What Have We Learned?

Climate journalists discuss lessons of the past at AMNH

Last night, a panel of distinguished science journalists and one social scientist discussed shifting norms in climate-change coverage at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

“Let’s assume that journalists didn’t do a flawless job covering the climate science debate over the last several decades – that we could’ve done a better job,” said moderator Bud Ward, of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. “What did we learn from that experience? And if the debate is now moving somewhat from the hard earth sciences to the policy, the politics, and the energy implications—what have we learned from our coverage of the science that would apply to and improve coverage of the so-called solutions to this challenge?”

Ward posed his question to his fellow panelists, including New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, ABC News reporter Bill Blakemore, former CNN science producer Diane Hawkins-Cox (who was laid off when the network axed its science team in December), and American University professor Matthew Nisbet (who runs the blog, Framing Science). Each one of them had a different and intriguing answer, all of which should be borne in mind by veteran and rookie climate reporters alike.

Blakemore started off, saying that since he began covering the issue four years ago, he has learned an “enormous amount” about the wide variety of psychological reactions to climate change. Though reporters have a responsibility to report both the best- and worst-case scenarios outlined by sound science, “many people are frightened by the fact that we even have to be dealing with information of this severity and reality.” But that is just one response among twenty-five to thirty that Blakemore says he has identified. For journalists and the public alike, he added, no two people “come at this story” with the same “medley” of psychological needs (denial, sense of responsibility, etc.) and scientific knowledge.

Revkin followed Blakemore, saying that he’s learned that journalists should not be seduced by the “story of the moment.” For example, he said, the question is not, “Will President Barack Obama be able to pass a climate bill?” but rather, “Is the atmosphere going to notice?” Likewise, as the climate story progresses from the causes of warming to the strategies for mitigating that warming, journalists must provide much needed reality checks on proposed solutions. The greenhouse gas emissions reductions mandated in California have not yet materialized, Revkin pointed out, and, in his opinion, we are “incapable of making the transition smoothly” to a low-carbon economy with our current energy options. As such, journalists and audiences alike “must have a show-me attitude” when it comes to de-carbonization. (Revkin also noted, as he has previously, his belief that sustainability writ large, rather than climate, is the true “story of our time.”)

Next to speak was Hawkins-Cox, who made the brief but important point that journalists should not shoulder all of the blame for poor public understanding of climate science. One thing we’ve learned, she said, is that there is a need for continuing education among reporters with regard to the science, and that editors and publishers must allow for such edification.

Last, but not least, was Nisbet, who argued that journalists, bloggers, scientists, academics, and the like all share similar climate communication goals. In order to achieve those goals, however, communicators need to develop new narratives and frames that address the “personal significance” of climate science. In particular, Nisbet advised, journalists can frame the response to climate change as a moral imperative, similar to World War II or Great Depression; they can focus on the “economic side” of the story (though they need to avoid hyping so-called “green jobs” and impractical technology solutions); or they can explore the local and regional public health impacts of a warming world. The last frame is a particularly effective one, Nisbet added, because it shifts the geographic focus from the polar regions, which have been the focal point of much the science coverage to date, to the cities and suburbs where people actually live.

Ward closed the discussion with the point that, “Climate change was clearly a hot issue in the news media [over the last few years]—it is no longer. It seems to have fallen off the radar in a lot of newsrooms. I hear people saying the public has ‘climate fatigue.’” The way for journalists to restore some the issue’s prominence, as the panelists uniformly agreed, is to expand climate coverage across the newsroom. “Show me a traditional beat that doesn’t cover an issue that affects the climate or is affected by the climate,” Ward challenged.

For its part, the American Museum of Natural History just launched its first ever blog as part of its current climate change exhibition, which closes August 16. After the panel, I asked the museum’s interim director of public programs, Ellen Silbermann, why the museum had decided to host a panel focused on climate journalism rather than the science itself.

“We always start with a program that creates a foundation of knowledge and comprehension, then move on to other issues,” she wrote in an e-mail. “During the research process, which coincided with the campaign for president, I was disappointed in the lack of discussion regarding climate change - and proposed a panel that would discuss how it is (or isn’t) reported. We only scratched the surface last night - I’m still very interested in the ideas that were just touched upon.”

Indeed, climate journalists still have a lot of work ahead of them. As such, I’d love to hear comments from reporters and editors about things they’ve learned in the course of their work that can be applied to improve future coverage.

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