The Times’s new series was cited by Harvard climate scientist Dr. James J. McCarthy as a good example of putting important climate science in perspective—an approach he said has been missing in recent climate coverage. “Over the past few years, coverage of climate science in the U.S. media has been disappointing,” he said in an interview. Stories tended to inflate “juicy quips from stolen private e-mail exchanges,” but barely mentioned the “subsequent, thorough investigations by universities and academies that found no evidence of wrong doing.”
The challenge ahead, of course, is finding new angles to freshen up the climate story after a tough year in which the amount of climate coverage showed a steep slide after Copenhagen in major newspapers like the Times and the Post. The number of stories mentioning climate change or global warming dropped to a four-year low in both papers in the third quarter of 2010. While this certainly reflected a diversion of resources to the oil spill, the amount of climate-change coverage has been declining all year long, according to a Lexis-Nexis search by Carolyn McGourty, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs working with this correspondent.
The amount of climate-change coverage first shot up in the spring of 2006, following the release of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Peak coverage occurred in early 2007, accompanying the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment report documenting scientific knowledge about the widespread hazards that rising greenhouse gas emissions pose to the planet. Coverage remained steadily high throughout 2008, fluctuated in mid-2009, and jumped up again at the end of last year when “Climategate” and the Copenhagen conference collided.
The one-year anniversary of those two pivotal events has, not surprisingly, produced a bumper crop of articles reflecting on the lessons learned by journalists and scientists involved in climate change communication and coverage.
A thoughtful recap by Andrew Freedman on The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog criticized media coverage, noting that Climategate has “drastically altered discussions of climate science during the past year.”
Climategate almost immediately caused climate scientists to lose control of the media narrative and put them on the defensive for much of the year. Prior to Climategate, the narrative had evolved into one that focused more on what society should do to slow and halt climate change, rather than on questions about the fundamentals of climate science. Almost instantaneously, many in the press switched into ‘cover the conflict’ mode, with stories portraying climate scientists as scheming to rig scientific data and prevent the publication of dissenting opinions from the scientific literature.
Now, however, Freedman sees promising signs that the scientific community may be learning from their trial by fire, becoming more open with their data and methods and “more willing to publicly address challenges to their research and to engage both proactively and defensively with the media and the public.” Scientific groups and climate scientists are launching new efforts to connect scientists to journalists and respond more quickly to news stories.
That theme was reflected in an interesting exchange with nine scientists interviewed by the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. The feisty views of Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, were shared, to some degree, by many of his colleagues:
there is an improved realization of how impossible it is to keep the climate science questions and debates separate from the political and ideological debates. And I hope we’ve learned the importance of communicating accurately and constantly. Being passive in the face of political repression, ideological misuse of science, and policy ignorance moves us in the wrong direction. I would like to think the community has learned that depending on the ‘honesty’ and ‘impartiality’ of journalism is not enough that without strong input from climate scientists, the wrong stories get reported, with bad information, and ideological bias.