As with business and political reporting, there is a tendency for science journalists to become too reliant on and close to a limited number of sources, which can lead to ideological bias in terms of accepting the sources’ statements uncritically. But there are other factors to consider. Journalists often fall into the role of “stenographer,” as Revkin put it, not because they are biased, but rather because they don’t have the training, time, or resources to conduct thorough investigations. In addition, the mainstream media tends to abhor complicated stories on areas of scientific uncertainty about the causes and consequences of climate change. This tendency is not exclusive to science reporting—most editors tend to prefer distilled and simple “news bites.”
The consequences, as Mike Hulme put it in his excellent essay for The Wall Street Journal, are false narratives: “Either the evidence for man-made climate change is all fake, or else we are so sure we know how the planet works that we can claim to have just five or whatever years to save it.” These polarizing storylines contribute to the politicization of science and foster the “circle the wagons” approach that many saw in the hacked e-mails.
One of the biggest mistakes reporters have made in the coverage of “Climategate” is to assume that the questionable actions of a few climate scientists are common practice within the scientific community. Nonetheless, this is a good opportunity for reporters to ask tough questions and provide needed explanations. Take, for example, Rajendra Pachauri. The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quickly assured the media that integrity of his organization’s peer-review process and conclusions were intact and could not be hijacked by a small group of scientists (stressing, again, that there was no evidence such an attempt was made). But the articles that quoted Pachauri didn’t go into much detail on the IPCC process.
Among the most interesting pieces of reporting over the last two weeks was a series of interviews by The Washington Post’s Andrew Freedman at the Capital Weather Gang blog. He was one of the few reporters to seek out more commentary and post at length on the research assessment processes at IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences, which has also vouched for the evidence of anthropogenic warming. Climatologist Thomas Crowley, who served as a chapter reviewer for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, detailed the arduous review process for Freedman. “There is no need to do anything different by the scientists – they are doing their part with incredible conscientiousness and thoroughness,” he argued. “The only problem is that the press has not reported on this methodology.”
Crowley is right, but it’s not just the methodology that needs more attention. The press should, in fact, be asking if there is something that scientists could be doing differently, primarily in terms of depoliticizing the research process.
The editorial board of the journal Nature, which has worked with some of the scientists involved in the e-mails, has argued that accusations of either scientific or procedural misconduct are irresponsible because they could delay legislative action on climate change. Perhaps. But there is more to be gained here by fleshing out the details of this controversy than by simply accepting that all is well.
Now is a good time for journalists to reassess their coverage of climate change, weed out any bias from their reporting strategies, do what they can to disentangle politics from science, and be more aggressive about covering what many scientists, business figures, policymakers, and activists think is the most important climate story of this still-new millennium. If the science stands up to the test, it will emerge even stronger than before.
[Clarification: A sentence that stated it “would clearly be illegal” if climate scientists had deleted e-mails to avoid freedom of information laws, but few things are certain in such matter, so the sentence was changed to read that act “could prove illegal.” The story was also changed to reflect that “files” as well as e-mails were suggested for deletion.]