The science of reporting climate change

Barren: the public is being let down on climate change reporting.

Foundation Essay – In his recent statements on the poor state of the Australian debate on global warming (meaning discussion of its causes, and how to deal with it in policy terms) Professor Ross Garnaut drew attention to the role of the media.

He argued that “debate about scientific matters that occurs in the public domain (such as in newspapers and blog sites) can come to be divorced from scientific quality, rigour and authority”. As a result, people are confused, and losing faith in the science of climate change.

Not that the media are the only source of growing scepticism as to the seriousness of global warming. Garnaut acknowledges that the leak of emails from a British university which appeared to show scientists manipulating data – Climategate – was damaging to public belief in the reality of human-generated, or anthropogenic climate change.

Then came the damp squib of the Copenhagen climate summit, when the politicians signally failed to agree on meaningful action. And in Australia, after a decade of drought rashly attributed by some environmental zealots to global warming, came the great floods. No wonder, as Garnaut noted, more than half of Australians are “confused as to what to believe”.

So the politicians and the scientists are far from innocent on this question, and let’s not let them off the hook. But there IS, as Garnaut suggests, a problem with the media’s coverage of climate change.

Indeed, there’s a problem with media coverage of science in general, which arises from the very nature of news, and the heightened obligation on all public actors, including scientists, to manage news.

First, the media.

Journalists in the main know little more about science than their readers. Very few of them have science degrees, and very few journalism degrees give students a grounding in even the most basic scientific principles.

In my capacity as a journalism educator, I have tried to introduce this knowledge to journalism students on occasion, and been criticised for giving them ‘irrelevant’ information.

Why do we need to know about MMR, autism and Andrew Wakefield, they asked? Because media coverage of this issue was an ill-informed, panic-mongering scandal, I replied, which scared hundreds of thousands of parents away from a vaccine protecting their children from mumps, measles and rubella. The UK, where Wakefield did his greatest damage, now grapples with a very real measles epidemic.

As for the editors and proprietors, they have little interest in the complexity and open-endedness of scientific work. News media in the competitive cultural marketplace of our times need stories that can be told in eye-catching headlines, captured in a few hundred words at most.

They like dramatic pictures and lurid speculation, and the more that a science story can be told in those terms the better. ‘Millions at risk of swine flu’ (or SAARs, or avian bird flu, or ‘mad cow’ disease - there’s a new threat every year, it seems) makes a better, because more sellable news story than – ‘Some risk of catching this new strain of flu, but more people will die in swimming pool accidents in Australia this year, and every year, than will be killed by this latest in a long line of exotic sounding but ultimately low risk threats to your health’.

The need to sell news in an evermore crowded information marketplace leads directly to the scarification of readers, viewers and listeners with lurid images of impending death and catastrophe. In a world of proliferating news sources and ever greater competition for the news dollar, the tendency to media-generated panic is intensified.

The availability of user generated video, as in recent apocalyptic footage of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, adds to the sense of impending calamity.

Today, fuelled by digital technology and UGC, health and other kinds of scares go global at the speed of light, as information is disseminated around online networks with unprecedented immediacy.

Governments and policy-makers are bounced into making hasty, ill-thought out statements which may or may not reassure, but certainly give the story fresh legs for another round of the 24-hour, always-on, real-time news cycle.

As for the scientists, they are under pressure to package their work in neat soundbites for ease of media consumption. We (and I count myself amongst them) are advised to present our research findings in terms likely to grab an editor’s attention on a busy news day. Hence, the endless iterations of ‘coffee/red wine/fatty foods give you/protect you from cancer/heart disease’.

The ‘news’ about this or that newly-discovered risk factor for this or that disease or condition rarely bears scrutiny, even if the research on which it is based might have some value as a contribution to a complex and intellectually demanding debate.

The qualifications and nuances which typically surround scientific research findings are often sacrificed in the search for publicity and the headline which equates to ‘profile’ and ‘impact’ in the eyes of funders and academic managers. We are all in the business of public relations now, urged to feed the media with sexy data, even where the truth is more prosaic.

All of this makes for good teaching material in university lectures on the sociology of risk and the media’s role in generating misplaced public anxiety. But in the era of anthropogenic global warming the debate about media coverage and public understanding of science has become a matter of life and death.

If we get the science on climate change wrong – the journalists, the scientists, the politicians, the public – we are in for a hellish time down the road.

So what can be done to improve the coverage of science in the mainstream media?

Editors and journalists should be better trained, for a start, in the interpretation of scientific research and the data it generates.

We need more science correspondents with science degrees, and the ability to translate the science into common discourse. We need more scientific input to journalism education.

We need media organisations prepared – in the public interest - to sacrifice the dramatic headline for the more nuanced analysis of risk. Of course there can be heated debate and opinion in coverage of these issues, but not at the cost of balanced, reasoned, evidence-based analysis.

This may be a big ask, given the commercial nature of most of our media. In that respect, the growth of online information sources can help break the hold of Big Media on what the public gets to hear about emerging risks to their health and safety.

Publications like this one should help too, by giving scientists a dedicated platform for the presentation of their work.

And then there’s the public. Is there anything the readers, viewers and listeners of news media can do to improve science journalism? We humans like to be scared witless, to be afraid of things that go bump in the night. Science news, from that perspective, is a bit like those cavemen and women who used to huddle round the fire in the darkness, sharing their stories of monsters and demons.

Fear and a sensitivity to risk are hard-wired into the human psyche, and there is part of us that relishes media images of looming apocalypse. We live in the healthiest, wealthiest, most peaceful era in human history, and that’s a measurable fact. But we are more anxious, less happy, than previous generations, including those who fought world wars and died on average in their 40s. Maybe those two trends are related.

Maybe it is unrealistic to expect news media not to play to our apparent fascination with disaster and calamity when covering the latest virus/disaster/extreme weather event/technological innovation.

In the short term, though – and the science is clear on this - the world IS warming. Former UK Tory minister John Gummer is in Australia, making the point that there is clear all-party consensus in Europe and the US around climate change, and that concern for the environment isn’t just for ‘warmists’ and woolly liberals. Australia, he argues, is dangerously behind the times in its apparent denial of the problem.

We DO, in Australia, need a rational debate about why climate change is happening, and what we can do to protect future generations from the consequences of the worst case scenario.

Only the media can provide us with an accessible public platform in which to have that debate, and from which the policy makers can draw guidance as they strive to govern.

This Foundation Essay is part of a series of articles to mark the launch of The Conversation. Others in the series are:

Better connecting the university to the public debate By Glyn Davis

When the science is so clear, why is the argument so clouded? By Ross Garnaut

A better formula for science communication By Peter Doherty

What’s the point of universities? It’s the ideas, stupid By Patrick McCaughey

How universities learnt a lesson in humility — and are all the better for it By John Keane

The modern university must reinvent itself to survive By Simon Marginson