'Big Whoop' ... and 'Ceding' Coverage

Blogging Science Journalist’s Q&A to Media: Have Media ‘Screwed Up … Still Screwing Up?’

Have the media “screwed up the big climate stories in recent months?” science journalist and blogger Keith Kloor tactfully and subtly asked in preparing a Q&A for his Collide-a-Scape blog.

Kloor turned to four other journalists, including the editor of this online journal, for “meaningful and contrite” insights.

“Basically, I wanted them to opine on whether we’ve screwed up … and whether we’re still screwing up,” he wrote May 11 in introducing the blind Q&A he conducted separately with each of the four, each of whom answered two questions without knowing their colleagues’ responses.

Kloor’s first question focused on coverage of the hacked e-mails and recent controversies surrounding IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, such as its characterization of Himalayan glaciers melting away by 2035.

His second question dealt with the photoshopped image of a lone polar bear that Science magazine used in illustrating more than 255 scientists’ defense of climate science (see related posting).

“I think some media have swayed toward berserk coverage, and many other media avenues have largely ignored the whole affair,” commented Charlie Petit, science writer and critic for the MIT-Knight Science Journalism Tracker. Cautioning about generalities, Petit wrote that “media exaggerate so many things – why DO we hear so much about nonevents in the lives of celebrities? – it’s hard to pin any special incompetence on news outlets” for their handling of the hacked e-mails and IPCC miscues.

In the U.S., Petit wrote, online sites, rather than the mass media, provided most of the coverage. But he laid most of the responsibility for “overblown reaction” to the issues on politicians … “which inevitably and properly had to be reported.”

To Petit, opinion columnists, rather than news reporters, contributed most to the “egregiously hysterical reactions” to the e-mails and IPCC controversies. “Reporters and their editors should know better than to take seriously what amounted to bar-talk among a few researchers furious at their relentless attackers – and venting to one another with meaningless, unrealized threats against their foes. Big whoop.”

The editor of The Observatory, Columbia Journalism Review‘s online service, said he thought the media, and in particular some British media, blew both the hacked e-mails story and the IPCC errors out of proportion. “When the American media finally came around to the story, their coverage was not very constructive,” said Curtis Brainard, Observatory editor. He characterized the U.S. coverage as “poorly structured, poorly sourced.” Brainard wrote that he thinks the media “are ceding important stories to skeptics and pundits who manipulate and distort them.”

Freelance Canadian journalist Stephen Leahy responded to the e-mails/IPCC question by saying “Right off the top it was easy to see there was nothing in any of it from a substantive climate science point of view.”

He said the story attracted coverage because the media “eventually looks for contrarian stories to cover even if it’s a bit thin in terms of content …. The entire episode says far more about media and how it operates, the lack of knowledgeable reporters and editors, etc.”

Critiquing Color of Car ‘About to Hit You’…and ‘A Mere Kerfuffle’

Addressing the second question, dealing with the photoshopped polar bear image, Leahy briefly replied, “Another red herring.” He equated it to complaining about the color of a car “that’s about to hit you.”

To Brainard, a concern was the mistaken focus on “superficial images rather than substantive texts.”

“When are journalists going to learn that polar bears [are] not the greatest poster children if your goal is [to] generate concern for climate change?” Brainard asked.

Petit, in his reply, got right to the point: “This is dumb, but a mere kerfuffle.”

Science‘s readers would have gotten more out of a Keeling curve, even a hockey stick” than a polar bear, Petit wrote.

“My impression is that it is the list of signatures on the petitionĀ got more news coverage in media and will, I’d hazard, have the greater impact. I hope so,” Petit wrote.

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