Nature Study (Non)Coverage Prompts Researcher/Media Dialog

Discussions between academics and journalists about news decisions not long ago were generally confined largely to venues such as conferences and workshops. Now, of course, they take place online too.

One example was a recent exchange over a study in Nature magazine. That study suggested that manmade global warming’s effects on hurricanes may not be so great as the impacts of natural climate variations.

The University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor, kicked off a discussion about the limited coverage of the Nature paper with a blog item headlined “A Question for the Media.” Accompanied by a bar graph to hammer home the question, Pielke wrote:

Nature magazine, arguably the leading scientific journal in the world, published a paper this week by two widely-respected scholars – Gabriel Vecchi and Brian Soden – suggesting that global warming may have a minimal effect on hurricanes. Over two days the media – as measured by Google News – published a grand total of three news stories on this paper. Now contrast this with a paper published in July in a fairly obscure journal by two other respected scholars – Peter Webster and Greg Holland – suggesting that global warming has a huge effect on hurricanes. That paper resulted in 79 news stories.

“What accounts for the 26 to 1 ratio in news stories?”

Responding on his New York Times blog, science reporter Andrew C. Revkin said he thought the main reason reporters tend to “glaze over on research” that doesn’t support a “‘hot’ conclusion,” such as the warming-hurricane link, is “an institutional eagerness to sift for and amplify what editors here at The Times sometimes call ‘the front-page thought.’”

Houston Chronicle reporter Eric Berger weighed in on both Pielke’s and Revkin’s blogs with an explanation of why he wrote an article about the Nature study, which the Chronicle ran on the front page of its print edition.

The study, Berger wrote, seemed “a lot more scientifically rigorous than most previous arguments against a link between global warming and hurricanes.”

Max Boykoff, a research fellow at Oxford University who has published (pdf) research on news coverage of climate change, commented on Revkin’s blog that “science/environment stories compete for attention with stories not just in science but across other political and social issues: the Holland/Webster study came out at comparatively less crowded time for climate issues than the Vecchi/Soden study.”

Commenters on Pielke’s blog included Tom Yulsman, a science journalist and journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Yulsman observed:

“Follow-on studies disproving something that had previously received a lot of attention generally don’t receive as much coverage because, for better or for worse, reporters and editors just don’t find that kind of story as newsworthy. A house burning down is definitely newsworthy.”

Pielke followed up with a lengthy blog post in which he argued against the research conclusion by Boykoff and his brother Jules Boykoff that “the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.”

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