A sampling of media coverage of Pennsylvania State University’s announcement of findings of an inquiry there illustrates how deadline reporting and headline-writing about a single straightforward news event can lead to differing shadings and colorings.

Penn State had named an internal university panel to look into climate scientist Michael Mann in connection with e-mail messages he had sent, part of the hacked e-mail cache from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, CRU.

Note From the Editor
Scholars & Rogues Blogger Explores
Claims of Investigation ‘Whitewash’

Reporting its findings, the panel said the inquiry was launched after the university received “numerous communications (e-mails, phone calls and letters) accusing Dr. Michael E. Mann of having engaged in acts that included manipulating data, destroying records and colluding to hamper the progress of scientific discourse around the issue of anthropogenic global warming from approximately 1998. These accusations were based on perceptions of the content of the widely reported theft of e-mails” from CRU.

The panel said it found “no substance” and “no basis for further examination” regarding three allegations – that Mann had tried “to suppress or falsify data”; that he had tried “to delete, conceal or otherwise destroy e-mails, information and/or data, related to AR4 (the major 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)”; and that he had been involved in “misuse of privileged or confidential information available to (him) in (his) capacity as an academic scholar.”

The panel, made up of university administrators, concluded that a fourth allegation “revolves around the question of accepted faculty conduct surrounding scientific discourse and thus merits a review by a committee of faculty scientists.” This review will look at whether Mann “engaged in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting or reporting research or other scholarly activities.”

A Penn State press release was headlined “Inquiry into climate scientist moves to next phase.” The lead paragraph: “An internal inquiry by Penn State into the research and scholarly activities of a well-known climate scientist will move into the investigatory stage, which is the next step in the University’s process for reviewing research conduct.”

An Associated Press story, posted at 4:51 p.m. ET on the day of the announcement, had a headline that echoed the university press release’s headline: “Penn St. proceeding with scientist e-mail scrutiny.” The first two paragraphs of the AP story:

Penn State University said Wednesday it will proceed with an investigation into a leading climate scientist after an internal inquiry into alleged research misconduct stemming from leaked e-mails at the center of a controversy over global warming.

Meteorology professor Michael Mann said he was pleased the inquiry results “found no evidence to support” four allegations against him.

An updated version of the AP story, posted at 7:20 p.m. ET, had a new lead that emphasized the finding of no wrongdoing on three points: “A Penn State University internal inquiry dismissed three allegations of research improprieties against a leading climate scientist but recommended further investigation into one allegation regarding leaked e-mails about global warming.”

Different newspapers’ websites used different headlines on this updated version. The Columbus Dispatch, for instance, kept the “Penn St. proceeding …” headline that appeared on the original version.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s headline echoed the new lead of the revised story: “Penn State clears meteorologist of 3 allegations in climate e-mails case.”

FoxNews.com used a headline that perhaps suggested to some readers that something already more solid than “allegations” was at stake: “Penn St. Investigating Scientist Over Research Misconduct.”

In its story posted on Feb. 3, New Scientist magazine focused on the fact that three-out-of-four allegations had been dismissed.

“US ‘climategate’ scientist all but cleared of misconduct” was the headline. The lead: “A prominent US climate scientist at the center of the ‘climategate’ leaked e-mail controversy has been virtually cleared of professional misconduct by an internal university inquiry.”

A New York Times story on the panel action was more sweepingly headlined “Panel Absolves Climate Scientist.” The lead paragraph of the story more carefully (and accurately) said Mann had been “largely cleared” in the inquiry: “An academic board of inquiry has largely cleared a noted Pennsylvania State University climatologist of scientific misconduct, but a second panel will convene to determine whether his behavior undermined public faith in the science of climate change, the university said Wednesday.”

Still omitting any limiting modifier such as “largely,” a new headline later appeared on the same story on the Times‘ website, substituting “clear” for “absolve” (which has “clear” as one of its thesaurus synonyms) and passive for active voice: “Researcher on Climate Is Cleared in Inquiry.”

ScienceInsider, a blog of the journal Science, had a blog post largely made up of an attributed passage from the Times story, but which did specify in its own headline and lead that more inquiry lay ahead.

