A Reporting Error Frozen in Time?

Writing about issues such as global warming is complicated, and too few reporters brush up on their science when doing so.

Science writers often face the same technical difficulty as foreign correspondents — their sources speak a different language. In the case of the former, this is a metaphorical challenge, and in the latter, a literal one, but the consequence is the same. Sometimes the finer points of a story get lost in translation. That was the case in recent coverage of melting Arctic ice, where one misinterpreted point made some already bad news look even worse.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland announced last Wednesday the results of a new study shedding further light on the retreat of Arctic sea ice, a subject of serious concern for some years now. Every summer Arctic sea ice melts, and refreezes during the winter. The amount that melts every year has been increasing since scientists began collecting satellite data nearly three decades ago — a worrisome phenomenon that many experts attribute to global warming. But once the hot months are past, ice coverage has seemed to return to normal.

Not so, according to NASA’s new study, which paints a bleaker picture. According to a report by Goddard’s Dr. Josefino Comiso, to be published soon in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the amount of sea water that refreezes each winter in also on the decline. Furthermore, he says, the period from when ice begins to thaw in the spring to when water begins to freeze in the fall, is growing longer. The overall effect is that the geographical extent of sea ice has failed to return to normal during the last two winters.

Unfortunately, this was not quite the information disseminated by the Associated Press and The San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday. As disquieting as Comiso’s new data may be, these two news organizations sounded an even more horrific, though false, alarm. Rather than explaining that Arctic sea ice is not returning to normal levels, both claimed in their lead paragraphs that it is actually melting during the winter as well as during the summer.

“That’s a fallacy,” Dr. Comiso said when asked about the articles. With sub-zero temperatures during winter months, “there’s no way that Arctic sea ice could be melting during this time period.”

The bulk of the AP and Chronicle dispatches are true to the scientific research and accurately recount the risks associated with sea ice melt, including global warming feedback effects and threats to the polar bear population. But the errors committed by authors Seth Borenstein (AP) and Jane Kay (Chronicle) are conspicuous in the opening sentences. The Chronicle also printed the mistake in the story’s headline.

Other media accounts were more accurate. Kudos go to Marc Kaufman at The Washington Post and Mike Toner at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for their spot-on reporting.

Let’s play good lede, bad lede:

Bad lede: “The vast expanses of ice floating in the Arctic Sea are melting in winter as well as in the summer, likely because of global warming, NASA scientists said Wednesday.” (SF Chronicle)

Good lede: “The amount of ice being formed in the Arctic winter has declined sharply in the past two years, a finding that NASA climate researchers say significantly increases their confidence that greenhouse gases created by autos and industry are warming the Arctic and the globe.” (Washington Post)

So what happened? Where did Borenstein and Kay get the idea that Arctic sea ice is melting during the winter? According to Comiso, NASA issued an early press release that misconstrued his findings, suggesting that sea melted during the winter. He corrected the problem almost 24 hours later when friends and colleagues began to point out the erroneous headlines.

In an interview the day after the AP and Chronicle stories went to press, Comiso worried that Kay and Borenstein took their information from the flawed press release, and he cautioned that even when the PR department gets the facts right, its releases “are often very pedestrian descriptions of the research.”

Kay, however, insists that her information came directly from Comiso’s research paper, which was distributed to the media prior to the September 13 press release and conference call between Comiso and reporters. “You would never rely on a press release alone,” Kay said when asked about the source of her information and science reporting in general.

Borenstein was in Cape Canaveral covering the space shuttle Atlantis and unavailable for comment. But halfway through his article, Borenstein quotes Comiso saying, “‘If the winter ice melt continues, the effect would be very profound …’” Following that quote, Borenstein writes, “The ice is melting even in subfreezing winter temperatures because the water is warmer and summer ice covers less area and is shorter-lived.” Comiso says he was misunderstood. True, the warmer water and growing melt season lead to a situation where there is less ice present each winter, but “ice advances during the winter,” Comiso said, “it doesn’t melt.”

The discrepancies between the AP and Chronicle stories and the scientific information are a relatively small instance of mistranslation in the quest to make complicated material more understandable to the general public. But, there is a big difference, in terms of the future of this planet and human reaction to climate change, between ice failing to reach its usual extent during winter, and ice actually melting during the coldest months. Even a small reporting mistake can discredit both the scientist and the organization that publishes it, and the consequences of misinformation are difficult to roll back. “It’s already out, so it’s very hard to correct,” Comiso said. “And even if you asked [the news outlet] to print a correction, I don’t think many people would see it.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.