Climate change stories are often among those singled out for criticism.


Science journalism is getting smacked around a lot this week. The hits are coming from all directions.

At the climate activist website Desmogblog, writer and author Chris Mooney says he is “appalled” at this Washington Post article for what he regards as its tarring of climate scientists “as radicals or political operatives.”

Mooney, whose new book argues that Republicans are genetically wired to be anti-science, claims the Post piece is unfairly “negative and judgmental” of the climate science community. Mooney’s criticism echoes a larger complaint made often both by activists and by a fair number of climate scientists — that mainstream media coverage of global warming is shoddy and too often gives undue space to climate contrarians.

On the other side of the opinion spectrum, Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist, believes that journalists have been too obsequious to climate scientists — to the detriment of climate science. Pielke points to a recent instance (“it is one example that could be selected from many,”) of what he considers “favorable” treatment by a New York Times reporter towards a climate scientist. He asserts:

When the media places scientists up on a pedestal and does so via the spinning of untruths, they simply set the stage for a bigger fall when the scientists cannot live up to their adulatory press coverage.

Pielke argues that journalists, “like everyone else, have their biases and perspectives,” and are just “as prone as any of us to the seductive siren of tribalism, with good guys on one side and evil ones on the other.”

One imagines that responsible American science journalists would chafe at this admonition and insist that their reporting does not suffer from “tribalism” or ideological bias. It’s certainly a hard thing to quantify. For sure, there is a pack mentality (a longstanding tendency in journalism) that narrowly frames some events, such as the nuclear dangers posed by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last year.

And climate change certainly has its share of hyped stories, one recent example involving widely reported news of outdoor hockey possibly going extinct. As respected energy and climate analyst Michael Levi archly noted in a post at the Council on Foreign Relations site, “The death of outdoor hockey has been greatly exaggerated.”

Indeed, if there is an Achilles heel to climate reporting, it would be its penchant for simplistic, dramatic coverage — be it  a new study linking climate change to shrinking animals or to declining grape quality in wine-growing regions.

Then there is the issue of official press releases, and the propensity of too many in the media to recycle PR claims with little or no scrutiny. There is currently a debate raging in the UK press about who is responsible for due diligence of press releases. Ananyo Bhattacharya, Nature‘s chief online editor, argues in a Guardian column this week that the responsibility clearly resides with journalists. The subhead of his piece: “When reporters sensationalize copy from agencies that already stretches research findings, something has gone badly wrong.”

Freelance science writer Ed Yong echoes this sentiment at his Discover magazine blog: “If we write something, and we put our names to it, the buck stops with us. If there is a mistake, it is our fault.” Yong sets the bar high for science journalists: “If the paper was rubbish, if the peer reviewers missed something, if the scientist lied, if the press release is distorted, it’s still our fault for producing something that is inaccurate or that fails to root out these problems.”

When it comes to climate change reporting, few seem to think the media overall are regularly meeting such criteria.

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