Science Journalism Under Fire

Climate change stories are often among those singled out for criticism.


Science journalism is getting smacked around a lot this week. The hits are coming from all directions.

At the climate activist website Desmogblog, writer and author Chris Mooney says he is “appalled” at this Washington Post article for what he regards as its tarring of climate scientists “as radicals or political operatives.”

Mooney, whose new book argues that Republicans are genetically wired to be anti-science, claims the Post piece is unfairly “negative and judgmental” of the climate science community. Mooney’s criticism echoes a larger complaint made often both by activists and by a fair number of climate scientists — that mainstream media coverage of global warming is shoddy and too often gives undue space to climate contrarians.

On the other side of the opinion spectrum, Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist, believes that journalists have been too obsequious to climate scientists — to the detriment of climate science. Pielke points to a recent instance (“it is one example that could be selected from many,”) of what he considers “favorable” treatment by a New York Times reporter towards a climate scientist. He asserts:

When the media places scientists up on a pedestal and does so via the spinning of untruths, they simply set the stage for a bigger fall when the scientists cannot live up to their adulatory press coverage.

Pielke argues that journalists, “like everyone else, have their biases and perspectives,” and are just “as prone as any of us to the seductive siren of tribalism, with good guys on one side and evil ones on the other.”

One imagines that responsible American science journalists would chafe at this admonition and insist that their reporting does not suffer from “tribalism” or ideological bias. It’s certainly a hard thing to quantify. For sure, there is a pack mentality (a longstanding tendency in journalism) that narrowly frames some events, such as the nuclear dangers posed by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last year.

And climate change certainly has its share of hyped stories, one recent example involving widely reported news of outdoor hockey possibly going extinct. As respected energy and climate analyst Michael Levi archly noted in a post at the Council on Foreign Relations site, “The death of outdoor hockey has been greatly exaggerated.”

Indeed, if there is an Achilles heel to climate reporting, it would be its penchant for simplistic, dramatic coverage — be it  a new study linking climate change to shrinking animals or to declining grape quality in wine-growing regions.

Then there is the issue of official press releases, and the propensity of too many in the media to recycle PR claims with little or no scrutiny. There is currently a debate raging in the UK press about who is responsible for due diligence of press releases. Ananyo Bhattacharya, Nature‘s chief online editor, argues in a Guardian column this week that the responsibility clearly resides with journalists. The subhead of his piece: “When reporters sensationalize copy from agencies that already stretches research findings, something has gone badly wrong.”

Freelance science writer Ed Yong echoes this sentiment at his Discover magazine blog: “If we write something, and we put our names to it, the buck stops with us. If there is a mistake, it is our fault.” Yong sets the bar high for science journalists: “If the paper was rubbish, if the peer reviewers missed something, if the scientist lied, if the press release is distorted, it’s still our fault for producing something that is inaccurate or that fails to root out these problems.”

When it comes to climate change reporting, few seem to think the media overall are regularly meeting such criteria.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Science Journalism Under Fire

  1. I think it’s important to clarify for readers that neither Ed Yong nor Ananyo Bhattacharya are claiming that journalists are responsible for the content of press releases, only for the way they are represented.

    This is a key distinction because it is scientists who ultimately control what is fed to the media through the content of their publications and the PR that is produced on their behalf. Therefore it is scientists, not journalists, who are responsible for hyperbole or error in PR material. Science journalists should be interpreting, contextualizing, and questioning the research and PR at the latest stage in the process.

    The point is that both scientists (the earliest input stage) and journalists (the latest output stage) need to be regulators and gatekeepers, not passive conduits for PR.

    This is not to demonize or insult press officers, who play an important role in the public communication of science. But we need to recognize dispassionately – and with thick skins – where the ‘stress points’ are in the chain between scientist and media consumer and then assign accountability accordingly.

    More about this in our follow-up to Ananyo’s piece here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/mar/07/scientists-help-improve-science-journalism

    And here (esp. point 1):
    http://psych.cf.ac.uk/insciout/news/scientists_do_better.html

    • keith Kloor says:

      Chris,

      Thanks for making that clarification. It is an important one, and I agree with it.

  2. Greg Laden says:

    Other side of the opinion spectrum? Seriously? By this way of thinking, people who think Bigfoot lurks in the forest are on one end of the opinion spectrum in the area of wildlife biology.

