience has happened and cater to that change," one journalist at the Berkeley workshop observed. "It's time to get over it and start doing things - some of which may be in conflict with our historical training," said another.
Opening speaker Tom Rosenstiel described the "epochal transformation" now under way in journalism -- where power has shifted from producers of information (reporters and editors), to consumers (the audience). Moving from being passive consumers to proactive participants, today's audience "grazes across the media buffet" Rosenstiel said. (University of North Carolina Professor and author Philip Meyer, speaking at the previous workshop at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, had voiced similar observations about the impact of the information age on the very nature of journalism.)
"is that most of the news outlets we see
are not actually engaged in news gathering
but rather in repackaging stories."
With technology increasing the number of news outlets faster than the audience itself is expanding, Rosenstiel said, most news outlets have a smaller audience. (Newspapers have lost 50 percent of their audience since the late 60s.) Mainstream outlets have responded to declining audiences and pressure for revenue in a variety of ways - some by creating new products (longer and earlier morning news shows, more time slots), and others by reducing their costs (smaller newsrooms, fewer news bureaus, etc.).
Recent decades have seen the emergence of new models in journalism, he continued. The traditional "gatekeeper" model, is giving way to a "journalism of assertion," and more recently a journalism of "affirmation."
Journalism of assertion gained momentum with cable news, with talk shows and "talking heads" formats, and with events happening too fast for journalistic verification, with the airing of unconfirmed and unverified information over the air waves becoming increasingly the norm. With the journalism of affirmation, Rostenstiel, explained, the appeal is not just speed but also the news outlets' efforts to "order things for you in a way that also reinforces your preconceived notions," helping the audience increase its comfort level by helping it more easily make sense of things. The journalism of affirmation, Rosenstiel continued, seeks to attract audiences based on "ideological affinity" with conservative news outlets packaging their news for a conservative audience, liberal news outlets doing the same for a liberal audience ... and the audiences in turn seeking out those media outlets they believe best match their own ideological preferences.
One scientist at the Berkeley meeting said he has observed a similar trend in the publication of unvetted scientific materials over the web through an expanding number of outlets. The "unstated part of peer review" he said, is that "you can find a home for almost anything."
Where does this changing landscape of contemporary journalism leave today's journalists? Rosenstiel spoke of a new role for journalists as "authenticators," coming in after the fact to help readers sort out information received from a number of sources, saving them time, telling them where to go for information, "throwing a flag" when they are being misled. In this new journalistic world, journalists will need to update their skills, he continued, to bring more transparency to the process of how news is created, increase their own subject matter expertise, and learn to exploit the richness of the new media. "Don't confuse the technique with the principle, whether in science or journalism," Rosenstiel advised, saying that basic principles of fair and responsible independent journalism must not be set aside.
As for the economic health of newspapers as we know them, Rosenstiel cited newspapers' own websites as among the biggest threats. Right now, newspapers make ten times more profit per reader on the print version than they do through their online sites. The solution lies in "monetizing" the web, but how?
Who Leads in Ferreting Out Scientific Truth
Would the journalist authenticators be any more prepared than their colleagues today to counter false claims of fringe elements of a particular scientific debate? Are scientists and journalists each looking to the other to "carry the water"?
Workshop participants pondered what can be done and why, in their opinion, a small handful of climate change deniers long were able, in effect, to abuse the norms of journalistic "balance" and thereby get their point across in ways disproportionate, according to this theory, to their scientific merit.
One scientist wondered aloud if climate change scientific evidence is held to a higher standard than other types of behavior in the field of government. He said that climate change evidence has been evaluated at an unprecedented level of organized international scientific rigor, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, unlike anything that has been done in other levels of scientific endeavor. In contrast, he complained, climate skeptics get a "free pass" from many news organizations in the name of "balance."
Another scientist criticized the media for having failed to sufficiently "blow the whistle" on the large number of front organizations that have sprung up around the small handful of outspoken climate change critics, creating a false impression of their actual number and influence. Still other scientists said they fear the media shy away from such issues because they involve powerful political end economic constituents. Journalists, for their part, said they look to the scientists to help them sort fact from noise in the scientific arena.
