Mediaphobia at the IPCC

Letter steers scientists away from the press, despite recent calls for transparency

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems to have caught a touch of mediaphobia from last year’s largely debunked controversies stemming from a couple minor errors in its 2007 report and from a batch of leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin had an important scoop on Saturday highlighting a letter that IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri recently sent to the 831 researchers who will contribute to the panel’s next assessment report, its fifth. In it, Pachauri tells scientists to be wary of reporters:

I would also like to emphasize that enhanced media interest in the work of the IPCC would probably subject you to queries about your work and the IPCC. My sincere advice would be that you keep a distance from the media and should any questions be asked about the Working Group with which you are associated, please direct such media questions to the Co-chairs of your Working Group and for any questions regarding the IPCC to the secretariat of the IPCC.

Revkin sent an e-mail to Pachauri asking about the letter and whether or not it meant, for instance, that a reporter from South Africa wanting to interview a contributing author from his/her country would be barred from doing so. Pachauri’s response:

Not at all. They can certainly speak about such issues, but it would be inappropriate and premature for them to offer an opinion on what would go into a working group report or what the I.P.C.C. plans to do. In such cases they must direct the query to the appropriate authority as I have advised them to do.

We are only trying to bring some order into the system precisely because we would like to be more transparent and systematic in responding to the media’s growing interest in climate change — which we welcome greatly.

Revkin also got in touch with Edward R. Carr—a contributing author to the IPCC report who received Pachauri’s letter—who had written a post at his blog fretting that climate scientists had “learned nothing” from last year’s controversies. While a series of inquires and investigations have reaffirmed the integrity of the IPCC’s work and that of the climate scientists involved in the so-called “Climategate” affair, they have also recommended that both the panel and individual researchers strive for greater transparency and openness with regard to dealing with public requests for information.
Revkin asked Carr about Pachauri’s explanation of the letter, and his take was that:

Pachauri’s response is legitimate – but that is not really how his message in the letter was phrased. If this was the concern, he should have simply said “please do not speak on behalf of the I.P.C.C.” — a standard admonition, even in academia, for those of us who engage in public outreach. I’m not saying that he is disingenuous in his response to you — but that the letter was itself tone-deaf. For an organization that now “has in place a structure and a system” for outreach, you would think that someone might have picked up that this paragraph will play right into the hands of the climategate crowd, making it look like those of us on the I.P.C.C. are engaged in back-room dealings. Optics are everything these days, and this letter utterly failed in that regard.

Carr’s analysis is dead on. There has been a seemingly infinite amount of discussion on blogs and in the halls of research about the need for climate scientists and the IPCC to wise up when it comes to their communications strategies, and it is worrisome to see Pachauri (who once criticized Science reporter Pallava Bagla for his scoop on an IPCC error related to the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers, and later had to recant his words) stumble so soon.

In his post, Revkin also linked to a three-page document that the IPCC sent to all its contributing authors, titled “Background and Tips for Responding to Media.” Produced for the panel by Resource Media, a nonprofit communications consultancy, it is a document that every journalist who covers climate should read. It will give reporters a very good idea of how researchers may view and approach them.

There is nothing nefarious about the tipsheet, but it’s interesting (if not somewhat comical) to see how the IPCC pigeonholes journalists: “college-educated, overworked, underpaid, inquisitive, skeptical, jaded, world-weary, generalists.” The concerning point is this: “Don’t say ‘no comment.’ This instantly raises a reporter’s hackles (and interest level). Instead, bring the conversation back to where YOU want it to be.” But every good reporter should expect that sources they interview are trying to control the conversation anyway.

What’s more troubling, in my opinion, is the way that the background-and-tipsheet underestimates reporters’ intelligence. The last page of the document advises researchers to “avoid scientific jargon.” This is an important pointer, and one that many journalists themselves have put forward for years—but there is a limit to its utility. While it is true that more reporters are generalists these days, that doesn’t mean they’re daft. I would agree that scientists should avoid subjective words like “exotic” and acronyms like “SST” (sea surface temperature); but other terms, such as “uncertainty” and “risk,” are common enough that scientists should be encouraged to explain what they mean and how they are measured.

Still, the real disappointment here is Pachauri’s letter, and, if nothing else, one hopes that it will at least get far enough under journalists’ skin to motivate more coverage of the ongoing IPCC review process being carried out by InterAcademy Council, an association of science academies from around the world, as well as preparations for the fifth assessment report.

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