“Whiplash” Climate Journalism

Revkin investigates the media's tendency to ricochet from one global-warming study to another

Anybody who has been following Andrew Revkin’s New York Times blog, Dot Earth, closely may have already heard of “whiplash” journalism. Revkin regularly engages in climate-change media criticism at the sustainability-oriented site.

Today, however, Revkin broke new ground with an excellent article in the weekly Science Times section, his first bit of media criticism to see print. The piece explores the ways in which reporters’ tendency to bounce from one often-contradictory climate study to another confuses the public. Revkin cites a number of recent “discordant” findings, including arguments about the rate of Arctic ice melt, the degree of warming (or cooling) in the oceans, and whether or not warming makes hurricanes stronger:

These questions endure even as the basic theory of a rising human influence on climate has steadily solidified: accumulating greenhouse gases will warm the world, erode ice sheets, raise seas and have big impacts on biology and human affairs.

Scientists see persistent disputes as the normal stuttering journey toward improved understanding of how the world works. But many fear that the herky-jerky trajectory is distracting the public from the undisputed basics and blocking change.

“There’s an expectation that science will clarify an answer to this question in a way that motivates a solution, or answer the question, what do we do? But it won’t work that way,” Revkin said in an interview. “The things that matter most are the least certain parts of it. So you really have to deal with this on the basis of the uncertainty, not on the basis that the uncertainty will go away.”

Reporters’ failure to provide context to many studies and their dependence on peer-reviewed, scientific journals for the weekly “news” are problems that received significant attention at a recent panel on covering climate change at Columbia University. John Rennie, the editor of Scientific American, one of the United States’ oldest continuously published magazines, argued that science is all about “managing uncertainty” and that reporters need to fundamentally reconsider what constitutes a science news story:

Virtually all science news stories are built around a model of, the scientist publishes a paper, the paper appears to be important and valid, and we publish the fact that that came out,” he said. “But the reality of science is that the publication of one particular paper, appearing even in the best journal in the world, hardly ever clinches the science to any significant degree. It’s when lots of papers pile up and there is a general consensus (however that’s determined) — that’s how science moves.

Revkin says that he first turned a critical eye toward the ways the media covers climate change in 2004, after the publication of a paper about “balance as bias” in the press. The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, argued that major newspapers had irresponsibly included viewpoints skeptical of global warming in an effort to adhere to traditional norms of journalistic balance. Since then, Revkin has written about climate-related media matters in a number of Dot Earth posts (in addition to two book chapters), but getting the print edition to pay attention has been harder.

“I tried to get our media writers to write about it years ago,” he said. “There have been enough [material], between the Boykoff thing on balance as bias a few years ago and [other issues]. Periodically, I would send notes on those studies and the growing chorus of people saying, ‘Oh, it’s the press’s fault,’ to our people who write about the media. But look at the Times’s coverage of the media - we rarely still write about practice, we write about the business, and frankly, I think that’s a gap in our coverage”

Fortunately, Revkin is filling in. In addition to the problems of balance and whiplash reporting in climate journalism, he has explored the dilemma of selective coverage. Last year, for example, two studies came to opposite conclusions about warming’s effect on hurricanes. The one which predicted a big effect got much more media coverage than the one that predicted a minimal effect, even though the former appeared in a journal much more obscure than the other. Revkin reasoned on Dot Earth that:

There are a variety of reasons that the media tend to pay outsize attention to research developments that support a “hot” conclusion (like the theory that hurricanes have already been intensified by human-caused global warming) and glaze over on research of equivalent quality that does not.

The main one, to my mind, is an institutional eagerness to sift for and amplify what editors here at The Times sometimes call “the front-page thought.” This is only natural, but in coverage of science it can skew what you read toward the more calamitous side of things. It’s usually not agenda-driven, as some conservative commentators charge. It’s just a deeply ingrained habit.

Many of the problems with climate reporting have been exacerbated by the decline of specialized reporting at newspapers and the cacophony of the blogosphere, according to Revkin. In particular, blogs “amplify” the general trend in whiplash coverage, as well as the most extreme positions and arguments revolving around global warming. This matters, he says, because climate has already become heavily politicized and the public will need to act before all the related scientific uncertainties can be resolved or even reduced.

“It goes beyond the press,” Revkin said. “Human nature is the biggest unexamined part of this climate story. In fact, I asked the IPCC people why there hasn’t been a component of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on the sociology of the issue — in other words, how people absorb this kind of risk and act on it … But I think people are catching up with the reality of that - that the soft science on this matters almost more than the hard science.”

Fortunately, Revkin is not alone in his attempts to improve climate journalism. Readers may not find many stories like his in print, but online sources of science-oriented media analysis have proliferated. In addition to The Observatory, useful Web sites include the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the Yale Climate & Media Forum, and Framing Science.

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