Can the norms and principles of journalism (and, some suggest, also of science) actually get in the way of truth? Participants at this and previous workshops discussed how journalism norms of balance and fairness can be hijacked by those with a particular point of view. Why don't scientists make stronger claims about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming?, asked one scientist, saying the failure of scientists to comment on such a relationship is a missed opportunity for public education. While there are problems linking to a single event, like Hurricane Katrina, with climate change, said another scientist, it is responsible to suggest a relationship between climate change and the frequency and severity of storms such as Katrina. Expect to see publication of research findings in the next several months establishing clearer links between storms like Katrina and global warming, he said.
George Lakoff recounted a recent exchange at a conference he attended on global warming. The question came up: Did global warming cause Katrina? The frame being used, Lakoff emphasized, was that if you are in science you can only make a claim if you have evidence for it: If you can't prove it, it isn't true. The real message that isn't coming across, in his view, is that global warming can lead to more category five and other severe hurricanes, that Katrina was one of these, and that there are more of them now. One upshot of scientists' own norms and principles, in Lakoff's view: "Scientists don't know how to frame their own truth."
Where is the Public on the Climate Change Learning Curve?
Several scientists sited personal experiences indicating to them that the public has turned the corner on climate change, while others disagreed.
"People on the street don't know the details," said one scientist, "but they think climate change is a problem and somebody needs to do something about it." Said another, from his experience speaking with "average people" in the community: "There's an awareness and level of education on the issue that is almost shocking. With any kind of leadership in this country it will turn quickly because people are saying: 'What do we do?'" One journalism educator commented: "Climate change is too complex for the public to grasp, but we can get them to appreciate the seriousness of it."
Journalists and scientists discussed precisely where they and their professional colleagues fit into the debate, some feeling that their role stops short of "agenda setting."
Not so countered Tom Rosenstiel: "We need to acknowledge that both the scientific community and the press have a role in moving something up and down in the public agenda - telling the public not what to think, but what to think about - helping citizens decide what problems to solve."
Journalists and Scientists On What Works for Them
As at earlier workshops, journalists and scientists described traditional and nontraditional techniques that have worked for them. One journalist's advice to students on the issue of using balance in reporting on environmental stories: Always gather more than you can use. Remember there aren't just two sides to any issue. The reporter must represent all sides and provide context to help people figure out for themselves the balance of the weight of evidence. Point out indisputable facts: e.g., the 10 most recent years have been the hottest on record. "We have to remember," he said, "that we are not stenographers for the Sierra Club, government, Interior Secretary, etc."
Gianna Savoie, WNET-TV, Nature
A scientist's advice to colleagues for dealing with controversial issues where balance is a concern: talk with journalists to make clear and help them better understand where the different parties are and where science sits, and help them sift through statements that are in conflict.
One TV journalist pointed to the substantial success of a recent National Geographic Series, "Strange Days on Planet Earth," as a reminder to journalists and scientists alike that good science can be a good story.
"It's all about storytelling," she said. That particular documentary received outstanding reviews and a sizeable audience because it made the story personal and touched people; it used first-class visual effects, and it had scientists who were talented communicators in their own right. On the difference between "dumbing down" and keeping the story understandable enough for the public to grasp, she added, the challenge is to "say something brilliant simply."
When you deal with very complex science that has undergone well established vetting, said scientist Steve Schneider, new studies don't change the big picture much - the equivalent of a minor veer in a big super tanker of information that is steering along. Nuances are new but the basic ideas about the cause of climate change haven't changed in 40 years. His response 15 years ago when asked if anything was new in the area of climate science: "Nature is cooperating with theory."
The media cannot just catalog the ills, one journalist emphasized. Tragedy must be balanced out with hope if the media are to convince people that they can make a difference as individuals and as a society.
Find images to reach out to people with diverse perspectives of the political spectrum, said one scientist, such as focusing on the future of our grandchildren. Fast forward to 2100, the focus of many climate simulations. "I'd hate for them to ask us the question 'Why didnt you do more? You knew.'"
With five of the planned six workshops in the nationwide series now completed, workshop magagers Anthony D. Socci, Ph.D., of the American Meteorological Society, and Bud Ward, consultant to the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, will conduct the final sixth workshop in cooperation with the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Mi.
That workshop will bring together representatives from previous workshops in the series and also some first-time participants to address key concepts and points to be made in a comprehensive final report on climate science communications and the mass media. Work on that report is scheduled to begin in the second half of 2006, with mid-2007 as a target date for completion.
at University of California, Graduate School of Journalism
November 6-8, 2005