Covering Climate

Journalists and scientists discuss the media's treatment of global warming

Earlier this month, I moderated a panel at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism about the press coverage of climate change issues. Two intrepid student journalists, Rachel Cernansky and Laura Shin, organized the event and put together what some were calling a “dream team” of panelists. (The YouTube videos can be found here.)

There were three journalists: Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’s lead climate reporter/blogger; Bill Blakemore, who has spearheaded climate coverage at ABC News for the last four years; and John Rennie, the editor in chief of Scientific American who recently helped craft two issues on climate change that have sold better any other issue in the magazine’s long history. And there were two scientists: Gavin Schmidt and Ron Miller-climate modelers from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies that have contributed research to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It was a fascinating discussion that ran on for almost two-and-half hours, well beyond its scheduled seventy-five minutes (casual readers fear not-the video embedded here is a twenty-minute distillation of the highlights). It didn’t take much provocation from me to get the conversation rolling. We talked about what climate coverage means specifically (given the explosion of environmentally oriented journalism in recent years, which has run the gamut from science and technology to politics and business stories); about issues such as false balance on the one hand and alarmist reporting on the other; about the challenges journalists face in explaining scientific uncertainty to editors and audiences; and about the climate of climate legislation in the presidential election.

Recent polls suggest that the percentage of the public that accepts the basic fact that human greenhouse-gas emissions are warming the planet has increased over the last year, but that the number of people who think it is a pressing sociopolitical concern hasn’t. When I asked Blakemore about that at the panel, he said that he thinks climate coverage over the last fifteen years “will be seen in the future as the single greatest failing of American professional journalism.” That may or may not turn out to be true, but at any rate, reporting on climate change is a tough job beset by many obstacles. Fortunately, there are many journalists (and scientists) like our panelists thinking hard about how to surmount them.

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