It’s not often that journalists are the ones being quoted. And going by the attendance of this afternoon’s symposium, Global warming heats up: how the media covers climate change, a lot of people were eager to find out what they have to say for themselves.
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times gave several reasons why the accurate reporting of climate change often clashes with an editor’s news values. He said that because many developments in climate change have no obvious “peg” to sell them as news stories, editors often leap on what they can sell, regardless of whether they are on solid scientific ground. One example is Hurricane Katrina, which many newspapers reported as a direct consequence of global warming despite any real evidence to back the claim. “You lose all those caveats that scientists crave,” he said.
He went on to say that the science, which by its nature is complex, is difficult to report accurately when time and page space is limited. So simple messages such as “CO2 equals warmer planet” are inevitably conveyed more frequently than the factors affecting the likelihood of an ice meltdown in Greenland. In a similar vein, editors do not understand the importance of small developments in research. “The word ‘incremental’ in the Times newsroom is the death knell to a story,” he joked.
Revkin also addressed the thorny topic of opinion in science journalism: “For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD.” In other words, it is easy to find a scientist with a counter-opinion (when dealing with climate change, a sceptic) to make a story appear balanced. David Dickson, director of the website SciDev.Net, said that this tendency is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding among many journalists about the nature of science. Unlike politics, for example, the science community contains such a thing as consensus and the weight of one scientist’s opinion over another.