Retired USA Today meteorologist and one-time newspaper copy editor Jack Williams recently decided to “bloviate on my Web site about pitfalls for journalists who aren’t familiar with science who cover the political, diplomatic, and military consequences of climate change.”
It’s a common complaint among those who see mainstream news organizations, regularly pink-slipping their newsroom specialists and more experienced reporters, going to more “GA” (read general assignment) reporters for coverage of complex issues such as climate change.
In this case, the well-regarded “WeatherJack” Williams was motivated by some-less-than ideal reportage in his hometown Washington Post. In a July 5 column, Post associate editor and chief foreign correspondent (and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner) Jim Hoagland had written that “The rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet at the North Pole” (?!) had led to a prediction of “revolutionary new transport possibilities between the Atlantic and the Pacific.”
Trouble is the reporter and whatever editor “did not know there is no ‘Arctic ice sheet,’” Williams wrote. Picky, picky.
Earth has two ice sheets, Greenland’s relatively small one and the Antarctic’s, Williams wrote. He rightly dismissed any suggestion that he was “just nitpicking,” pointing to studies about how a newspaper’s slightest misstep – “each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction” – costs it credibility with its readers. (And losing further credibility with their dwindling base of readers is something few newspapers can afford nowadays.)
“Mistakes about basic physical facts erode confidence even more for those who know the facts, who in this case include many ninth graders who stayed awake in earth science class,” Williams wrote.
“We’ll never know, but maybe one of the Post copy editors who took a buyout would have caught the ice sheet error.” Too bad, he concluded, that “Like copy editors, science reporters are a threatened species; in some cases an endangered species in American newsrooms.”