Academics at MIT Session Fault Media on Balance, Flawed Vetting of Sources, Hostility to Science

CAMBRIDGE, MA. – Mass media coverage of climate change has suffered from a hostility to science, a failure to vet biased sources, and an adherence to a warped sense of balance, two prominent academics said at a recent MIT event on climate change.

The remarks, made at a conference titled “Disruptive Environments” and held on April 10-11, came as part of an opening panel discussion on “communicating climate change” featuring New York Times science reporter Andrew C. Revkin. Some 100 MIT and other Boston-area university faculty members and students and others attended the opening session.

MIT Professor Kerry Emanuel, whose work on extreme weather and global warming came to prominence after Hurricane Katrina, began the conference by blasting the media for creating a forum where “debate and personal conflict sell,” a forum in which, he said, simplistic metaphors are the only available language.

Emanual said he had conservations with journalists in which he was “reduced” to explaining that “warm air rises and cold air sinks.” He said that because most journalists have humanities backgrounds, they “tend to be more hostile to science than the average person.” Emanuel did, however, compliment Revkin’s work and – after facing pushback later from a science reporter in the audience – clarified his remarks by saying they did not apply to most science writers.

Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, also said the press had given far too much ink to skeptics who were just doing “industry P.R.” However, she admitted that some of her criticism was “old news” that pre-dated 2006, when she implied coverage of climate science generally had begun to improve. (Her 2004 essay in Science reflected her own extensive research that had helped spur that shift by demonstrating that the reality of climate change was the consensus view of scientists.)

Oreskes said a new problem with media coverage of climate change is what she sees as the media’s acceptance of “climate realists,” or people who say humans should just adapt to rising oceans and more extreme weather. She pointed to the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets, as having given prominent coverage to this “realist” view.

Revkin, whose “Dot Earth” blog has become an online focal point for global change news and debate, conceded many of the Emanuel’s and Oreskes’ criticisms, agreeing that industry groups have consistently worked to “sprinkle” uncertainty in a journalism landscape that tends toward “balance.” Still, he said, “I’m not saying therefore that all the journalists are innocent.”

Revkin did defend quoting advocacy and industry groups in certain kinds of policy and political reporting. Stories that are not about purely scientific questions and that focus instead on “what to do” about climate change may legitimately include voices of those from climate contrarian or skeptic organizations with political agendas, but Revkin emphasized his own practice of not using them as sources on pure science stories.

He also listed what he often refers to as “tyrannies of the news,” including the need for a “peg” for every story, a “front-page” editorial mentality favoring splashy stories, and increasingly tight deadlines and space in an already contracting media environment. Those factors, he said, hinder journalists in reporting and in getting space for the slow-moving climate story. He added that The New York Times, despite the large amount of space it devotes to climate change contrasted with most dailies, also faces those same pressures and constraints.

Papua, New Guinea climate Ambassador Kevin Conrad, who was also on the MIT panel, steered away from the abstract media debate and said developing-world governments like his are focusing on their devastating realities: villages flooded; deforestation; and deadly diseases expanding their ranges.

In December, Conrad had come to the world’s attention when he pointedly told the U.S. delegation at the United Nations talks in Bali, “[I]f for some reason you’re not willing to lead … Please get out of the way.”

At MIT, he showed a little more of that candor and spunk. When it’s time to make real-world policy decisions, Conrad said, “the media and science are often kicked out of the room.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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