The headline: “Climate Scientist Mann Partially Absolved by Penn State.” The lead paragraph said the panel convened by the university had “mostly absolved” Mann.

The Philadephia Inquirer story on the university’s action had a lead paragraph that sought to reflect – as closely as possible, in the few words available in that little space – the nuance of the panel’s two-part decision:

A Pennsylvania State University committee yesterday cleared climate researcher Michael Mann of professional-misconduct charges but said it would further investigate whether the scientist “deviated from accepted practices.”

The headline boiled down that paragraph this way: “Penn State climatologist cleared of misconduct”. (The Miami Herald‘s headline on the Inquirer‘s story was more detailed and precise: “Penn State clears climate researcher on 3 charges; 1 still pending.”)

So, what is to be made of such variety, except for the hardly new or original observation that different journalists – operating on tight deadlines and within the traditional, brevity-prizing constraints of lead and headline-writing – will come up with, well, slightly different variations on the same theme?

Perhaps it is that the complexity of a news event can easily be lost at the top of a story, though some versions are more detailed reflections of the whole than others. It’s helpful to be reminded of that reality now and then as the ever-abbreviating march of new information technology proceeds (what comes after Twitter?).

The headline, the lead, aren’t the whole story, or even as nuanced a terse summary as they could be under the confining circumstances of the format – in the case of all the examples cited here, the Web-posted versions. But headlines for many readers are the only part of a story they may read, and the part many are most likely to remember.

Mann himself wrote an op-ed about the e-mail controversy, published by the Washington Post on December 18, in which he sought to cut through the clamor to what he wanted to be seen as the crux of the matter.

His lead: “I cannot condone some things that colleagues of mine wrote or requested in the e-mails recently stolen from a climate research unit at a British university. But the messages do not undermine the scientific case that human-caused climate change is real.”

He concluded by observing that “the scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change is based on decades of work by thousands of scientists around the world,” and that “some critics are seeking to cloud the debate and confuse the public.”

The headline the Post put above the piece seemed to capture his message: “E-mail furor doesn’t alter evidence for climate change.”


Scholars & Rogues Blogger Explores
Claims of Investigation ‘Whitewash’

Did “whitewash” claims accusing Penn State of going easy on climate scientist Michael Mann have any merit?

Writer Brian Angliss, writing for the online site Scholars & Rogues, decided to take on that question. He began by looking into the university’s, and the relevant academic department’s, overall reputations: Were they good enough in the first place to warrant taking a dive to protect a prominent climate researcher from damaging claims?

Angliss pointed to several high sets of national rankings for the university’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, which houses the meteorology department home to Mann. He pointed to high rankings from U.S. News and World Report and two “#1 in the country for research” rankings over the past 15 years from the National Science Foundation. He said the university as a whole ranked first in the country in 2009 “for research performed on industry-paid research grants.”

Angliss’s quotations from several non-Penn State academic leaders and researchers set the tone for his writing: “When this wide a variety of academics and administrators all feel that a university’s reputation is sacrosanct, one has to wonder how likely it is that any inquiry into research misconduct would be covered up.”

“Why risk the whole institution for one investigator”? he quoted a University of Colorado researcher as asking rhetorically.

Money? Not hardly, Angliss concluded. He said Mann had brought $4.2 million to Penn State since joining the faculty in 2006, $1.8 million of it for the period from 2006 to 2009. He contrasted that to the university’s total research budget of $2.8 billion, reporting that Mann’s grants represent about 0.06 percent of the total research grants between 2006 and 2009.

So much for financial motive for a cover-up, so Angliss went on to the substance of the accusations. “As a Tier-1 research university with an excellent national reputation,” he wrote, the university would unlikely risk its standing “for any single faculty researcher, and especially not for such a small monetary gain as a few million dollars over the last four years.” He wrote that the Penn State investigation “appears to have been fair and transparent.”

Angliss concluded that researchers and the academic community generally are likely to accept the next phase of Penn State’s examination into Mann so long as the effort again is thorough and transparent. He wrote that those critical of Mann’s and of IPCC’s research findings generally are unlikely to be satisfied unless the next stage finds Mann guilty of academic misconduct.

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