Yale Launches Climate, Media Forum

Aims to improve communication between scientists and the press

The consensus on how to improve news stories about climate change is even more solid than the consensus on global warming itself: reporters and scientists need to communicate better with each other. It’s a two-way street, and if you spend much time talking with either group, you will hear this again and again.

Identifying the need for better communication and actually improving it are two different things, however, much like declaring the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and actually doing so. That’s where editor Bud Ward and a new Web site, The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, come in.

The Forum “focuses on how the media covers climate change,” Ward told me before Monday’s launch. “It’s what’s been driving me for the last few years.” An exclusively online publication, it will be updated weekly.

Ward has been an environmental journalist and educator since 1974. Over the last three years, he has directed a series of six workshops, funded by the National Science Foundation, which brought members of the press face-to-face with scientists in the hope of improving dialogue between them. The meetings, one of which I attended two years ago, “provided a lot of the grist for what I’m doing with this Yale project,” Ward told me.

The inaugural issue of the forum includes a long account of the most recent workshop, which took place in September before the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists, of which Ward is a founding member. It was the highest-profile meeting of the series, bringing eighteen news executives from the nation’s major newspapers and magazines together with nine of the country’s preeminent climate scientists. It was the kind of meeting that any rookie environment reporter would give his right arm to attend. For those who chatter about how to improve journalism on climate change, the Yale Forum article, authored by Ward, is a window into what is actually being done. It might not be the kind of story most lay readers would find interesting, but that doesn’t matter. Ward expects most of the Forum’s readers will come from within the media industry.

“It’s a class audience, not a mass audience,” he told me. “I’ll be happy if I get 800 to 1,000 journalists looking for edification and inspiration, and maybe 600 to 700 scientists.”

Those readers will find variety at the Yale Forum. There is an analysis of a new study that was designed to refute a widely quoted report from 2004, which found that no peer-reviewed science has challenged the consensus that Earth is getting warmer. Authored by a graduate student in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the analysis concludes that the new study “is unlikely to unseat” the established wisdom.

Under the heading, “Words Matter,” there is a good critique from San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Bruce Lieberman of the implications of using either “climate change” or “global warming” in stories or when speaking. Semantics have become incredibly important to the environmental beat, and it is nice to see the subject get attention in the forum. Lieberman’s piece is the first of two installments and hopefully, in the next one, he will scrutinize some of the finer points of the relevant language, such as the consequences of ratcheting the term “climate skeptic” up to “climate denier,” which has become more common lately.

There is also an item by former Houston Chronicle reporter Bill Dawson that defends a controversial Newsweek article from August about the “Climate Denial Machine.” The debate about this report is getting a bit stale now, but Dawson has some fresh comments from the author, Sharon Begley, and his piece is part of a department called “How I Did That Story,” which sounds promising.

In another, more traditional department, Ward profiles The Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen, the only climatologist in America who has her own weekly science program, “Forecast Earth.” Cullen’s fascinating transition from scientist to journalist is also a bit of aging news, but Ward manages to push it forward a bit, reporting that her show will expand from a half hour to a full hour.

Also in the inaugural issue is an essay by journalism scholar Phil Meyer titled, “Giving Objectivity a Bad Name.” Fed up with stories that give equal space to both mainstream and fringe climate scientists in order to achieve “balance,” a number of journalists, bloggers, and pundits are calling for an end to the strictures of “traditional” journalism:

In the age of the Internet, mere transmission no longer adds value to information. The way to add value to the surplus of data is to process it to help the reader select it and make sense of it … All that needs to be abandoned is the primitive belief that interpretation-free reporting of what ‘both sides’ say is objectivity.

Difficult considerations such as this are the forum’s raison d’ĂȘtre. When it comes to global warming and climate change, “the science and journalism on solutions is going to be just as controversial as the science and journalism on the causes,” Ward told me.

Contributions so far have come exclusively from journalists and students, but Ward hopes to get pieces from leading climate scientists down the road. This variety is the Yale Forum’s strength. It needs pieces that are a bit more unique and timely in the coming issues, but Ward and his small staff are off to a good start.

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