Live from the Biggest Science Conference in the World: Does the Media Suck at Climate Coverage?

By Jennifer Barone | February 16, 2008 6:42 pm

News about climate change has skyrocketed in recent years, but how good is the information that reaches audiences? Do newspapers, magazines, and TV accurately reflect the science behind the issue? Is reporting “balanced,” and what does that term mean for an issue where most scientists agree about the big picture, though differences on the details abound?

Scientists and journalists gathered at today’s conference to look at how global warming plays out in the media (though, as one commenter noted, the simplistic term “global warming” has fallen from favor, replaced by the all-encompassing “climate change”).

The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, who has covered climate intensively, voiced the challenges journalists face in writing about the changing environment. When competing against a roller-coaster stock market, the Iraq war, and steroid-pumping baseball stars, getting any attention to another new climate study in a newsroom is an uphill battle. (“Global warming? Didn’t we write about that already?”) As a result, science and environment reporters are often forced to take on a headline-mindset, and may feel pressured to hype news to get any airtime or page space at all. When they do succeed in getting approved for a story, it’s unlikely that they’ll be granted the time and space needed to convey all of the scientific details, caveats, nuance, and context that allow readers to interpret a recent study meaningfully.

At the same time, Revkin emphasizes, while there are differences and uncertainties in specific predictions about what will happen to our climate and when, the science that says carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases will change the climate (and are already doing so) is rock solid. At this point, he advises journalists, “If you’re talking to a scientist who ‘doesn’t believe’ in global warming, you’re being irresponsible.” (I think he’s dead on here.) [UPDATE: Please refer to Andy's note below for a clarification of his views on sources.] [UPDATE #2, 28 Feb: To check the preceding quote, we found an audio recording of the session (Global Warming Heats Up: How the Media Covers Climate Change), available for purchase from AVEN here. The raw, word-for-word transcription of the section of Andy's talk I was interested in goes as follows: "This idea that we know it all now, that everyone, you know, if you talk to a scientist, as a journalist, who doesn’t believe in global warming, you’re being irresponsible, you have to know what you’re talking about. Is it a story about global warming, CO2 making the world warmer? If you’re talking to a denier there, you’re probably in trouble." Of course, as he described in his comment, he has written on this question before and has made his position clear in much more detail than was possible in the closing minutes of his brief talk at the conference.] While there is a journalistic tradition of balance, and while he-said-she-said may make for a compelling story, the idea of balance can be exploited when it gives equal weight to views not supported by data. According to Revkin, it’s time to move past the global warming “debate” and talk about solutions. Just about everybody can agree that the world’s dependence on fossil fuels in not sustainable; the real story behind climate change is energy and where it will come from in the future.

American University’s Matthew Nisbet suggested that despite increased attention in the media, the science is somehow not reaching audiences in a meaningful way. While research has been becoming more and more certain about the overall effects of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, public opinion on the matter has hardly budged, and remains split by party lines: Far more Democrats than Republicans express certainty that climate change is real and that human actions are behind it. Nisbet suggests that as long as people are looking at the issue through an ideological lens, they’ll continue to rely on their gut instincts–and on their political leaders–when deciding what to believe, rather than deciding based on data.

Both environmentalists and global warming skeptics/denialists share some blame in how the issue has been discussed, Nisbet says. On the one hand, some have tended toward alarmism, painting climate change as a catastrophe, while those on the other side have tried to bury the science by claiming it’s all too uncertain to do anything about. To get past this mentality, he says, it’s time to look at other aspects of the problem and its solutions: green energy as an economic opportunity, the public health aspects of climate change, and leaders from New York to California who are taking steps to become cleaner and greener at state and local scales.

Harvard’s John Holdren says that when foreign journalists interview him about climate science, they often wonder why flaky skeptics get so much coverage in the U.S. He says a big part of the problem for scientists is that for a researcher, there are grave consequences for exaggeration and overstatement, leading scientists to sound overly cautious when speaking to the media. But for someone on the fringes of the field (or even completely outside of it), there’s essentially no penalty for blatant misrepresentation of facts, or for being a complete charlatan and making claims way outside your area of expertise. (Holdren speaks with particular annoyance of Michael Chrichton — a science-fiction author who studied medicine — testifying on climate science before the U.S. Senate.)

In the discussion that followed, one scientist from the audience raised an interesting point: he said that as researchers, climate scientists are fully accustomed to skepticism, and are happy to respond to it. Part of being a scientist is testing ideas and backing up your claims with data. But on this issue, he feels that some people have gone beyond skepticism to cynicism. With politicians or pundits claiming that climate change is a hoax and a conspiracy, he feels that it’s reached the point where no data, no matter how convincing, will change these closed minds. Scientists who are sharing their results are accused of having an ulterior motive.

