The Language and Culture of Climate

New book seeks to improve communication between journalists, scientists

One of the things that history will remember about the coverage of climate change is that, not unlike the Iraq War, the press itself became an important part of the story, largely due to faulty reporting at its outset.

Over the last few years, many journalists and scientists have worked very hard to more accurately communicate the urgency of manmade global warming. A new book, based on a unique series of meetings between those two groups, which took place between 2003 and 2007, provides some of the collective wisdom of that effort. Published by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, a non-profit journalism organization based at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators is a great primer for anybody new to the beat, to the lab, or to the general effort to better explain the scientific facts underpinning one of the most pressing and far-reaching issues of our time.

“Frustration was the impetus behind the workshops that form the basis of this book,” writes author Bud Ward, a longtime environmental journalist and educator who runs the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. He and Anthony Socci, a senior communications fellow at the American Meteorological Society, organized and directed the five-year project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The first five workshops, which took place at leading research universities around the country, were “unprecedented” in the science journalism community, Ward writes. Each two-day meeting attracted about two dozen participants, evenly split from a veritable who’s-who list of the nation’s most respected journalists and scientists. The sixth workshop was held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and was open to the public. A seventh meeting in the fall of 2007, which was not part of the National Science Foundation-funded series, brought together eighteen top news executives from the country’s largest daily newspapers and news outlets. I had the good fortune to attend the fourth workshop, in 2005, while I was a student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where the meeting took place. It was an incredibly engaging fly-on-the-wall experience (as I’m sure they all were) and the conversations that occurred there continue to inform my criticism of climate-change coverage. And, in some respects, the job has become a bit easier. As Ward notes in the new book:

A funny thing—rather a somewhat unexpected thing—occurred over the course of the workshops: Between the start of the first workshop at the University of Rhode Island in November 2003 and a related September 2007 workshop at Stanford University for news executives, the climate change issue gained some of the media traction and public interest judged to be missing at the outset of the workshop series.

That is undoubtedly true. I recently argued, happily, that journalists and politicians alike have accepted the basic science of global warming and are now more concerned with the economics of mitigation and adaptation. But, as CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell pointed out in a recent feature story, the fine points of science and technology must now be communicated to the political and business reporters who have been assigned to the coverage of climate solutions.

In that light, Ward’s new book is just as relevant and useful today as it would have been five years ago. Indeed, its strongest attribute is that it is not concerned with recent or specific scientific studies, but rather “how information about this work is communicated with the public, and how that communication process might be improved.” Referring to the rationale behind the workshop series as well as the book, Ward observes that:

When journalists and climate scientists speak with each other—usually over the telephone concerning a specific story the reporter is working on, or at a professional conference—their discussions generally involve a particular research project or matters related directly to climate change and climate change science. Seldom do they discuss at any length issues related to the communication of climate change information—either that from the scientist to the media or from the media to the public.

Communicating on Climate Change is thus rationally organized into eight chapters over seventy-odd pages, which offer something for everyone (even those concerned with scientific topics other than climate). For journalists, it provides a summary of the scientific method, scientific “uncertainty,” and the peer-review process. For scientists, it explains the basic ground rules for information gathering (including on- and off-the-record interviews) and why reporters do not always write their own headlines (which, more often than the stories themselves, tend to provoke scientists’ ire), and defines jargon such as the term “news peg.” It also covers some areas where science coverage should break with traditional journalistic norms, explaining why customary, reportorial “balance” is not a good fit with climate coverage and why it is permissible (and even desirable) for reporters to let scientists review selected excerpts of their copy.

Ward, who was recently named 2009 Climate Communicator of the Year by George Mason University, wraps up with a point-by-point list of ways that journalists, scientists, and institutions can better convey information to each other and to the public at large. It’s a long list, comprising solutions for those with resources to burn and those operating on shoestring budgets. The book can be downloaded and ordered in hard copy, free of charge, at the Metcalf Institute’s Web site.

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