    Please try to get serious about your journalism.

  3. Arthur Smith says:

    Talk about false balance, this post is surely the poster-child for it.

    When 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing significant warming, when dozens of the worlds most prestigious scientific academies and institutions and associations speak out on the need to address the problem, the balance of evidence is way, way, way on one side of this so-called debate. The problem is surely not that occasionally media outlets give “favorable” treatment to climate scientists – and Pielke’s specific example is outright stupid in itself, we could talk about that (how could Mann possibly be given responsibility for his graph becoming “a symbol of modern climate science” when he was a very junior member of the community and had very limited authority over the IPCC report – Pielke is really stretching to complain).

    The problem is that, depending on the media outlet, for every “favorable” item by somebody like Justin Gillis (an excellent reporter from what I’ve read of his work) there is 1, 2 or sometimes a dozen items with direct attacks on scientists like Mann, dubious or false science, filled with quotes from skeptics, or some form of false balance. Reporting in this area has been, overall, atrocious, given the scientific facts of the matter. If Pielke Jr. has a case he ought to do some actual research on the matter rather than post random anecdotes on his blog. At least Chris Mooney bases his work on social sciences literature.

    • biff33 says:

      What climate scientists and prestigious scientific academies assert, is not evidence of anything.

    • Jay Currie says:

      There is that wonderful “97%” number again…go check it out. It is about 77 scientists out of 3300 cheerfully agreeing that the climate is warming – as do I – without a grain of attribution.

    • Pielke Jr.’s point is both trivial (unrelated to the quality of climate science) and disputed as to its accuracy. Seems emblematic of a tendency to look for motes in the eyes of climate scientists while beams are stuck in the ones interfering with actual public understanding of the situation.

  4. Eli Rabett says:

    There is a simple, and potentially rather effective answer to this, require that any grant application include all press releases about the work in question.

    • Francis Larson says:

      An even better solution is to not have press releases for science publications.

    • matt says:

      Could Eli (or anyone who knows something about the grant process) elaborate on how

      “require[ing] that any grant application include all press releases about the work in question”

      would make the press releases more accurate representations of the paper.

      Given the gross misreprestations of both content and significance of some papers (see below for eg’s) in the accompanying press releases, this seems like an important issue to address. Would that make them subject to different rules?

      Soon & Balianus 03
      Spencer Brasswell 08? (in Remote Sensing), discussed here:

      http://climatecrocks.com/2011/09/02/bombshell-journal-editor-resigns-over-flawed-spencer-paper/

  5. keith Kloor says:

    Greg Laden, Arthur Smith,

    It’s unclear to me what your criticism is of this this post. My main points are 1) that reporting on climate research tends to be simplistic and dramatized, and 2) that climate reporters get attacked from all sides.

    There happens to be a broader debate underway about science journalism practices and standards, which has relevance to some of the issues I raise with respect to climate reporting. I have elaborated on what bearing the larger debate on science journalism has for the climate beat:

    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2012/03/08/what-to-make-of-climate-journalism/

    • Eli Rabett says:

      Reporting on ALL science issues is simplified and dramatized, as proof of which we can point to the faster than light story. Note the isn’t this great reaction of the press, and the “you gotta be kidding” reaction of the scientists.

      Unfortunately reporting on climate issues is also broderized by false balancing acts committed by reporters. Attacks on reporters wrt climate stories SHOULD be much more from those who deny climate change. Sadly, this is not the case, and folks like Keith are the reason why. Eli is again tempted to use the ch word.

  6. GSW says:

    I think, in the general case, Science articles are best reported as “the words of the researchers/paper authors” closely followed by an expert impartial/counter view providing some sort of perspective.

    It’s probably unlikely that the journalist will have the background to assess the work, in any meaningful way, most of the time. Where he feels it necessary to do so, I would prefer to see this removed from the main body of the article and highlighted as ‘Opinion’ or ‘Perspective’ to clearly differentiate it from the view of the scientific community. There are too many articles with unattributed bits ‘added on’, the Journalists view perhaps?

