When it comes to improving the coverage of climate change, critics often suggest some variant of the idea that journalists and scientists should do a better job “communicating” with each other.
Over the last few years, a fairly large number of meetings, seminars, workshops, symposia, and conferences have attempted to improve the dialogue by bringing the two groups—some would say “cultures”—together. Countless examples of excellent climate news reports have reflected that exposure. At the end of the day, however, the journalists and scientists always returned to their respective workplaces. That is no longer the case, at least in one “newsroom.”
Climate Central is a hybrid team of nearly two dozen journalists and scientists — spread between a main office in Princeton, New Jersey and a smaller one in Palo Alto, California — who work side by side on stories for television, print, and the Web. Relying upon a non-profit business model that is similar to The Center for Investigative Reporting , ProPublica, and others, Climate Central pitches its work to local and national news outlets, looking for collaborative editorial partnerships. It also makes its various experts, many of who are still affiliated with major research institutions, available as primary sources. The goal is to “localize” the story around regions, states, or even cities, in order to highlight the various and particular ways that changes in climate are affecting people’s daily lives.
“We want to develop a reputation for impartiality and integrity, and we know that there is a long time constant for acquiring that sort of reputation, but a short one for losing it,” said chairman Steve Pacala, who studies climate at Princeton University. “One of the main reasons for having the in-house scientific, technical and policy expert staff, and the almost unbelievable network within the scientific community, is to have the capacity to evaluate material and not make a serious misstep and not overreach as we struggle to educate the public.”
Edited and produced by Betwa Sharma
Like the other non-profit news outlets that have sprung up in recent years, Climate Central is trying to provide specialized coverage at a time when traditional news outlets around the country are losing the ability to produce it for themselves. Newspapers and television stations around the country (most recently at CNN) have axed their science and environment teams. And despite a boom in climate-change coverage since 2004, a study released at a United Nations global-warming conference in Poland last week found that it has dropped off rather significantly this year.
“This is a really difficult climate in which to talk about climate. It’s an expensive story to tell and it usually ends up falling to the bottom of the list,” said Heidi Cullen, who directs Climate Central’s communications operation, serves as the on camera face of all its broadcasts, and is also one its senior research scientists. She is speaking from experience; two weeks ago, NBC Universal cut the entire staff of The Weather Channel’s Forecast Earth program, where Cullen has worked for the last five years. She has been contributing to Forecast Earth as a correspondent since January 2008 and hopes “to continue doing that into the future.” Climate Central’s first broadcast, which aired on PBS’s NewsHour at the end of October, identified her as a reporter for both organizations.
The piece, a ten-minute spot about how climate-related drought is threatening trout in Montana, shows that Climate Central is off to a good start. It has all the locally-focused science, commerce, and policy that the group set out to capture, as well a fair nod toward the opinion that declining snow packs, stream flows, and fish populations in the region have nothing to do with warming from greenhouse-gas emissions. The real beauty and innovation of the package is not the broadcast itself, however, but the bountiful range of supporting and complementary information that can be found at Climate Central’s Web site. This includes an annotated transcript with links to relevant scientific research and other data; graphics on current wildfire, wind energy and average temperature statistics; and an interactive climate forecast map. In addition, there are supplementary interviews and reports at Climate Central’s branded YouTube channel and Facebook group. The team hopes to produce state-by-state similar packages, building up an educational database where people can find many “levels” of information.
“It’s almost like typing in your zip code and getting climate information,” Cullen said, noting Climate Central’s emphasis on local trends and statistics. “A lot of people feel like they’re experiencing more extreme events. So their relationship with their daily weather very much informs their feelings about climate change.”