What do all of you out there think? How is the media doing on this issue? What would make environmental reporting better? And finally, do better coverage and better data really make a difference, or is everyone’s mind already made up?

MORE ABOUT: AAAS
  • Johnnyb

    Trouble with the way that the media reports on Climate Change, is that they tend to cover antecedal events like the Floods in Bolivia, then point to global warming and mention that it is certainly caused by man. Anyone who knows anything about weather knows that the floods in Bolivia have nothing to do with Global Warming, and in fact have to do with exactly the opposite, Global Cooling caused by a La Nina. When the media blatantly lies about one phenomena being caused by another, everything that the media says becomes suspect.

    The media now is controlled by just a few corporations like the AP, Reuters, News Corp, GE etc. The editors in the news room decide the theme of the news, thus creating the Zeitgeist for the age, now the current theme is Global Warming. In the recent past, the themes have been terrorism, H5-N1 Bird Flu, suit case nukes, and the list goes on and on and on. I wish that I could point to a golden era of media, but all other previous eras have been even worse than the current era. Yes, now the mainstream news is in the hands of even fewer individuals than in the past, but thanks to the Internet people are now able to get their news from a variety of sources including independent websites and blogs created by random individuals with varieties of backgrounds and experiences. The science for and against Anthropogenic Global Warming are readily available at the click of a mouse.

    The simplest case to understand is the case for AGW. CO2 is a global warming gas. Adding CO2 to the atmosphere should make the atmosphere warmer. What else do you need to know?

    After spending a few summers in Dallas, Texas, I became a believer in Global Warming. Dallas is hot mother of a city, and on hot days the ozone caused by fuel exhaust is miserable, the traffic is always terrible, and I figured that when I died and went to hell it would look a lot like a Dallas freeway in August. I used my hatred of the Dallas heat and traffic jams to conclude that Global Warming must be true. Obviously this was not a very scientific argument, but it suited me for many years until I became curious enough to really look at the science of the issue.

    Most likely, i never would have had the curiosity to look into the issue, if it did not seem to me that the media was making such a hard sell, and generating so much outright propaganda and lies about the issue of Global Warming that my bullshit buzzer started to go off. After my BS buzzer went off, then I felt obliged to take a serious look at the skeptics point of view, and the fact is that I had to learn a lot more science to understand the skeptics, but after I get through with all of the homework involved, I realized that had a much stronger case and that’s the reason that both sides of this issue are not presented, because the Global Warming people would lose.

    Since my initial interest in Global Warming I have stayed current on the science, and it seems that the World is currently headed towards a cooling period and is in fact already in a cooling period, yet the media once again either fails to report on this phenomenon instead preferring to report on the Global Warming theme, although Global Warming is not happening right now, Global Cooling is. So if I wanted to learn more about the terrible cold in China this year, all of the news reports mention something about AGW too, same thing with the Floods in Australia, South America, the heavy rain fall in the Sahara, or the terrible cold in the mid west.

    The science that says CO2 is causing Global Warming is anything but “rock solid” and more likely weak as a wet tissue. It only exists in computer models and does not exist in the real world at all. The Computer Models are nothing more than hypothesis’ and its up to empirical scientists in the field to present evidence to confirm these predictions, but the computer models fail the test, and after the media repeatedly cries wolf about all sorts of garbage that never come to pass that supposedly have all sorts of scientific backing, then why should we believe anything that they have to say now?

  • Chris Fournier

    This sentence right here is one of the reasons I’m a skeptic. There is NO evidence at all that this is the case. Just saying so doesn’t make it reality. Perhaps Revkin should take HIS head out of the sand and do some research.

  • http://www.canabian.com Wayne Delbeke

    I believe pollution is an issue, over fishing is an issue, but I don’t believe in the hype around CO2 and never have. Water vapour has a much more profound affect. Should we (can we) control water vapour? And what if the C02 increase is due to reduced solubility of CO2 in the oceans due to heating of the earth from other causes.

    And so what if the temperature rises a bit? Won’t life actually get better? Won’t their be fewer deaths from hypothermia? Won’t crops grow better?