    That being said, when it comes to Climate Science it is a little harder. There are no ‘impartial’ experts, the second ‘Community’ perspective will be either resounding support, or outright condemnation. Also, I’ve noticed in this debate there is a tendency for the journalist to actually join-in with the opposition bashing, sort of a Ha, Ha, told you so mentality.

    For reputable journals, I’d recommend an as dry as possible reporting of what is actually being claimed by the researchers, leave the mud slinging to the blogs.

    • jim says:

      “It’s probably unlikely that the journalist will have the background to assess the work, in any meaningful way…”

      Many science journalists have very strong backgrounds in science. If the journalist doesn’t know anything meaningful about the work, they shouldn’t be reporting on it. After all, the purpose of reporting on the work in the first place is so the public can make their own assessment, isn’t it?

      Furthermore, it’s not necessary or even appropriate for the journalist to “assess” the work. The appropriate role for the journalist is to pose challenging questions about it and include the responses to those questions.

      Imagine if political journalists simply reported what politicians say.

      • GSW says:

        “Many science journalists have very strong backgrounds in science.”

        Apologies Jim, it’s an obvious thing to say but many do not have strong backgrounds. Also Science journalists often cover a multitude of disciplines; Technology, Environment, Medicine, Particle Physics, Astrophysics, Archeology etc. Even those with a background won’t be strong in all of them. Many also seem unable to distinguish between evidence that is “suggestive of” and “absolute proof”.

        “Imagine if political journalists simply reported what politicians say”

        I’m thinking of the BBC here, they seem to do a good job when it comes to politics – they are aware of a duty of impartiality and issues are handled with some sensitivity especially around election time. They are neither for nor against any political party. They ask pointed questions of all, no side gets a “free ride”. At the end of an interview, I couldn’t tell you if the journalist was going to vote for the guy or not.

        (BBC is a public service broadcaster, networks in the US will no doubt behave differently)

        On other issues it seems almost compulsory that journalists take a ‘position’ rather than just report.

        Climate science is the most obvious example but to a greater or lesser extent; Gun laws, Nuclear, Health care, Economic policy etc.

        Is it really impossible to just to report on these things? does every piece have to be written so as to sell me the view of the author?

  7. Tony Mach says:

    DeSmogBlog’s Chris Mooney would never be mistaken for an radical or political operative – he is very good at communicating the science, he never gets side tracked by an radical or political agenda. If there were more of him, climate science would surely look differently.

  8. Bob Carlson says:

    I have 6 years of college at three different universities, with a degree in the earth sciences (geology, meteorology, paleontology, oceanography, etc.), plus coursework in chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, anthropology, and archaeology. I was a state hazardous waste inspector for several years, and a professional environmental safety & health trainer for 20 years. I’ve been an enviro blogger for two years.

    In the past, I’ve had to correct an assistant director of OSHA on his interpretation of the asbestos regulations. I corrected my old state agency on the applicability of an EPA regulation. I corrected FEMA in their assigning the wrong wavelengths to each end of the electromagnetic spectrum on one of their online courses. More recently, I had to correct NASA on the structure of buckyballs, and some other science issue that escapes me at the moment (boy, were they embarrassed).

    We’re all part of getting accurate info to the public, and journalists should know enough to know when to ask for clarification or to point out potential errors, just as scientists should ask to see a draft so as to make any necessary corrections to a report, whether it’s a misquote, a misspelling of a technical term, or a misinterpretation of a point. Anybody can get stuff wrong from time to time.

    • Eli Rabett says:

      The problem is you have to know a lot to know you don’t know enough about an issue not to ask and then, of course you have to understand the answer, AkA Dunning Kruger disease.

  9. Cary Krosinsky says:

    I wonder what Keith thinks of the IEA’s Dr. Birol who states that a 6 degree average temperature increase is all but locked in given that our systemic structures will be very hard to change – how to stop China from consuming coal? The trends really do seem unstoppable

    Will our generation be the ones aware of what was coming and did nothing to stop it?

    Dead oceans, loss of biodiversity, coral reefs & irreversible tipping points all seem quite possible

    Does Keith suggest that the mainstream media has made this very real threat clear to mainstream America?

    Where? Who? All I see are well funded efforts to lie & distact on the issues – and the faith/reason argument coming to play here. Science = reason. Faith that climate change won’t bring catastrophe = the ultimate stupidity perhaps?