Dispatches from AAAS

A few thoughts on meeting’s media-oriented panels

Despite the surge of recent interest in environmental articles, global warming remains a “fourth-tier” story in the press. So said The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin to the audience at a panel on media coverage of global warming at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that ended yesterday.

The challenges to effective coverage, said Revkin, include the “tyranny of the news peg,” a dearth of print space, and different learning curves for different aspects of climate science (for example the basic warming trend vs. that warming’s impact on hurricanes). “The Times is not an average newsroom. It’s one of the last bastions of serious science journalism,” he told the audience. “[But] you don’t get extra room in a newspaper just because the story’s harder … [and] the word ‘incremental’ is the death knell for a story.”

Joining Revkin on the panel was Matthew Nisbet, an American University professor and caretaker of the blog Framing Science, who cautioned the journalists in the audience to think carefully about the context they used to describe global warming. For example, talking about global warming as an energy issue is likely to resonate well with conservatives who tend to dismiss the phenomenon, and framing it as a moral imperative is likely to be more effective with religious communities. (In fact, Nisbet organized another panel on “Communicating Science in a Religious America,” a crowded event that drew limited coverage.)

Next came David Dickson, who works out of London for the nonprofit Web site SciDev.net, which provides news and information about science and technology in the developing world. He began with a “reminder” to those in the audience that there has, in fact, been a climate-change debate taking place outside the United States for many years, and went on to discuss efforts to create demand for pro-environment policies in China and some of the (mostly British) government funding that goes toward getting those demands covered. “There’s a political movement toward enhancing climate-change reporting,” Dickson said, and expressed serious concerns about reporters accepting financial support from non-governmental organizations (like Greenpeace). “There is a certain, almost manipulation going on between NGOs and journalists” which leads to a “simplification of complicated issues into sound bites.”

The fourth speaker was Harvard’s John Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at the Kennedy School of Government. He was adamant in his belief that when it comes to global warming, the media “understate the magnitude of the problem we’re facing.” Journalists have become so “fearful” on being accused of alarmism, he told crowd, that they are “intimidated” into writing that bias into their stories. However, his most interesting proposal was that the press should not continue to refer to the problem as “global warming,” but rather “global climate disruption,” which carries a much weightier and ominous tone. For an interesting read, yesterday on his Dot Earth blog, Revkin discussed Holdren’s suggestion at some length and solicited reader feedback on what the proper terminology should be.

The panel’s moderator and organizer, Cristine Russell, the president for the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, has been studying trends in climate-change reporting as a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Quantity-wise, her research suggests that the coverage of global warming has been climbing in the national press. Quality-wise, however, she has found a shift away from serious science-oriented articles toward those featuring the politics and business of global warming and who is winning the race for public support. I won’t say any more about Russell’s work, however—instead, I will tease a story that she is writing based on that work for the Columbia Journalism Review’s print magazine, to be published this summer (so stay tuned!).

Nor will I belabor my analysis of a second panel I attended—about the increasingly louder call for a presidential science debate—but it is worth a mention. I covered the petition for this debate when it was first released in January. The call has grown more vigorous since then. The petition’s organizers, which includes scientists, journalists, and captain of industry, have even set date—April 18 in Philadelphia—despite the fact that none of the candidates has agreed to participate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each sent a representative to the AAAS meeting, however, for what amounted to a pseudo-debate.

Despite the dearth of any substantive argument, the “debate” was wildly popular; the conference room where it was held was bursting at the seems with scientists and reporters, many of them sporting a “Science Debate 2008” button pinned to their shirt fronts. The talk also provoked a decent amount of coverage, but most reporters noted, correctly, that the candidates’ representatives offered nothing more than familiar platitudes. Many articles fell back on the most interesting facet of the “debate” — the strange discrepancy between the older, more distinguished-looking Tom Kahlil, who was there for Clinton, and the younger, more casual Alec Ross on Obama’s side. At one point, a Time magazine reporter turned to me in frustration and asked, “What’s the point of all this if they’re just going to keep pointing us back to [the candidates’] Web sites?” It was a good question, because the event seemed to indicate a combination of things: that demand for a real debate is high within the science an and media communities, but probably not elsewhere; that the Democrats care enough to send reps to AAAS (perhaps to avoid a real debate); and that Republicans, who didn’t send anybody to the Boston meeting, don’t seem to care at all.

As for me, I took away one, unifying message from both the global-warming and science-debate panels: the business of scientific inquiry and research gets messier the more it is politicized. But the more politicized it is, the more the press and the public seem to sit up and pay attention.

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