    My training as an engineer made me skeptical from the start …. and after reading the actual IPCC reports and the “Exectutive Summary” along with certain “interpretations” of the words – some of which you used in your article – I have become more and more skeptical. GE wants us to go green and buy more expensive light bulbs (possibly a good idea), Toyota wants us to go green and buy more expensive automobiles (possibly a good idea), Al Gore wants us to go green and trade Carbon Credits through his companies ….. along with a whole host of other industries that are jumping on the bandwagon – including China – and in pretty much every case there is a profit motive behind their actions.

    I am now more skeptical than ever.

    Is the climate changing? Of course it is. It always does.

    Is it a bad thing?

    Call me back in 50 to 100 years or so.

    But before you do, ask where your next meal is coming from, and whether it will kill you.

  • Barbara Samardich

    The problem with being a believer in the Global Warming Theory is that there are many notable geophysicists with scientific data showing that it is all voodoo science and that Al Gore is the one who will benefit monetarily from forced carbon trading. What we need is a national debate by the foremost scientists representing both sides. But, evidently Al Gore and the IPCC aren’t interested in a debate. They want us to accept their models without question and abide by their solutions which will probably ruin the U.S. economy. Part of the problem in blindly accepting the conclusions of the IPCC is the lack of credible scientists (the lead French Scientist has requested that his name be removed from the IPCC list of contributing scientists). Greenpeace zealots writing up the conclusions to various parts of their so called “consensus” doesn’t make me a believer. Check out the “Petition against Global Warming” for a list of about 22,000 geophysicists and climatologists who are sceptics. It’s an impressive list of PHD’s.

  • Ed Gulachenski

    I agree with Andrew Revkin; science and environment reporters do not get a fair chance to report news on global warming.

    For instance they are not permitted to report– there has been no net global warming in the last 10 years. Why not? Because this news is like reporting there were no drive-by shootings in Boston last night. Bad news sells papers. Good news does not.

    But we must be made aware of the complete story on global warming; not just what the media puts out for our consumption. Otherwise how are we going to make the proper decisions on how our limited resources are to be spent. We could spend billions to bury all CO2 coming out of smoke stacks only to find out that this did not do a bit of good. Do not get me wrong, turning down one’s thermostat or putting in fluorescent light bulbs are fine for those who choose to do so. They will save themselves money. But putting a tax on CO2 emissions from all smoke stacks and exhaust pipes makes no sense. It only results in increased costs to us for our energy and transportation needs.

    So what I recommend is a self study course to augment what we have learned from the media about global warming. The first reading assignment is listed below:

    Antarctic is getting colder http://www.globalwarminghoax.com/print.php?extend.48.1

    Arctic ice melts in the summer, So? http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2007/09/09/reports-record-arctic-ice-melt-disgracefully-ignore-history

    Polar Bears on Thin Ice: Not Really: http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba/ba551/

    Sea level is not rising: http://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/2007/2007_20-29/2007-25/pdf/33-37_725.pdf

    Where Humans Live, Coral fails: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23031708-12377,00.html

    Natures Thermostat: http://www.weatherquestions.com/Roy-Spencer-on-global-warming.htm

    IPCC Models are wrong;
    http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=22604

  • http://www.nytimes.com/revkin Andy Revkin

    I have absolutely no recollection of saying what I’m quoted as saying above (which doesn’t mean my increasingly overloaded, half-century-old brain isn’t capable of misfiring). Several Dot Earth readers who migrate here through my link asked me about this, because the statement clashes so much with what I’ve said in the past.

    If anyone has a tape of the session, perhaps the question of whether it was my brain misfiring or a writer misquoting can be cleared up. Please let me know at dotearth@nytimes.com .

    What’s most important, though, is simply getting the ideas right. For clarity’s sake, here’s my view on who to quote in what kinds of stories (as I’ve recommended in two book chapters on climate, environment, and the media, one of which is free online here):

    When I’m reporting on climate science, I interview scientists who are focused on the specific questions in play (sea ice, biodiversity shifts, etc.) and I avoid anyone, PhD or no PhD, with a paid affiliation or agenda (whether libertarian or green, Cato or WWF).

    But when i am writing on climate policy, essentially everyone has a legitimate voice.

  • http://www.bestblogposts.com/ George

    In this blog must be only in decovery.
    Scientists and journalists gathered at today’s conference to look at how global warming plays out in the media (though, as one commenter noted, the simplistic term “global warming” has fallen from favor, replaced by the all-encompassing “climate change”).

  • Pingback: Global Heating, Atmosphere Cancer, Pollution Death. What’s in a Name? - Dot Earth Blog - NYTimes.com

  • Pingback: Global Heating, Atmosphere Cancer, Pollution Death. What’s in a Name? - Dot Earth Blog - NYTimes.com

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