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.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.