To tell a complicated climate science story: simplify, shorten, list

Reporting on the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focused on short, Webby pieces

In a world of short attention spans, small screens, and social media, a massive United Nations report on the threat of global warming, compiled by hundreds of scientists over six years, presents a special journalistic challenge. How can the complexities of climate science be condensed into bite-size morsels for public, and political, consumption?

It’s simple: Take a page from Late Show host David Letterman, and make a list.

The release last week of the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unleashed list-making mania among many international media outlets. Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News had its “Top 10 Takeaways” and the the Guardiansix things we’ve learned.” The Toronto Star listed the “Top 5 scariest findings,” while Mother Jones had “6 Scary Conclusions.”

The AP did a list of “10 Things to Know about the IPCC Panel.” And the IPCC even issued its own official list of “headline statements” summing up the new report, along with its Friday press release and a 35-page summary for policymakers. The 2,500-page draft final report on the physical science of global warming was released online Monday.

The news media coverage, whether in list or standard news story format, largely presented a consistent set of messages from the IPCC about the magnitude of global warming and who is to blame. First, “warming in the climate system is unequivocal and since 1950 many changes have been observed throughout the climate system that are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” according to the IPCC press release.

Second, “scientists are more certain than ever that humanity is to blame for rising temperatures,” as the Guardian put it. In the IPCC’s more cautious words: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The phrase “extremely likely” is IPCC code for 95-percent certainty among its global network of climate scientists, a bump up from the 90-percent certainty cited in the last IPCC report in 2007.

The various media “takeaways” also shared common IPCC warnings of worrisome—nay, devastating—impacts to the planet if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow largely unabated: rising atmospheric temperatures, warming oceans, melting Arctic ice, rises in global sea level. The list goes on.

The new UN climate report is the fifth in a series of scientific assessments conducted since 1990 to advise world government leaders and inform international climate policy. The assessments do not involve original research but instead represent a consensus from some 800 climate experts around the world who are commissioned to review the latest scientific evidence. Their work is then presented to representatives from the IPCC’s 195 member countries, who met last week behind closed doors in Stockholm to review the report on the physical science of climate change. It is the first of four, with its sister reports being released in 2014.

This year’s list-based, takeaway-style coverage is a sign of the times, reflecting the dramatic media shift toward faster, shorter Web-based reporting by a variety of outlets vying for public attention on a scrolling screen rather than the conventional print or broadcast formats that were more dominant when the fourth assessment was released in 2007.

The report’s release and subsequent media coverage also took advantage of the tools of our digital age. The IPCC provided broad-based virtual access to key press conferences, events, and documents from afar and the coverage utilized an array of visual and social media tools. Some examples:

—The IPCC’s Friday press conference in Stockholm was available globally by live webcast, in English and Chinese, along with the Summary for Policy Makers (since it was 10am in Stockholm, some of us got up at 4am EDT to watch the proceedings). The US National Center for Atmospheric Research also set up a subsequent teleconference from Stockholm by key American scientists involved in the IPCC report that got further into the nitty-gritty that only knee-deep environmental science reporters can, or want, to follow.

—Twitter (a relative newbie in 2007) lit up with the #IPCC hashtag. Climate scientist Piers Forster of the University of Leeds tweeted the entire list of the IPCC “headline statements” one by one (later Storified). And, before the report was even released, an orchestrated Twitter environment campaign (automated through an activist portal called urged major news outlets, such as The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and the Economist, to pay attention: “@JillAbramson @nytimes Put the #IPCC report as front page news! Climate change is real and urgent #telltheclimatetruth”

—Also, more prominent this time around were a number of nonprofit news and communication organizations. Funded largely by foundations, many have been set up in recent years to improve coverage of climate science and policy, noted veteran IPCC reporter and New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin. They include Inside Climate News and Climate Central, a respected independent organization of scientists and journalists set up in 2008 to provide reliable climate information for the public.

Despite the global online rollout, the IPCC release early Friday still relied upon on-the-scene reporting by traditional media outlets. Seasoned Reuters environment correspondent Alister Doyle said by email that he “spent a large part of the final night in Stockholm freezing on the sidewalk outside the building” because they would not let reporters even wait in the lobby. The IPCC press office did set up an advance two-hour “lockdown”—cut to an hour because the report was not ready—so accredited reporters there on deadline could see the documents before their official release and get a head start on their stories.

Overall, some of the most extensive—and urgent—coverage last week came from across the pond. The Guardian did an extensive online IPCC package, with a lead story from correspondent Fiona Harvey in Stockholm (headlined “IPCC: 30 years to climate calamity if we carry on blowing the carbon budget”), a live blog of the report’s release, interactives, video, Q&As, and a “climate report by the numbers.” In contrast, the New York Times story from Justin Gillis in Stockholm, headlined “U.N. Climate Panel Endorses Ceiling on Carbon Emissions,” took a far more even-handed approach. Sadly, the Washington Post did not even send reporter Darryl Fears to Stockholm.

On Friday morning, the IPCC report got prominent display on many news websites. But as so often happens with science and environment stories, more competitive national and international news pushed it down in website queues and subsequent print and television coverage. In this case, several blockbusters dominated the news cycle starting Friday afternoon, including the US congressional budget impasse and impending government shutdown, as well as President Obama’s historic phone call with Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani.

With round one of this cycle of IPCC reports largely finished, few reporters will likely have the time—or expertise—to peruse the mighty 2,500-page draft volume made public today (although some media warriors may buck the short-is-better trend and find fodder for longer take-outs in sections such as the Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections).

The next round of the IPCC’s fifth assessment takes place in late March 2014, in Yokohama, Japan, when the UN body gathers to review the report on “impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: ,