New Online Discussions on Good and Not-So-Good Climate Reporting

New ways of reporting on climate — and concerns over most current climate reporting (and lack of same) — are aired in recent panel discussions.

Two recent discussions of media coverage of climate change can now, or soon, be accessed on the Web.

The first was organized by Resources for the Future for the February 6th edition of its “First-Wednesday Seminar” series. It’s available online now.

Media, Science, and Cognition: How We Shape Our Understanding of Environmental Issues” features environmental journalist Julia Kumari Drapkin, whose presentation on her iSeeChange program with KVNF radio in Colorado is introduced by Lynn Scarlett, co-director of RFF’s Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth. Barbara Allen, Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton College in Minnesota, responds to Drapkin’s remarks.

Drapkin’s radio and Web program, the subject of an October 2012 Yale Forum piece, turns the traditional model of climate change communication — scientist to journalist to public — on its head. In her work in rural Colorado, Drapkin solicits environmental observations from local residents and then turns them into questions for scientists, many from nearby institutions. By starting with their observations, rather than with her own questions, Drapkin bypasses the skepticism with which many of her listeners still view climate change.

Drapkin makes this case by taking her RFF audience through her production process for stories on winter forest fires, on plants blooming out of sequence, and on early mosquito hatches. People who have observed a landscape closely for years, she says, are naturally curious about the changes they are seeing. When scientists answer residents’ questions about these changes, they can address the residents’ real concerns rather than merely confirm or challenge their ideological convictions.

Framing, Priming, and Persuading

In her commentary on Drapkin’s work, Allen carefully distinguishes between framing, priming, and persuading: Framing puts ideas in a specific context. Priming increases the accessibility of specific memories or bits of knowledge. Framing and priming may make people more amenable to persuasion, to changing what they believe about the world, but it is not the automatic result of framing and priming.

Julia Kumari Drapkin (Photo source: KVNF.org)

In Drapkin’s work, Allen says, her radio listeners provide the first framing; their observations set the agenda. But Drapkin performs a second framing, reworking their observations as questions and then weaving the questions and answers into a journalistic story about change in a particular landscape. These journalistic stories then prime residents to observe the landscape, and to interpret their observations, in new ways. But Drapkin has moved beyond crowd-sourcing and the standard news narrative, Allen suggests, to mediate a real conversation between citizens and scientists about the genuinely new challenges posed by climate change.

Allen uses Drapkin’s stories, and her accounts of their production, to explain and illustrate these points about framing, priming, and persuading. Rare is the presentation that directly links theory with actual practice. Rarer still is the presentation that does it this well.

A second discussion of media coverage of climate change soon to be available on the Web is “The Crisis in Climate Reporting” organized by Orion Magazine. (This discussion was not online at the time of this posting, but was expected soon to be.)

Invited to participate in this online-only discussion were Susie Cagle (Grist.org), Thomas Lovejoy (Biodiversity Chair of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and founder of the PBS program Nature), Bill McKibben (350.org), M. Sanjayan (Nature Conservancy and science and environment contributor to CBS News), Kate Sheppard (Mother Jones), and Wen Stephenson (The Phoenix).

Josh Stearns, journalism and media campaign director for Free Press, who moderated the discussion, first frames the crisis as a consequence of media consolidation and the elimination of environmental and/or science beats at most “mainstream” news organizations. In the hour-long discussion that follows, the panelists agree with parts of this explanation but challenge others.

Stephenson, author of a recent piece on what he too sees as a crisis, suggests that journalistic norms are pulling the punch from climate change coverage. Before leaving to attend to matters for the “Forward on Climate” rally — see related story — McKibben expresses surprise both at the strong public response to his July 2012 piece in Rolling Stone and at the reality that climate change remains a third-tier story. Sheppard notes that good reporting is still being done, but most of it isn’t reaching the public, both literally and metaphorically. Sanjayan and Cagle offer different explanations for why this might be so, and both draw on personal experiences (travels in Bangladesh for Sanjayan, early struggles with dyslexia for Cagle) to make their cases.

The discussion thus wanders from its hosts’ chosen path, but the scenery along the new way is just as engaging.

Readers can now, or soon in the case of the second discussion,┬álink, listen, and like — or not — these exchanges on the Web.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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