Feasting at the Annual AAAS Conference: More to Chew on than Just Free Eats

Veteran participants in the annual conferences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, will tell you it’s just another word for that meeting.

Intrepid reporters, and hungry ones, can eat their way through the annual four-day programs and barely tap their shrinking per diems and disappearing travel expense budgets.


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But the smorgasbord term applies also to the scope and abundance of story ideas, if not necessarily major scientific findings, flowing from the AAAS meetings. The February 2008 conclave in Boston was no exception, and the roughly 1,000 attendees sporting “Press” passes – some of them actual working journalists – dined on a rich sampling of both finger foods and nourishing take-home ideas.

A mere sampling from the ample AAAS menu:

  • Be leery, be very leery, of “overly precise numbers,” particularly when they’re self-reported. And have your skepticism antennae activate when a news source is citing a mean when a median may be more appropriate. (Hint to reporters with their liberal arts and non-statistics leanings: Know the difference.)

    Those were a few of the practical tips served up by “The Numbers Guy” columnist, Carl Bialek of The Wall Street Journal, who acknowledged that “newsrooms usually don’t prize numerical literacy.”

    Bialek, while not focusing on climate change, had some practical morsels for scientists too:

    • Stay actively involved with your research institution’s public information office as it prepares a press release about your research. You can’t assume that your responsibilities end as soon as your public information officer puts hands-on.
    • Follow-up with reporters making significant errors on your research. Keep the level of your pique and correcting language in relation to and at the same level of complexity as the offending error.
    • Consider offering “op-ed” columns to local news outlets on your important research findings, allowing you to somewhat get around the usual newsroom filters.
    • Be available and accessible to reporters. “We’re short on time, but we appreciate accuracy, and we appreciate those who can help us achieve it.”
  • Asked at a session on media coverage of climate change how long the issue may remain a “front-tier issue” for news organizations, New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin said it’s never risen above the level of a fourth-tier issue in most newsrooms, including at the Times.

    Revkin said shrinking space and pressing time demands on most journalists continue to put a premium on what he called the inevitable bias of “the front-page thought,” and he cautioned that “heat beats light” in most newsrooms when it comes to getting prominent front-page play. “The space and time crunch is worse and worse, and the more nuanced and complicated a story is, the less space you get,” he cautioned, adding that “Internet is not the solution.”

    “For every PhD, there’s an equal and opposite PhD,” Revkin cautioned his journalism colleagues, and he urged them not to get ahead of the science in reporting correlations, for instance, between climate change and a specific storm event. “The real story of Katrina is the failure of investment in levies in New Orleans, not global warming,” he said. “That hurricane could have happened 100 years ago.”

    As another precaution, Revkin said the media could pay more serious attention not solely to melting sea ice, but also to shifting or moving sea ice. But as he often cautions, “the word incremental in the Times newsroom is the death knell for a story.”

  • Revkin wasn’t alone in wondering if either of the terms “global warming” or “climate change” is adequate in describing the issues those words seek to encompass. Revkin said he personally prefers to see the issues approached under an overall energy umbrella.

    John Holdren of Harvard University, outgoing AAAS chair, said he personally prefers “global climate disruption” because the implications aren’t uniform, often aren’t benign, and can occur more quickly than those affected can respond. Holdren said he thinks the term “global warming” underestimates the seriousness of the challenges, but a reporter from the audience elicited sympathetic laughter when he said he would have little luck selling his editor on a story about “global climate disruption.”

    The terminology issue clearly is no laughing matter, however, and respected and prolific oceans author Carl Safina, founder and president of Blue Ocean Institute, was among those urging something other than “global warming” or “climate change.” Still groping for the perfect syntax, Safina dabbled with terms like “ambient alterations,” “biological instability,” changes in “lifescape,” and “remodeling the planet.”

    The recurring dialog over the best terminology – among scientists and also journalists – obviously only complicates the challenges involved in encouraging appropriate behavioral changes by the general public.

  • American University communications professor Matthew C. Nisbet, author of the popular Framing Science website, referred to data showing significant increases in coverage of climate change (or is it global warming or …. etc.?) in leading U.S. newspapers but agreed that from an overall news perspective, the issue is still but a fourth-tier issue.

    Nisbet said the expanded coverage of the issue appears different from some spikes in news coverage of various issues in that it does not appear to have been driven by “a single triggering event” but rather a range of activities over time. He acknowledged other researchers’ findings that as the issue has become more prevalent among the general public, it also has become more partisan, with increasing gaps between Democrats and political liberals and progressives contrasted with less concern among among Republicans and political conservatives.

    Nisbet cautioned media covering the issue that presenting the climate challenges as fatalistic or desperate will only lead to the public’s disengaging from it altogether. He suggested that activists and scientists wanting to highlight concerns over climate change would do better to focus on issues such as “green collar jobs” and efforts by local leaders like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    Without effective coverage of and communications on climate change issues, Nisbet said he could foresee “perceptual gridlock” in terms of suitable societal responses.

A sampling, a taste here and a bite there, of some of the meaty fare offered-up at the most recent AAAS meeting. More than enough to whet the appetite of those gearing-up for next year’s Windy City Chicago fete.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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