One quick look at her resume alerts you that Heidi Cullen isn’t your “normal” journalist who took college courses, let’s be honest here, in large part to avoid dicey courses dealing with things like statistics, coefficients, and math generally.
Cullen, in fact, is perhaps even more comfortable with issues involving engineering and paleoclimatology than she is with journalism’s venerable, if aged, “5 Ws” and inverted pyramid.
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|Journalist/Scientist … or Scientist/Journalist? TWC’s Heidi Cullen balances both roles.|
Oh sure, she’s a Columbia University graduate, but not from its esteemed journalism school. Rather, Dr. Cullen earned her degrees from Columbia in engineering/operations research and in climate variability.
Now in her fourth year as The Weather Channel’s (TWC) climate program manager, Cullen is the only known climatologist in the nation with her own weekly national TV program, the half-hour “Forecast Earth.”
And she may be the only journalist in the world whose resume identifies her as a member of 1) the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ); 2) the National Academy of Sciences Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate; and 3) the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization Scientific Steering Group on developing the international climate science research agenda.
One might say Cullen is an odd bird. Neither fish nor fowl. Or is she both?
“I am a scientist by training, and I’ve become a journalist by default,” says Cullen, admitting that she still feels “a little bit uncomfortable” being called TWC’s “climate expert.”
Climate Expert and ‘Cub Reporter’?
“Obviously, a scientist never feels like they know enough,” she said in an interview. “But by education, I’m an expert by TV standards and for the public. I’m part climatologist, part climate expert, and part kind of cub reporter.”
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|The Weather Channel’s climatologist Heidi Cullen|
Before joining TWC in 2003 to launch its climate change programming, Cullen said, she had been perfectly content as a research scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, in Boulder, CO. With a newly minted National Science Foundation grant, she felt in her element doing water resources research.
The Weather Channel? Barely ever heard of it … and never had watched it, she told The New York Times in a recent interview.
Four years into the job and, importantly, with a show going to a full hour weekly as of January 2008 ñ Cullen says she has become “fascinated by television as a medium, and I’m trying to get better at it. That includes having taken some voice lessons since arriving at TWC.
Connecting Esoteric Science
and People’s Every Day Lives
“I feel that my job is to connect what would be considered esoteric science that deals with long-term horizons and no immediately direct impacts, and connect that to everyday people’s lives,” she said, sitting at a campus deli at a recent journalism conference at Stanford University (see related story, this issue).
“Climate change is so interesting because it’s connected to everything. You can talk about the power grid, you can talk about clean technology, you can talk about how you build your house. You can talk about the decision 150 years ago to build a fossil fuel infrastructure. It’s ethics and morality and everything. I can’t think of a more interesting subject, because it’s connected to everything.”
Asked about her “normal day,” Cullen says she spends a lot of time reading. “I try to get as much perspective as I can. I actually think we have a scientific responsibility to connect the climate to the weather where we can. And I think there are several ways that we can, and several ways that we can’t.”
A scientist … with the journalism bug
If you doubt the journalism bug can get under the skin of a PhD-trained scientist, think again. “One thing I think the skeptical public doesn’t understand is what I call the ‘professional skeptics’ ñ there’s nothing wrong with being skeptical, but professional skeptics? I think the general public doesn’t understand that no one has put forth a better theory. In a way it would really be a lot of fun to write the article that the mainstream scientists have lost. But no one can write that article because there’s the evidence.”
“I think it’s really important to ask tough questions, and I respect journalists for doing that,” she says.
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|Cullen with her two rescue dogs, Bouviers Emma and Homer.|
Raised in Staten Island in what she calls a “total working class, blue collar family” (her Dad a cop, her Mom a maid), Cullen said she early “fell in love with science” and that “Fundamentally, I really care about the truth.”
Asked how the climate issue, and media treatment of the issue, has changed in the four years she’s been with TWC, she said, “I don’t think that four years ago you had anywhere near the amount of television interest. But the market has completely changed.”
The market, and perhaps even many advertisers’ willingness to support climate change programming, may have changed. But what about the public appetite?
Notwithstanding what she considers TWC’s public service orientation, “television has this requirement, that it has to be entertaining or people won’t watch. And that’s the interesting question right now: How to make climate change interesting and fun? It’s got to get at least decent ratings.”
