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 is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.