Media/Science Cultural Differences

Media Faulted on Coral Reef Reporting; ‘Journalism of Proximity,’ Cultural Differences

Shortcomings in media coverage and under-reporting of potential worldwide ramifications are explored in a journal article outlining ways to improve public understanding of, and action on, risks facing coral reefs across the globe.

Media take a hit — justifiably, many might say — in a recent “Finding Nemo” report arguing that important coral species and sources of human food are being imperiled while the media are fiddling around with other things.

A University of Texas photojournalism graduate student and high school journalism teacher, Tara Haelle, points the finger squarely at journalists in a November 7 “Coral Reefs in Crisis: Finding Nemo May Become a lot Tougher” 1,800-word report in The Sustainability Review.

She paints a bleak picture of the state of coral reefs as the result of the “triple threat” of bleaching, higher prevalence of disease, and ocean acidification. Many thousands of miles of now-starving coral reefs will recover, “but in their weakened state, they’ll become more susceptible to the diseases proliferating as sea surface temperatures rise,” she wrote, calling corals “the bedrock of marine ecosystems.”

“The public needs better media reporting and guidance to address the problem; we lack both at the moment,” Haelle wrote, expressing optimism that both “can be remedied.”

Reporting dire impacts around dinner tables and the likelihood of significant economic losses, Haelle quoted experts pointing to the potential for reverberating impacts and job losses worldwide.

Her antidote? Better media coverage of “what’s really going on and what to do about it.” And motivating people about issues “so seemingly remote, in both miles and years. Reporters must clearly explain what’s causing the degradation of our coral reefs and why it matters.”

She acknowledges that “it’s hard to personalize something like bleaching that’s only visible underwater at certain times” and difficult to illustrate ocean acidification. Haelle quotes University of Texas environmental journalism professor Kris Wilson as saying reporters must “transcend the journalism of proximity” and “take something abstract and bring it to a level to feel it’s a part of their readers’ lives.” One example: pointing to medicines derived from coral reef-dependent species.

“Fundamental differences between scientific thinking and journalistic storytelling ….” That’s another challenge, she reported. “The scientific method requires scientists to accept uncertainty in much of what they do; even gravity is still a theory.” She pointed also to the vastly different time-frames scientists and on-deadline reporters deal with, and to differences in their approach to and understanding of uncertainty.

“Most regrettably,” Haelle said reporters “often leave readers feeling powerless” through artificial he said/she said and false-balance reporting that may belie scientific consensus and through reporting in ways that “sound doomsday trumpets without informing readers how to take action.”

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