At Climate Feedback, scientists encourage better science reporting. But who is listening?

Photo via Kevin Gill/Flickr.

THE EARTH IS 15 YEARS AWAY from a “mini ice age” “that will cause bitterly cold winters during which rivers such as the Thames freeze over.” That was the claim that kicked off an article in The Telegraph in July 2015.

That assertion doubtless had many climate scientists rolling their eyes. But rather than just ranting on Twitter or screaming into a throw pillow, this time they had an outlet they could use to set the record straight. Emmanuel Vincent, a climate scientist, had launched ClimateFeedback.org, a site where climate scientists rate the scientific credibility of climate change reporting.

Since it launched in March 2015, the site has assessed the credibility of more than 90 stories. Sometimes these assessments have an immediate impact; the Telegraph, for example, substantially revised its “mini ice age” story. In other cases, the impact is unclear. For bad reviews, Vincent often sends the editor a link to the assessment and sometimes offers corrections. “In many cases we do not hear back,” he says. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising given that the site reviews outlets of varying credibility—everything from The New York Times to Breitbart and The Daily Caller.  

ICYMI: Reporters must convey the perils of climate change without paralyzing their audience

Vincent, a climate scientist, first began tinkering with the idea of providing a forum for climate scientists to critique the news a few years ago after he moved from France to the US. He had relocated for a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT to study climate change and hurricanes. When he began reading the news in the US, he was struck by the quantity of misleading information about climate change even in influential news outlets. So Vincent set about building a platform where scientists could respond in an organized way as a community, rather than tweet by tweet.

It’s a refreshing antidote to all we hear about ‘fake news.’ I think it would be more useful if more reporters and editors and communicators took advantage of it.

The Climate Feedback team assesses one or two stories a week. They select stories that garner the most buzz on social media or those that appear in influential publications. Once they’ve selected a story, they ask scientists from relevant fields to review the article. The site currently has more than a hundred scientists willing to donate their time and serve as reviewers. They annotate the article using Hypothes.is, an open source platform that allows them to add line-by-line comments and critiques to the original article. Then they assign each story a scientific credibility score ranging from -2 (very low) to +2 (very high). The number of reviewers depends on the story’s length and content. Five or six is typical, though one particularly lengthy article had 17 reviewers.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

“I don’t think we are exactly a fact-checking operation,” Vincent says. Unlike PolitiFact or FactCheck.org, Climate Feedback’s assessments come from scientists, not journalists. And the reviewers go beyond checking facts. “We try to ask scientists to also check the reasoning, the argumentation, and explanation of the facts. That’s really what science is about,” Vincent says.

The site can be a valuable resource for journalists, says Robinson Meyer, who covers climate change for The Atlantic. Climate Feedback has reviewed three of Meyer’s stories. All received a good score. “Getting their validation is really useful,” he says. “For longer stories, often you end up parachuting into these sub-disciplines without really understanding them.” Especially in those cases, an objective assessment by external sources can be enormously comforting. And then he can show the assessment to his boss to say, “Look, I got it right,” he says. Meyer also likes reading analyses of his colleagues’ work to see if the expert reviewers confirm his own assessment of the article.

Bud Ward, a long-time environmental journalist who co-founded the Society of Environmental Journalists, agrees that the site can be useful for journalists. “It’s a refreshing antidote to all we hear about ‘fake news,’” he says. “I think it would be more useful if more reporters and editors and communicators took advantage of it.”

But Jolene Creighton, founding editor and host at Futurism, is less convinced of the site’s value for the media. In 2017, Climate Feedback reviewed a short article that she edited about the Great Barrier Reef. The scientists found it mostly accurate, but took issue with the title: “Scientists Announce That The Great Barrier Reef is Officially ‘Terminal.’” Creigton points out, however, that at many outlets, “the people who oversee the packaging are not necessarily the journalists who write the content.” So the reviewers might be critiquing the wrong person, she says, especially if that person is a freelance journalist who is even further removed from those kinds of decisions.

Creighton also points out that journalists who care deeply about accurate science reporting will already have some sort of standard review built into their process that should bring these kinds of issues to light before publication.

 

We’re cognitive misers. For 95 percent of the public, these types of web sites really are not directly meaningful. They’re never going to visit them.

 

WHILE SOME THINK THE SITE has the potential to improve press coverage of climate change, its ability to move the needle of public opinion is less clear. Facts matter, of course, but not as much as journalists want them to.

“We’re cognitive misers,” says Erik Nisbet, a social scientist who studies communication about controversial science, including climate change. Climate change is a topic in which most news consumers aren’t willing to invest much of their limited time and attention. “For 95 percent of the public, these types of web sites really are not directly meaningful. They’re never going to visit them,” he says.

That makes it depressingly easy for misinformation to spread. In February 2017, for example, The Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid and companion paper to the Daily Mail, published an article titled, “EXPOSED: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” The story claimed that the former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had rushed to publish flawed data in order to influence the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Many of the article’s claims were false or misleading. In fact, the Independent Press Standards Organization, an agency that polices the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, ruled that the story had misrepresented the comments of its main source, a former scientist with NOAA. But more than a dozen outlets repeated the allegations. Some even used the Daily Mail story to try and undermine climate science. According to a Climate Feedback tally, versions of the story were shared on social media more than half a million times. The vast majority of those shares consisted of articles that simply repeated the same erroneous allegations. “While other outlets performed their journalistic duty verifying the veracity and actual implications of the allegations, their combined reach on social media was about 10 times smaller than the reach of misinformation,” the team wrote.

One way for Climate Feedback to have a larger impact on public opinion, says Nisbet, is to influence the quality of local climate change reporting. ‘The closer you get to the community, the more credibility you have.’

Vincent acknowledges that hard-core climate contrarians aren’t likely to change their minds no matter how many articles Climate Feedback reviews. But he also believes the site can serve people who aren’t sure what to think about climate change. “I think it’s important for these people to have a fact-check,” he says. “If someone wants to verify, then they can do it.”

And there might be ways to reach even the contrarians. One way for Climate Feedback to have a larger impact on public opinion, says Nisbet, is to influence the quality of local climate change reporting. “The closer you get to the community, the more credibility you have,” he says. “Local media is trusted more than national media.” And if a person trusts the outlet, they’ll trust the story. According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans had at least some trust in local media, compared to 76 percent for national media.

Climate Feedback is planning to bring even more scientists on board so that the site can assess more climate stories. Vincent hopes to build a platform that will provide more autonomy for scientists to perform reviews on their own. Such a platform might even allow scientists with a local interest to review climate change coverage where they live.

Given the current political climate, it can be easy to get discouraged about climate change. “In the US, it’s more depressing than anywhere else in the world,” Vincent says. “Doing something about it is the only way to be less hopeless.”

*A previous version of this story misquoted Bud Ward by using “anecdote” instead of “antidote.” CJR regrets the error.

ICYMI: Lessons in communicating climate change, from a scientist and Evangelical Christian

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes for Discover, Popular Science, Nature, and blogs at The Last Word on Nothing. Follow her on Twitter @cwillyard.