When News Media Pass on Covering Complexity

The Case of Missing Coverage of Models

Climate models are a “foundation” of climate understanding … and also a “lightning rod” in the climate debate. So where is the coverage of models in mainstream news outlets? In some of the most prominent sources, it’s in opinion, and not in news columns, a researcher suggests.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

The quote dates back more than three decades to statistician George Box.

When it comes to climate models, Americans by and large appear to agree with his first conclusion, but many remain unconvinced of the second. Sixty-four percent of the U.S. public do not believe that computer models are reliable to predict future climatic conditions, according to a recent Yale Project on Climate Change Communication survey.

Results from two studies of my own addressing media attention to climate models may shed some light on the reasons for the public’s apprehensions. Across national newspapers, magazines, and radio and television, some of the most prominent media sources of information on this aspect of climate science consist not of news articles and programs, but rather of political commentaries, op-ed columns, editorials, and letters to the editor in outlets or by commentators with skeptical viewpoints of climate science. That is, when climate models are mentioned at all, for frequently they are the Rodney Dangerfields of climate science, getting no respect from many in the outside world.

‘Foundation’ for Understanding … ‘Lightning Rod’

Putting it into perspective, climate models are what the National Research Council recently described as “the foundation for understanding and projecting climate and climate-related changes” and “critical tools for supporting climate-related decision making.” They are at the crux of both climate science and policy, and as a result also of the political discourse surrounding climate change.

As former New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin has written, “Computer models of climate, particularly, have become a lightning rod in the climate debate, and are likely to remain so for years to come.”

Models use mathematical representations of Earth’s climate system and their interactions — such as radiation, energy transfer, surface processes, and chemistry — to evaluate changes over time in massive arrays of data crunched by supercomputers.

But casual readers or policymakers might be excused for not knowing the work and role of models based on their reading of the popular press. From 1998 to 2010, on average, The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today ran texts that mentioned climate models fewer than five times for every 100 times they addressed climate change or global warming (see Figure 1). And that ratio has been decreasing. From 2007 to 2010, on average only two texts citing climate models appeared for every 100 articles on climate change.

Figure 1
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Figure 1: Ratio of newspaper texts mentioning climate models to the total of those citing climate change or global warming, 1998-2010. N=694.

Models just aren’t the currency-du-jour for most reporters addressing climate change, and probably even less so in today’s ever-shrinking newsrooms with general assignment reporters filling the news-hole voids previously filled by specialized science or environmental beat reporters. Eleven reporters accounted for almost half of all non-opinion coverage addressing climate models over a 13-year-span in the four newspapers studied, with Revkin, while he was still a science news reporter with the Times, responsible for 15 percent of all non-opinion references.

Most Frequent WSJ Commenters: Lindzen and Singer

When climate models do appear in those dailies’ news pages, the two with the largest circulations — USA Today and The Wall Street Journal — year by year are more likely to mention them in opinion or letters features than either the Times or the Post.

Between 1998 and 2010, for instance, the Journal ran 126 stories that mentioned climate models; more than half of them (54 percent) appeared as opinion in commentaries, letters to the editor, op-eds, or editorials. With a weekday circulation of more than 2 million, the Journal is the nation’s largest newspaper, with more than twice the weekday circulation of the Times, and with one of the most politically conservative editorial pages.

Of the four newspapers analyzed, The New York Times had the most frequent content about climate models, followed in order by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Seven of the 11 individual journalists whose reportage most often addressed climate models over those 13 years did so for the Times, either as science or technology reporters. In contrast to the Journal‘s 54 percent figure, between 17 to 21 percent of the references to climate models in the Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post came in opinion and not news pieces.

The two most frequent Journal opinion contributors addressing climate models, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Professor Richard Lindzen and University of Virginia Professor Emeritus S. Fred Singer, who heads his Science & Environmental Policy Project, were signatories to a 2007 letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stating that climate change is a natural process, and maintaining that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports are not representative of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Media Reaching ‘High Knowledge’ Audiences

The prominence of coverage of climate models in politicized discourse with high-audience visibility was evident also in a second study analyzing where attention to climate models occurred in media frequented by audiences identified by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press as “high knowledge.” This constructed index included titles such as The New Yorker, The Nation, PBS NewsHour, Forbes, and Time.

The year 2007 was one of peak media coverage of climate change, reflecting activities such as the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment reports, and the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to that group and to former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore. The largest category of texts and programs mentioning climate models that year was political commentary (Figure 2). Of this group, The Rush Limbaugh Show — with an estimated daily audience of about 14 million — and The Nation tied for the most programs or texts that mentioned climate models. The commentaries in The Nation — the “flagship of the Left” — were written by columnist Alexander Cockburn, criticizing climate change science and politics from a skeptical viewpoint.

Figure 2
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Figure 2: Counts of texts and programs citing climate models across media preferred by high-knowledge U.S. audiences, 2007. N=60.

National Public Radio programming — primarily “Science Friday” — comprised another 32 percent of the total texts and programs mentioning the models; NPR reaches more than 20 million people each week, and “Science Friday” a considerably smaller number.

These studies suggest that media communication on climate models has been ceding some of its role as provider of news and information to opinion pages and outlets. Further complicating matters, the uncertainties both in climate predictions for the next few decades and in longer range projections may widen with the use of new modeling techniques and as additional climate processes and feedbacks are incorporated to produce more realistic simulations. Where does this leave the average citizen, or the policymaker?

National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) climatologist Kevin Trenberth has noted that the idea that uncertainty in climate model projections could increase even as the science improves may be extremely counterintuitive for lay audiences. The combination of more uncertainty, fewer science journalists to knowledgeably explain the story, and rising politicization may make for an increasingly bumpy ride for public understanding of this facet of climate science and policymaking.

Steps Forward for Scientists and Media

However, there may be ways for those in science and media to work together to smooth the path. Science organizations could produce online guides for journalists and other communicators explaining how models work, what their role is in informing mitigation strategies and adaptation planning, why their projections are a legitimate form of climate science knowledge, and how their uncertainties relate to other risk information that people use daily, regarding their finances, health or the weather. For reporters, telling the stories of the scientists who have developed this field — such as Princeton University’s Syukuro Manabe — might help humanize an abstract topic.

How this science communication challenge is addressed — whether complexity is treated as a foe or inherent, and even appealing, part of science — may go a long way in deciding whether policymakers choose to address, or ignore, the risks that lie ahead.

Editor’s Note: This article underwent a minor edit on April 4, 2011:  the fourth paragraph in the original posting under the “Most Frequent WSJ Contributors…” sub-head was moved ahead of the previous paragraph.

Karen Akerlof is a doctoral student in Environmental Science & Public Policy at George Mason University, where she is studying how communication about climate science influences public opinion and policy decisions.

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