What to Make of Climate Journalism?

Two recent articles about science journalism carry headlines that reflect a tension between two modes of thinking on climate change reporting. The Guardian piece asserts in its headline:

Science journalists should be asking questions and deflating exaggeration

Michael Lemonick, a veteran science journalist, asks:

Should we tell the whole truth about climate change?

The two articles address separate journalistic issues (the Guardian piece does not reference climate change), but to my mind, they each are relevant to a larger, fundamental concern that dogs environmental reporters on the climate beat: Insufficient context for and skepticism of claims made in climate studies and reports.

Is the problem with reporters (or headline writers?) who simplify and overly dramatize climate findings? (See here and here, for example.) Or is the problem with reporters who uncritically regurgitate the findings from NGO’s and think tanks? (See here and  here.) I tend to think there’s ample evidence of both. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that there are plenty of times when climate reporters don’t allow themselves to be spoon fed. (See here, for one notable instance.)

Ironically, despite the perception that media has exaggerated the dangers of global warming, some climate activists (and climate scientists) often criticize mainstream reporters for not ringing enough alarm bells. The charge heard most these days is insufficient linkage of extreme weather to global warming. That whole debate has become a minefield for reporters.

Regardless of what they write, however, there is one constant for journalists on the climate beat: They are assailed from all sides, as I discuss in this new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

32 Responses to “What to Make of Climate Journalism?”

  1. Keith, Nice piece. Please do note that I think that the media overall has done a nice job on climate change (see our paper on sea level rise for evidence). At the same time there are certainly a number of “apologists” out there. Thanks!

  2. jeffn says:

    This is the ongoing problem of having the “issue” covered by “environmental beat” reporters. It’s no surprise that the NFL football beat writer is too close to the NFL, and it’s no surprise that the Greanpeace/WWF/Nature beat reporter is too close to the activists.
    Over the past 20 years we’ve had the greenpeace beat writers front paging every nugget of hype they can get their hands on while emphasizing the least effective (but most politically pleasing) solutions the tribe can find. That’s a great approach for an issue that never leaves the cocoon ( ie for a consensus of hair shirt conventioneers ) but as an approach to take to the general public? Stasis. It’s the reason why nobody is surprised that “action” never seems to include actually building nukes but always includes “climate justice” (whatever that is).
    In short- “world’s biggest problem found, the least popular and most ineffective response urged!” 
    By the way, this isn’t unique to environmental journalism. Put a Senate beat writer in the room with a House beat writer and the White House correspondent. They’ll all be Democrats but it will be their Democrats they defend. On the local level, the school beat reporter will tell you the city council is bunch of tightwads unwilling to cough it up “for the children” while the city beat reporter can cite you chapter and verse about the truly nutty funding increase request from the school board.
    This is why were supposed to have editors

  3. John F Pittman says:

    The problem is one of “shelf-life.” Consider the approach of science where F=ma. This basic relationship is still taught in physics. On the other hand consider how in the popular media,in the US at least, global warning and cooling scares have been in monthly and daily publications going back to the 1800’s. They serve different purposes. The purpose of science is that of the pursuit of truth. Though, newspapers may claim different, their purpose is to make money. Though, one can argue such applies to the scientist it is not same. The scientist gets money for correctly publishing; the newspaper for selling advertisement. One could as well use stories about climate scientists in the news versus theri publications, and see the difference in shelf life and the attributes of the money exchanged.

    But this also highlights the problems encounterd by scientists when they publish books for the masses or take part in communicating their advocacy verus the science. Once you leave one publishing model for a different model, one should not be susprised at what happens. The old adage is still true, those who sleep with the dogs should not complain of the fleas.

  4. Jarmo says:

    If one reads  the alarmist climate-related news with their endless claims  – cheetah sperm is affected by warming and thus they will become extinct, shark attacks will increase, viruses spread faster, epidemics diseases increase, forest fires increase etc. – and if you happen to possess prior knowledge about the field in question, it is very hard not to become skeptical.

    This is the stuff normal people see, not the scientific studies. 

  5. kdk33 says:

    The scientist gets money for correctly publishing;

    Would that this were true… 

    Academic science is business, just like any other.  Scientists have careers, just like any other professional. 

    Scientists publish to get funding for more science, to grow their empire, to get enure. 

    To the degree that this overlaps with correct, all fine and dandy.  The correlation is less than perfect.

  6. RickA says:

    I do think that it is part of the job of a science journalist to provide context for claims which go beyond the facts.

