A One-Stop Shop for Climate Information?

Princeton startup attempts to pair journalists' yin with scientists' yang

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.”

The trout and drought piece will be part of an “occasional series” series at PBS. Climate Central is already putting the finishing touches on its next installment, about how growing biofuels is changing land use practices in Iowa. The broadcasts are collaborations between the two organizations. Linda Winslow, the NewsHour’s executive producer, said she was very pleased with the finished project and with Climate Central’s hard work, which involved a trip back to Montana, upon the program’s request, to get additional material. Though she was “somewhat dubious” when the group approached her because the NewsHour does not have much experience in such partnerships, and relying on outside content was a “big departure” for the program, the benefits were clear.

The NewsHour has half a dozen “core staff” that are responsible for covering science and health full or part-time, but “we lack the resources to go out into the field with a camera crew and fly around the country,” Winslow said. In that respect, Climate Central is providing a valuable service that helps the NewsHour “visualize” stories and meets its editorial standards. And two local radio stations, including an NPR affiliate, interviewed Cullen about climate change in Montana.

Yet the relatively long features it is producing for PBS are not what Climate Central wants to focus on in the long run, or where it thinks it can do the most good. Because the majority of Americans get their information from nightly news programs, the team wants to partner with local television stations directly to produce shorter broadcasts that are also radio and podcast ready.

Seventy-second spots should be organization’s “bread and butter,” said Climate Central executive producer Charles Lyons. With a public broadcasting station in Cleveland, Climate Central is starting to develop “Climate Minutes” for television and radio in northeastern Ohio that would also have “direct feeds” into local classrooms. Ideally, Lyons explained, the local producers would take the “driver’s seat” in guiding content, and Climate Central would provide scientific information, expertise, and high-end “visualizations” (i.e graphics) of climate data, trends, and forecasts. Cullen added that they also hope to develop relationships with local meteorologists. (Cullen stirred up a controversy in 2006 when she suggested that meteorologists who “can’t speak” about the fundamentals of climate science should not be given American Meteorological Society credentials, but she nonetheless stresses their importance as most people’s “gateway to science.”)

Climate Central is also building up a print operation under Michael Lemonick, who covered science for Time magazine for twenty-two years. Lemonick recently published a superbly nuanced article about the climate’s sensitivity to carbon emissions in a special issue of Scientific American, and is now working on a number of other magazine assignments. But like TV, he said, the idea is to eventually “reach readers that aren’t as knowledgeable” about climate by contributing to local newspapers, which are rapidly losing the expertise and resources to cover such technical stories.

Though Climate Central hopes to find partners that are willing to share production costs, the organization is partially funded for several years to come and does not charge for its stories or services. Seed money came from the Flora Family Foundation, but the majority of Climate Central’s operational budget comes The 11th Hour Project, a group focused on “raising public awareness about global warming and promoting sustainable solutions to climate change.” Wendy Schmidt, the project’s president, sits on Climate Central’s board members with Princeton’s Pacala and Oregon State University’s Jane Lubchenco.

Although the organization is new, the idea has been gestating since 2005, when participants at a climate conference in Aspen resolved to try and do something to improve the quantity and quality of climate coverage. In 2007, Berrien Moore III, who left his job running the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, signed on as the group’s first operational director. Climate Central’s first official meeting took place in a Starbucks Coffee shop in Princeton between Moore, Cullen, Lyons, and staff scientist Ben Strauss. The group rapidly expanded to its current size after that, moving into its offices last June.

“I actually think this is the future of science journalism - non-profit partnerships providing independent and syndicated science coverage,” said Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communications at American University who studies communications between journalists, scientists, and the public. “We need to build up the infrastructure to adapt to climate change and the media should be thought of as an important part piece of that infrastructure.”

When it comes to providing better explanations of science, the biggest mistake that journalists usually make is overstating the significance of single studies, technologies, and solutions, according to Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The issue is to what extent Climate Central can be a neutral arbiter,” he said. “And can the fact that they have people who know what they’re talking about on staff improve the context in which climate stories are reported?”

Though they expressed full confidence in the credibility and competence of Climate Central’s team, a number of the scientists and journalists I spoke with expressed a certain leeriness about the non-profit model of journalism in general (which CJR, to large extent, also replies upon). The two main areas of concern are that foundational support will cause conflicts of interest in covering certain stories, and that such operations would simply never make up for the overwhelming number of journalism jobs being lost around the country.

So, as unique and impressive as Climate Central’s qualifications may be, it will still have to fight the uphill battles that are inherent to an industry undergoing such great flux. Fortunately, everybody there seems abundantly aware of that fact and poised to meet the challenge.

[Correction: The paragraph about Climate Central’s funding was changed to reflect that the group is partially funded, not endowed, for several years to come.]

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