Can Journalists Better Capture the Nuances of Climate Science?

Deadline reporting on new climate research is fraught with institutional challenges.

During the extended Thanksgiving break in the United States in late November, a headline-grabbing study on climate change was published in the journal Science. Michael Marshall in New Scientist summarized what he saw as the take-home message this way:

The climate may be less sensitive to carbon dioxide than we thought — and temperature rises this century could be smaller than expected.

Overall, media coverage of the new climate sensitivity paper was probably less than it would have been if not for its publication during an American holiday. Still, the study packed plenty of punch and got enough play in mainstream outlets and science blogs to warrant a nice round-up by Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker website.

The impression one could easily draw from many of the stories is that new research suggests climate change may not be as potentially devastating as might be commonly believed. But there are important caveats and limitations to the Science study that likely got lost in the soundbite produced collectively by the media.

In the comments thread of Petit’s post at the Tracker, veteran science writer Michael Lemonick referenced a critical assessment of the Science paper at RealClimate, which he said “puts the study in good context.” That kind of deeper perspective just cannot be captured on a tight deadline and under the constraints of traditional news journalism, Lemonick wrote. He added:

This is one of the reasons the news model isn’t ideally set up to explain science to the public (as John Rennie noted in his excellent opinion piece a while ago).

In that column, published earlier this year, Rennie, a former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, wrote that scientific publication is “like a debutante’s ball: it formally presents a discovery to society but makes no guarantees about its eventual prospects.” Yet journalism, as Rennie notes, “typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event. The journals themselves encourage that practice by distributing embargoed press releases about the contents of upcoming issues. They oh-so-helpfully identify scientific papers that might be important advances and explain their significance to harried reporters on deadline (in return for a promise not to publish until a set date and time).”

Many science journalists, alas, have become accustomed to such spoon-feeding. Rennie goes on to explain why nobody is being served well by this process:

The somewhat preposterous consequence of this arrangement is that the news media rely heavily if not exclusively on the embargoed press releases in choosing stories to cover: perhaps because the embargo gives them time to prepare a good story but more compellingly because each news outlet realises [sic.] all its competitors will run one. Out of fear of being scooped, all media then publish stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few. Reporters seek informed, disinterested commentary on the findings from other scientists at other labs, but those scientists are at a disadvantage because the paper is new to them, too. And so they are usually quoted uttering cautious banalities about “results that are exciting if they hold up.”

Of course, those cautious bana lities never get reflected in the headlines.

Is there a better way? Rennie puts forward some interesting ideas on how to take the “newness” out of the whole process, which may simply be impossible in our 24/7 digital age. But the arrangement he identifies certainly could use some tinkering, if we want to deepen the stories reported on issues informed by a never-ending stream of newly published scientific research.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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3 Responses to Can Journalists Better Capture the Nuances of Climate Science?

  1. Hector M. says:

    The problem is not a problem of communication, but the growing evidence of great (and previously underreported) uncertainty in climate models, and vast areas of ignorance surrounding the estimates of climate sensitivity (especially clouds but also multi-decadal natural variability and other factors). Journalists may over-simplify things, of course, in this and most matters, but even for scientifically informed people in the blogosphere and elsewhere the substantive issues are more important than the discursive/communicational ones. It is not that climate scientists are poor communicators: it is that large portions of their science is afflicted by large uncertainties and ignorance, even if many of them have downplayed such uncertainties and ignorance (most notoriously in IPCC reports).

  2. EdG says:

    Interesting essay Keith. But I think that it missed a key point. Rennie claims that “Reporters seek informed, disinterested commentary on the findings from other scientists at other labs,” but any objective review of this reveals that in most coverage of AGW or other environmental issues too many journalists do not do this. Instead they interview the usual predictable advocacy sources, typically all or almost all from one side.

    This is no accident. Advocacy groups cultivate journalists – who, like scientists, are only human – and are quick to pump out press releases to feed them.

    If journalists did in fact consistently interview “distinterested” sources their reporting would be far more balanced and informative and would not feed the polarization monster so much. But very few do.

    In the meantime, this headline is a hint of what is coming:

    “This year is set to be 10th warmest on record according to ‘Climategate’ scientists

    Includes data from University of East Anglia, criticised for colluding with politicians to ‘massage’ evidence of man-made climate change”

  3. Eadler says:

    I found that the stories and blogs on the recent climate sensitivity paper by Schmittner et. al. gave me a good idea of its significance relative to other papers in the field, which got different results. A good perspective on this story is available to people who are genuinely interested.

    I found that Revkin’s blog about this didn’t have the whole story, but did reference another article on the NY Times web site, which had comments from a number of different scientists on the deficiencies and strengths of the paper. To be sure I had a complete picture, I consulted other blogs and interviews of scientists regarding this paper.

    Since the question of climate change has become so politicized, there is no way that reporters can realistically embargo reporting on a paper. One side or the other is going to tout it as proving the correctness of their beliefs. Science reporters are obligated to report the story to give people who are genuinely interested in the true significance of the paper a properly balance perspective. Of course people who want to confirm their own prejudices badly enough will simply stick to the blogs and sources that will confirm their prejudices. Science reporters can’t help such people.