the observatory

Narrating climate change

Incremental journalism isn't driving home the dire state of the climate to the public, so researchers and outlets are trying to reach them through a shift...
June 19, 2014

In late April, the Yale Forum on Climate and the Media, an independent group publishing reported stories, analysis, and opinion about public perceptions of climate change, quietly shut down with a brief blog post announcing a ‘hiatus’ while the site recalibrated its mission. It rebranded as “Yale Climate Connections” and reopened for business last week. Where the Yale Forum had made its name with detailed analyses attracting a readership of climate change researchers, journalists, communicators, and activists–basically, wonks–Yale Climate Connections promises the same level of rigor, but with a more relatable mode of communication.

“Many stories will include the voice of individuals affected by or helping to solve the problem,” reads a blog post on the site. “The voice of a farmer or rancher describing the impacts of the Great Plains drought on their livelihood; a homeowner describing the benefits of rooftop solar; or a rabbi explaining how the concept of tikkun olam (‘repairing the world’) applies to climate change.”

This isn’t just a matter of editorial taste: While the science of climate change has become increasingly detailed and certain, the realities of laboratory studies haven’t translated to the public, leading people like Yale Climate Connections editor Bud Ward to rethink not what they cover, but how they cover it.

“There’s long been this idea if you knew what I knew then you’d do what I do,” says Ward. “That assumes that the audience is a blank slate. And if they only knew that CO2 contributed to global warming, then they would change their behavior. Unfortunately, we’re realizing now that isn’t the case.”

While journalists and media outlets have largely overcome the beat problem of ‘false balance’–covering the opinions of climate change skeptics and climate scientists with equal weight–more accurate reporting isn’t translating to a tipping point where the public perception matches the consensus among scientists. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 24 percent of Americans surveyed saw climate change as an issue worth “a great deal” of concern. The issue was rated second-to-last in terms of importance, just before “race relations” on the survey. (Fifty-one percent responded that climate change was worthy of little to no worry.) And according to the most recent US National Climate Assessment, conducted in April, 64 percent of Americans surveyed believe global warming is happening, a rate that’s remained relatively steady since 2008. The percentage of survey respondents who didn’t believe global warming was happening–19 percent–has also remained relatively unchanged.

The onus isn’t on journalists to broadly influence the public state of knowledge, but as gatekeepers to science, it’s disconcerting that better reporting hasn’t translated to a more informed, or engaged, public. This may be because climate change is a particularly difficult story to tell: The causes of climate change are invisible, and its most egregious effects will happen in the distant future. Making climate change relatable by tying it to concrete events–like extreme weather–can backfire; studies have shown that though connecting fear-based events to climate change can direct attention to the subject, those same attentive readers often interpret the coverage as hyperbole. (And often they’re right.) And work from decision scientists, like Yale’s Dan Kahan, suggests that more information doesn’t translate to more reasoned conclusions about subjects like climate change. In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Risk Research, Kahan found that scientific literacy didn’t correlate with concern about climate change; instead concern about climate change was triggered by cultural affiliations. Another study showed, similarly, that people were more likely to be receptive to articles that didn’t counteract their cultural affiliations–say an article about advocating for geo-engineering, rather than one calling for strict carbon regulations. “It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information–including evidence of what scientists themselves believe–is widely disseminated,” read the study. “To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.”

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Research institutions have been trying to make their work more effective in light of this research by releasing their own narratives about how climate change affects people. The National Center for Atmospheric Research has puts out its own YouTube videos, while the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a whole campaign. The National Climate Assessment Report comes with an interactive website where users can explore the effects and risks that come from climate change in their own state. And journalistic entities, like the Showtime documentary “The Years of Living Dangerously,” have experimented with using journalistic techniques to tell emotional stories that aren’t based on a news hook.

But blatantly attempting to trigger viewers’ emotions may well run contrary to journalistic ethics; reporting in a way that urges readers toward a particular opinion has a handy label: bias.

“My job is to tell readers what is happening in science, to provide facts, data, and context,” wrote Seth Borenstein, who covers climate science for the Associated Press, in an email to CJR. “I view myself as a mirror, who also factchecks to provide the most accurate picture of what’s happening. I seek out good and illuminating stories on global warming, which is one of the most important science stories of our time. I do not see my job as trying to influence readers’ views, just inform.”

“If you think just communicating [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] findings more clearly and more frequently is going to do anything, then you’re just missing that whole body of work,” says Andrew Revkin. Revkin, who left the staff of The New York Times in 2009 to become a fellow at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies and write the Dot Earth blog on the opinion side of the Times, says that notion was what led him to shift his career: “Do I want to spend the next 20 years of my life writing good conventional journalism about global warming when I know it’s not effective?”

Others, like Adam Corner, say that the journalistic problem can be ameliorated by better communication at the research end of things–tying a dry release to more compelling science. Corner is a researcher for the Climate Outreach and Information Network, which is in the midst of studying how groups can better retool outreach to resonate with readers.

“There’s a real kind of absence of inspiring programming or engagement to go with all this amazing science we’re producing. Even people that already know about this kind of stuff, if you say the acronym IPCC, they don’t really know what it is,” says Corner.
“It has to do with how politically contentious the issue is,” he says. “If we were writing something about obesity, it would totally feature a family and it would show how obesity has ruined their lives and there would be a box: 10 thing you can do to prevent obesity. And if someone did that about climate change, everyone would say, ‘Oh it’s a piece of activism.'”

Meanwhile, the newly minted “Yale Climate Connections” is hoping that by putting more solutions stories (“without putting a happy face on the issue,” says Ward) and producing and distributing free radio broadcasts from a set of 13 correspondents, five days a week , they’ll be better able to influence and engage.

“I really don’t want to lose what we used to call a ‘class audience’ of professionals,” says Ward. “At the same time, I want to be accessible to that person on the street.”

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.