Making Climate Change Fun … but no ‘Bay Watch’
When it comes to the weather network, Cullen adds, “I don’t think the model is that if it doesn’t make money, we’re going to pull it. So if it’s not the next ‘Bay Watch,’ I don’t think we’re going to kill it.” She says climate change programming in some ways might even lead to “a kind of restructuring of television a little bit. That’s not to say that money won’t carry the day in the end, but it doesn’t need to be ‘Bay Watch.’ … It’s going to be interesting.”
“No one wants to be too far ahead of the pack. Four years ago, I think we were a little bit ahead of the pack, because we were really the only ones on TV regularly talking about it. But now the pack has all decided that this is a topic we all really need to tackle.”
Asked the greatest challenge in going from science to journalism, Cullen is characteristically pensive, pausing before she responds.
“Crafting, so to speak, a great story that gives the science all the attention it deserves and leaves people feeling fascinated by the science. But also telling that perfect story. To me, it’s the classic challenge of the right combination of light and heat. That’s what I’ve spent the last four years doing – shifting from writing like an academic, with every sentence having a paper documenting it, and having no passion in it. And then moving to the television world, where it has to be passionate and it has to be personal.
“It’s almost like I will write something in my science frame, and then I see how it gets changed into television language. It’s funny, the light of science gets turned into the heat, just by rearranging words and using different kinds of words.
“Getting used to that process is okay. I’ve become much more comfortable with it. It doesn’t have to be written in academic language to be correct …. You’re still always struggling to do it in the best possible way.”
Cullen gives one a clear impression that she’s having a ball with her new career. But it hasn’t always been just fun and frolic.
“Plenty of people looked at me and said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” she said. She thinks part of the answer lies in her conviction that scientists and journalists need to better understand each other, avoid the traps of stereotyping that sometime have characterized the relationship.
Her vision? “A close relationship, but not violating any ethical boundaries. Have a working relationship that is critical to having public understanding. The scientist’s position statement would be to do the best possible science, and the journalist to do the best possible journalism. And there’s no conflict of interest.”
In the Global Warming Political Line of Fire
The barb of some highly politicized criticisms ñ and some reeking of sexism ñ Cullen and her climate change work have become a lightning rod for those thinking she overstates the science behind and potential impacts of manmade climate change.
In December 2006, she wrote a blog involving broadcast meteorologists and the importance of having them ñ many of them certified meteorologists through the American Meteorological Society ñ better understand climatology and climate change.
She told Times reporter Claudia Dreifus that the Weather Channel’s website got 4,000 e-mails in a single day. “Some went, ‘Listen here, weather girl, just give me my five-day forecast and shut up.’” Criticisms poured in from the likes of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh (the Times reported he accused Cullen of “Stalinism”) and from staff of Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe.
Looking back, Cullen says her “first trial by fire … wasn’t necessarily pleasant …. But at the end of the day, I think it was a good exercise in journalism. I wrote what I wrote and I stand by it. I don’t think I said anything wrong.”
“Believe in what you say and back up what you say, because, you know, you’re going to have to fight for it …. As they say, what doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger.”
If she continues covering climate change as she has, she’ll likely need that strength.
“It’s always going to be complicated. And it’s always going to be a struggle,” she says of covering climate change. “But I think that meteorologists should be talking about this issue. And I feel that 50 years from now, they’re going to be wishing they had talked about it more.”
That’s just what Cullen will be doing starting in January, with an additional 30 minutes each week and the prospect of moving to the more favorable 7 p.m. viewing slot.
Suggestions for Her Colleagues from her Current Journalism … and Until Four Years Ago Scientific … Colleagues
As one who has “gone over to the other side,” Cullen replied to a Yale Forum question about key tips she might offer … both to journalists and to scientists. Her reply:
- Climate change doesn’t have to be front-page news, but it needs steady, objective coverage. It’s the best way to avoid climate fatigue while feeding the public’s need to be aware of this story …. It can’t be a big headline every day. By nature, it becomes the background …. No, it’s not always a front-page story. But that’s OK. It ends up being this grindingly important subject.
- Climate change really needs to be an angle of every story. It’s connected to everything from the energy grid, to population growth, to our water supply. It doesn’t need to be in the headline, but it should be in the story.
- And, it’s okay to struggle with being objective vs. being an advocate. All the standards of good journalism (and of good science for that matter) apply. But we’ll always be struggling with being scientists/journalists and being concerned citizens. It just comes with the territory … wimps need not apply!