    To many scientific papers and/or stories about those science papers go beyond the facts, in an attempt to spin, advocate or appeal to an audience.  It is going beyond the facts or findings, to advocate a policy, or even in an attempt to help advocate a policy, that causes the problems (IMO).

    For example – one can report that it is the 3rd warmest winter since 1890 or one can say it is the 3rd warmest winter on record, or one can report that it is the 3rd warmest winter in recorded history, or the warmest winter ever.

    I prefer the 1st statement because it is the most accurate – although I often see statements like warmest winter ever, or warmest winter on record.

    I raise this example, because in Minnesota, where I live, we recently pushed back weather records 20 years from 1891 to 1871, which had the effect of making our current winter the 4th warmest on record, rather than the 3rd warmest on record.  The warmest winter on record (in Minnesota) actually happened sometime in those 20 years from 1891 to 1871.

    So the date the record starts does make a difference, and should therefore be part of the story, in order to be accurate.

    Science journalism should be, above all other things, accurate.

    Climate science journalism suffers when scientists make claims which go beyond the facts, and those claims are simply reported, as if they are true. 

    So, if a scientist writes a paper claiming it will never snow again – it is certainly fair for the journalist to report that claim.  However, I think the journalist would be remiss if they don’t at least discuss how extraordinary such a claim is (at least in Minnesota), and at least discuss the scientists basis for such a claim.

  7. Tom Scharf says:

    Sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees.  We are all too tuned in to the minutia.

    When a typical public person is asked if he “believes in global warming” , like all of us probably did the first time, his frame of reference was probably 10F over a decade or some other equally large reference.  So he says “no” because he has not DETECTED it himself in his own experience.  Reporter puts a check next to the “anti science denier” column.

    Now if you asked the question this way: “Do you believe the globe has warmed 1F over the last 50 years?”, you might get a lot more yes or don’t know answers.

    The hype “significant and dangerous warming” is not matched by the reality 2F / century.  I can tell you I was absolutely appalled by the 30% animal extinction scaremongering.  It is simply not intuitive.  Animals have survived over hundreds of thousands of years through huge cold and heat waves, 20F changes every day, 70F changes per year, and a gradual change of 3C over 100 years is going to wipe them out?  Life is much more robust than they give it credit for.

    How can you blindly report that?  

    A recent poll showed that even a large number of Democrats (30% or 50%?) believe the media has over-hyped global warming.

    So yes, the media is guilty of over-hyping it.  However the media is also guilty of over-hyping everything else, so the public has pretty much tuned out the hyperbole anyway.  Non-problem.  

    Public Perception:
    Breaking News: Climate science just reported global catastrophe imminent unless urgent action taken!

    Yawn….who’s on Dancing with the Stars tonight?

     

  8. thingsbreak says:

    The problem is not that niche science/climate journalists are doing a bad job. The tend to do a pretty good one most of the time.
     
    Some problems: dedicated science journalism as a whole is (according to what I’ve heard from reporters) being gutted in many mainstream outlets.
     
    Analyses of “reporting” on climate issues tends to exclude the most egregious distorting of climate issues because it ostensibly comes from “opinion” outlets (Fox, WSJ op-ed pages, George Will, et al.). However, reporters themselves don’t seem to see a distinction between actual journalists and people like George Will, and I would hazard the general public doesn’t either.
     
    I think that the complaint about extreme weather linkage is just a small symptom of a much larger and much more legitimate gripe- there is a huge lack of the total context within which climate should be discussed. It’s nice that mainstream reporting isn’t feeling the need to “balance” every story relating to climate with equal time to cranks. But here are some areas that I think normal climate reporting drops the ball:
     
    – The National Academies of Sciences of the largest economies on Earth not only support the consensus that anthropogenic warming is taking place, they also say we need to ramp down emissions.
     
    – Economists may argue over the specifics, but there is widespread agreement that the cost of stabilizing emissions is LESS than the cost of doing nothing or acting later. Our failure to reign in emissions should be framed as the enormous financial EXPENDITURE that is, rather than as something that will hurt the economy. The current state of reporting on this is largely unsatisfactory. 
     
    – The context of our current/future rates of change relative to the geological/paleo record is typically absent unless a study focuses specifically on that topic. That biodiversity is low and extinctions are high when it gets warmer is probably information that the public might benefit to have. That large perturbations of the carbon cycle are implicated in several mass extinction events is likewise. That we’re on the precipice if not already in the middle of another mass extinction event is probably another. What sea levels in the mid-Pliocene were like, or what the rate of ocean acidification was during the end-Triassic mass extinction vs. BAU is also helpful.
     
