Blowing in the Wind

When it comes to hurricanes, what to cover?

Over the course of the last year, much of the journalism about climate change has shifted from explanatory science stories to solutions-oriented politics and business stories. Scientific “consensus” on one fundamental point-that humans are causing global warming-encouraged the shift, but there are still many unresolved questions about the impact of warming.

What happens, though, when two studies, published within a week of each other, come to completely opposite conclusions? Does a lack of scientific consensus translate into a lack of journalistic consensus about coverage? A study by British researchers published yesterday in the journal Nature concluded that warmer waters in the Atlantic Ocean increase hurricane frequency and intensity. Last week, however, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published findings in Geophysical Research Letters that suggested the opposite-that warming oceans, by increasing scissor-like vertical wind shear, may decrease the number of Atlantic hurricanes that hit the United States.

Neither study got a tremendous amount of coverage. The Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel each dedicated an article to the NOAA research, predicting fewer hurricanes, which seems to make sense given Florida’s vulnerability to hurricanes and sea-level rise. But neither paper picked up the British study, predicting greater frequency and intensity. In fact, there was not a lot of original reporting on the later research, although an article by the Associated Press got fairly widespread play. The author of that piece, Seth Borenstein, appears to be the only reporter who covered both studies, with back-to- back articles.

The contrast in the coverage-a mixed bag of original reporting and stories grabbed from the wire-is somewhat striking and raises a question: with the plethora of scientific “discoveries” every day, how do newspapers choose which ones to cover? Most climate journalists know that no single study is going to provide a real “breakthrough,” and the hypotheses underpinning the two hurricane studies this week are certainly not new. So how does the press judge which individual studies to report? The strength of the science? The attractiveness of the findings? The potential for conflict (The NOAA study received a second day of AP coverage after it provoked a verbal dispute at the annual American Meteorological Society meeting)?

Or have journalists simply grown dependant on the existence (or at least the impression) of scientific consensus? The mainstream media seem less willing to go out on a limb to cover smaller, individual studies than to write broader pieces on breaking news from institutions like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When the IPCC released the first part of its influential assessment report in February 2007 (which produced the fundamental finding that humans play a role in global warming), papers from The New York Times to the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska dedicated space to it.

That aligns with how Nils Bruzelius, science editor at The Washington Post, decides what to cover. He said that his paper only writes about single studies when the results are new and different:

In the case of the hurricane thing … there have been dozens of studies on this topic. When there’s sort of an ongoing controversy, that makes us less likely to write it as a daily story. When we’ve accumulated enough material, we’ll do a broader story.

For wire services like the AP, whose mission is to provide round-the-clock news to thousands of member publications, a strategy focusing on more in-depth pieces won’t fly. With an increasing demand for science news, particularly online, the AP is writing more science stories than ever, said health and science editor Kit Frieden. Who publishes a study is occasionally a factor in whether the wire service covers it or not, but it is far from the only factor. Frieden explains:

In general, in choosing which studies to write, we try to stick to research from the best peer-reviewed journals, but have no specific rules about that. We make our judgments based on the subject matter and how relevant it is to AP’s broad readership and the quality of the research. There is tremendous interest in research on hurricanes and climate change.

Global warming is unquestionably on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and NOAA, which produced the study predicting fewer hurricanes in a warmer world, is a reputable organization. But some in the scientific community, such as Kerry Emanuel, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the NOAA study warranted the minimal coverage it received. Emanuel, who wrote one of the seminal papers linking warmer seas to increased hurricane intensity (but not frequency), said the NOAA study needs to be backed up with more research before it can be endorsed.

“It’s certainly not the first paper to suggest the number of storms would go down” because of global warming, he said. “The reaction to [the study] was a tempest in a teapot.” As for the British study predicting more intense and frequent hurricanes, Emanuel said that it reinforces the link that earlier studies have made between Atlantic storm activity and sea surface temperature-something the NOAA research did not do.

Does that mean the mainstream press is more willing to publish science stories that jibe with the popular theory of the moment? Although there is no consensus about warming’s affect on hurricanes, it is fair to say that there is a certain conventional wisdom which supports the idea that there will be more of them. Coverage of the NOAA and British studies seems to suggest as much. But Rick Weiss, a science reporter at The Washington Post, thinks it’s more than that. He said it’s a clue about the state and direction of science coverage today, in a world where politics almost always trumps science. Weiss said it’s a rare occasion when he gets to write a great science story just to inform readers:

We are being told to be increasingly selective about the science stories we run. There is less space for science and less interest in science unless the news is deemed significant, or counterintuitive, or somehow constitutes a great narrative tale that readers would really appreciate.

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Michele Wilson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.