    – Again, unless it happens to be the particular focus of a paper being covered, there is little discussion of the success that climate science has had in sussing out climate dynamics- either in terms of paleo or in the present. We know how the ice ages are paced. That’s kind of amazing! There are fingerprints associated with greenhouse vs. some other kind of warming, and we can point to them. There are plenty of reporters that I think don’t know this, let alone communicate to the public regularly.
     
    Of course, there are constraints to reporting in terms of word count and the narrowness of focus of a given article. And that’s fine. But these are some legitimate issues that I think the press can try to address, even if it’s not overnight. 
     
    – know the context and push back on a source. This applies to extraordinary claims in either direction. Implausibly high SLR being discussed? Push back. Improbably low sensitivity in a new study, take it with a grain of salt.
    – expand or throw out your Rolodex. Some journalists who I otherwise greatly admire have a horrible habit of using a handful of the same people over and over and over again. There are other climate modellers besides Gavin Schmidt. There are other economists besides Nordhaus, Sterns,and Tol. There are other political science besides Roger Pielke Jr. Etc.
    – if you’re more interested in the horse-race/politics of the issue than the science, you might be on the wrong beat.

  9. EdG says:

    “Science journalists should be asking questions and deflating exaggeration.”

    The irony of this being printed in the Guardian, one of the leading wolf criers in the whole AGW epic, is remarkable.

    Do what I say, not what I do.

  10. Lewis Deane says:

    There is a general problem with science ‘reportage’ and very little of it is ideological. One only has to notice how badly thought out, medical, statistical studies, where associated variables are allegedly discovered, are screamed out as proof of some kind of ‘causation’. We can all think of a thousand examples and more, where needless confusion and anxiety (are these Noamies ‘spreaders of doubt’ – I don’t think she meant them, but why not?) are sown in the general public and, strangely enough, more than often, aimed at a female audience – an interesting sociological aside. So, no, I don’t think ideology has much to do with it, just lazy journalism and sometimes yellow. It is always nice, but also lazy, for both sides to see a conspiracy where there is merely a ‘confederacy of dunces’!

  11. Lewis Deane says:

    And, Keith, and I know you don’t, but just an attempt at dis-ambiguation, one must not confuse opinion and comment with actual reportage, just as one should not confuse the so called serious papers with what we, in Blighty, like to call the ‘red tops’, though the two can be difficult to distinguish (the Guardian and the Telegraph, on opposite sides, being cases in point, ie exceptions, sometimes, that hopefully prove the rule). We have, here, a ‘paper’ called the Daily Express, which seems predominately aimed at a female audience and which daily spouts out the medical nonsense aforementioned. The more ‘serious’ papers do attempt the nuances and caveats but who can help ones editor and the headline writers?

  12. […] Keith recycles the tired “if both sides criticize you you must be right” defense of mainstream science journalism. Hint: maybe, but maybe not. Another hint: see if there’s anybody holding a middle position. […]

  13. EdG says:

    More on the profound irony of quoting that statement from the Guardian, which seems primarily interested in guarding the Team:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/03/09/editiorial-the-guardian-doesnt-give-a-damn-about-accurate-reporting-nor-its-own-editorial-code/

    The problem for the ‘journalists’ of the ‘climate concerned community’ is that nobody believes them anymore, for obvious reasons. If they want to regain credibility, they need to become more credible and less like full time propagandists. 

  14. Jarmo says:

    #13

    The credibility issue IMO stems from the IPCC manufactured consensus. Judith Curry had a good post about it last year.

    Genuine scientific consensus arises spontaneously, i.e. without intent. Curry pointed out that the IPCC from the beginning took steps to make sure that a consensus would result. That meant e.g. marginalizing those who disagreed, as the Climategate e-mails revealed and led to politization of climate science, evidenced today by the close ties between climate scientists and environmental activists.

    The emonick piece reflects this goal-orientation of climate science: Avoid telling the whole truth if it damages the cause.  You could call it a hedge or CYA  🙂

  15. harrywr2 says:

    Lewis Deane Says: 

    just lazy journalism
    I would characterize it as ‘inexpensive’ journalism.
    The mean wage for a ‘reporter’ in the US is $43,000.
    http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273022.htm
    The median wage for a typist/word processor is $34,000.
    A ‘reporter’ makes $9,000 a year more then someone that just ‘types what they are told to type’. Not exactly a lot of money for a job that generally requires a 4 year college degree.
     

  16. Jeff Norris says:

    Harry
    Was really surprised by the numbers in your link.  I think the reason for the low avg is it is skewed by the following
    68% of the mean is derived from the following
    NAICS 511100 – Newspaper, Periodical, Book, and Directory Publishers consists of:
    ·         NAICS 511110 – Newspaper Publishers
    ·         NAICS 511120 – Periodical Publishers
    ·         NAICS 511130 – Book Publishers
    ·         NAICS 511140 – Directory and Mailing List Publishers
    This industry comprises establishments primarily engaged in publishing directories, mailing lists, and collections or compilations of fact. The products are typically protected in their selection, arrangement and/or presentation. Examples are lists of mailing addresses, telephone directories, directories of businesses, collections or compilations of proprietary drugs or legal case results, compilations of public records, etc. These establishments may publish directories and mailing lists in print or electronic form.
    ·         NAICS 511190 – Other Publishers

  17. jim says:

    Lewis Deane,

    Your point about medical (or better yet, nutritional) studies is an interesting one.  Poor stat analysis and study design is so endemic in this research that one has to wonder whether it’s up to the journalist to sort this out or not.

    thingsbreak Says:
    among “Economists…there is widespread agreement that the cost of stabilizing emissions is LESS than the cost of doing nothing or acting later. ”

    Whoa, TB, you’re reading different economists than I read! 

  18. Matt B says:

    I love this line in Lemonick’s piece:
     
    But NPR does: the network just updated its guidelines to reflect a commitment to fairness and truthfulness in reporting.


    1. NPR reporters need “guidelines” to be fair and truthful in reporting? Really?


    2. Does this mean Ira Flatow will stop referring to “deniers” on Science Fridays?

  19. Jarmo says:

    There is no doubt that climate journos could do their job better. However, the temptation of “we’re gonna die” headlines is usually too much. 

    Every time there is a study even suggesting “arctic death spiral” or collapse of WAIS by 2100 (with 95% likelyhood it will not collapse), Guardian et al. go berserk about it. 

    This is the equivalent of climate T & A.

    When there is a study suggesting something with far greater consequences, the climate journos are not interested. For example this paper that was referred to by blogs and by RealClimate and Heartland Institute:

    Our results are incompatibly lower (P”‰<“‰0.05) than recent pre-industrial empirical estimates of ~40″‰p.p.m.v. CO2 per °C (refs 6, 7), and correspondingly suggest ~80% less potential amplification of ongoing global warming.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/full/nature08769.html
     

  20. harrywr2 says:

    Jeff Norris Says:
    March 9th, 2012 at 8:32 pm Harry
    Was really surprised by the numbers in your link.  I think the reason for the low avg is it is skewed by the following
    My mother has been a newspaper editor for 50 years(Still working part time at 80. (Weekly’s mostly and she did one monthly magazine as well).
    My father was a factory worker and got paid labor grade 9(11 was the lowest). My mother never made more then him even though she regularly worked 50 or 60 hour weeks, won various regional press awards etc etc etc..
    If a journalist gets to be a ‘byline’ reporter at a big city Newspaper like the NY Times or Washington Post the pay is pretty good.
     
    Otherwise the pay absolutely stinks.
    The BLS numbers don’t include as far as I can tell ‘freelancers’. I.E. People who are getting ‘paid by the article’ which would drag the average salary numbers even lower. Free lancers get paid by the article and selling more then one or two articles a week would be ‘exceptional’.
    As an example..Christian Science Monitor..a pretty big publication…they pay all of $225/article. If you are lucky enough to sell one story a week to them you could earn all of $11,700 per year.
    http://www.csmonitor.com/About/Contributor-guidelines#payment
    Here is a freelancer complaining about the NY Times rate of $200/day. Not bad until you consider there are no benefits and freelancers rarely get 5 days of paid work in a week. A lot of their time is spent ‘marketing’ their articles…which is uncompensated time.
    http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0205/loundy.htm
     

  21. Sashka says:

    Should we tell the whole truth about climate change?
    Lemonick’s honest take:
    The Earth is warming. It’s largely due to us. It’s going to keep warming unless we do something. And there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.
     
    Perhaps he should write about something that he could comprehend instead.

  22. Tom Scharf says:

    One problem in academics is data mining.  When a study concludes not verifying a hypothesis, than invariably what happens is the data set is mined for other correlations that might be interesting.

    The chance of getting spurious correlations against an original hypothesis can be measured statistically and there is fairly good science behind that.

    However, when you start data mining on a data set looking for something “interesting”, you are ignoring all unsurprising correlations   at the expense of focusing on outliers.

    This increases your chance of reporting on a spurious (bogus) correlation dramatically.  It is also a source of the inability of the medical profession to repeat many “groundbreaking” discoveries.

    We have seen this spurious correlations in action in the 70’s and 80’s when literally everything was tied to some form of cancer.  Confirmation bias also plays a role when data mining.

    Regrettably the science profession does not always deserve some the respect it is given unquestioningly.  Academics have a great deal of pressure to succeed, unfortunately the nullification of a hypothesis is seen as a failure, when this is in fact not true.  Negative findings can be equally as important as positive ones.  Unfortunately negative findings are not published many times.

      

  23. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @8
    +10

    your entire post deserves to be reposted everywhere, but i especially liked this part: 

    “- expand or throw out your Rolodex. Some journalists who I otherwise greatly admire have a horrible habit of using a handful of the same people over and over and over again. There are other climate modellers besides Gavin Schmidt. There are other economists besides Nordhaus, Sterns,and Tol. There are other political science besides Roger Pielke Jr. Etc.
     
    – if you’re more interested in the horse-race/politics of the issue than the science, you might be on the wrong beat.”

  24. Lewis Deane says:

    I think what upsets me, and probably, you, is isn’t interesting.
    For, I’m a ‘skeptic’, but I except the science??Does that mean I’m not ‘Skeptic’. On the contrary! What I think is ‘wrong’ is not our ‘ideas’ but what we do with those ‘ideas’. ‘Ideas’ are bad, by definition, depending on who one is. But I really believe in enacting those desires. I think it absurd that those of a ‘Greenpeace’ mind can continue to tolerate this absurdly, democratic world. For, assuming, as one does, sometimes, their worst case, and one really is heading for the Sun, isn’t it more than our choice to do so?

  25. Lewis Deane says:

    It’s more ‘deep’ than this, isn’t it? I think we come from a ‘background’ of ‘openness’? I think people think that is a ‘relative’ ‘virtue’ and I know that their wrong, as do you? I think, and I think you think, whatever absurd ‘side’ you’re on, one has to keep hold of the ethic of being a good, democratic, human being? What is the point of  the right world but the wrong people. Think.

  26. what to make of journalism?
    hmm.  why no woodward and berstein?

  27. Lewis Deane says:

    As a piece of history, Steven, an exception that proves the rule. ” Bernstein and Woodward’ – this is what has become of our ‘left’, that they no longer bother to ‘research’ what might or might not be the ‘truth’, journalism. And, then, they wonder why our young have become so cynical. Journalism, and the left, must always be against the establishment, not with it, not a part of it. Without any opposition we are lost and might as well be China!

  28. Matt B says:

    Ha ha! I believe Lewis Deane hits the nail on the head:
     
    Journalism, and the left, must always be against the establishment, not with it, not a part of it.
     
    The problem is that there remains the “old” establishment of Wall Street, Big Oil, etc…..they remain, they have not left the field. But, through the last 40-50 years there has grown another “establishment”, drawn as diametrically opposed as they can to the old boys (the WWF’s, the Greenpeace’s, etc) that has becomes almost as ossified as the original Wall Street Journal-fortified castle-builders.
     
    To me the best example of this is the “journalistic” side of Rolling Stone. In their heyday they brought new ideas to challenge  a media establishment that mainly held the establishment line. Good reading! Now, they are wholly predictable in their outlook, I don’t need to read the articles to know what shrill viewpoint they will bombard me with. It reminds me of the last scene in “Animal Farm”.
     
    It is sad, & it is why I come to blogs like KK’s, to find ideas that make me think. Thanks KK!

  29. Lewis Deane says:

    Matt B,

    Indeed! I’m watching some spurious nonsense called ‘Equilibrium’ but within which there is an interesting moment, a kind of ‘atavism’ to something 1970’s, an unconscious reference to Anthony Burgess and his Clockwork Orange (for I don’t believe, and this the point, either the director or the writer where ‘conscious’, as such), where the ‘hero’ comes across one of the dens of the dissidents and puts on Beethoven and that God awful Ninth. We are so distant from Woodward and Bernstein we have forgotten how even to remember them.

  30. simplistic.
    next.

  31. stan says:

    For a great example of poorly reasoned arguments and advocacy pretending to be journalism read this http://www.thestarphoenix.com/technology/Feds+discreet+about+foreign+funding+climate+skeptics/6290316/story.html

  32. stan says:

    Keith,

    The WSJ is the first to publish a review of Mann’s book which doesn’t take his claims at face value.  Since Mann clearly makes false statements in the book, why do you suppose so many journalists have refused to do any basic fact checking? 

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