Climate science and climate scientists aren’t the only ones who have come under some withering scrutiny over the past 12 months. The controversies — or were they “pseudo-controversies”? — stemming from the hacked e-mails at a British university put the media also under the microscope for their handling of the breaking news and its aftermath. Why, some scientists wondered, were the media focusing on the “what” message of carefully cherry-picked “private” e-mail messages, and seemingly under-playing the “who” and “why” … as in who released the e-mails in the first place and why, if not to purposefully disrupt and derail last December’s Copenhagen climate negotiations?

For reporters, the slow and incremental ooze of the climate science news story overnight had become, with the first headlines of the e-mails release, a breaking news story. Widely criticized for injecting a “faux balance” standard in much of its earlier coverage of climate science, many news reports on climate science in recent years had moved away from that traditional news approach — too far away in the opinion of some. Climate science “skeptics,” by whatever name, had been garnering less and less of the science reporting news hole, as a critical mass of journalists increasingly came to accept basic aspects of climate science — Earth is indeed warming, and human activities play a significant part in that warming — as something approaching “settled” science. Pretty much along the lines that the sun rises in the east, tobacco smoking causes cancer, those sort of things.

For this second part of a Yale Forum special report on “lessons learned,” freelance writer John Wihbey asked respected science writers and journalism experts questions along the lines of those posed in Part I to leading climate science researchers: For the journalism community, what are the key “lessons learned” from the experiences and controversies of the past 12 months? What lessons should the media learn from those experiences? And are there any signs that those lessons learned are actually being put into practice in the newsroom?

What lessons has the climate journalism community learned from the experiences of the past year or so?

Richard Harris, NPR
We’re not really a community, but individually we strive to get to the bottom of the story — to get at the facts and present them to the public. We’ve learned that we have less and less influence on public discourse relating to climate change. The “climategate” story was not a product of journalism, but activism. The storyline was crafted by people with a desired objective; it was not an effort to weigh facts and reach a dispassionate conclusion. Many journalists made a serious effort to examine the facts and report what we found, but our voices were joined by many others who were not attempting to be dispassionate.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I’d say that most journalists didn’t learn anything from the “climategate” and IPCC-errors pseudo-scandals. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Rather than providing a teaching moment for the climate journalism community, those events only served to confuse editors and reporters.

In the U.S., journalists didn’t seem to know what to make of the revelations, so they basically took a pass on trying to explain what was going on. When outlets such as The New York Times finally weighed in, their stories tended to confuse climate politics (the debate over what to do about GW) and climate science (that debate over what we know about the Earth and our influence upon it). That trend continued into the winter. When skeptics seized upon heavy snows in the eastern U.S. as a refutation of global warming, the Times attempted to rebut their arguments in a front-page article. Rather than quoting scientists to set the record straight, however, the story devolved into an unresolved argument between non-scientist political partisans. To its credit, the Times covered a string of reviews released in mid-summer that reaffirmed the integrity of the work of the IPCC and the scientists involved in the “climategate” affair, but most reporters ignored them, as they did the InterAcademy Council’s review of the IPCC, which was released a month or so later. The only real high point in climate journalism in the last year was the coverage of the summer’s extreme weather, including heat waves in the U.S., wildfires in Russia, and floods in Pakistan. The press actually produced quite a bit of nuanced coverage, which explained that while it’s impossible to peg any single weather event to climate change, many scientists felt that summer’s extremes would not have been possible without humanity’s influence on the climate system.

The trend seems to have been somewhat different in the U.K. press. It was British reporters that really led the charge vis-à-vis “climategate” and the IPCC-errors controversies. Clearly, reporters on the other side of the Atlantic learned not to put so much trust in scientists, which might be a somewhat valid lesson, if not for the fact that they got carried away with it. While they brought a few legitimate errors in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report to light — such as the overestimate of the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers — they often overplayed the significance of these errors and trumpeted other errors that weren’t errors at all. In July, for example, The Sunday Times was forced to retract an article that accused the IPCC of flubbing a statement about the Amazon rainforest’s sensitivity to climate change.

So, what has the climate journalism community learned from the events of the past year? Not much, unfortunately. I haven’t seen a marked improvement in the coverage. In fact, the amount of climate coverage has been in precipitous decline for the last year or so. One might be tempted to say that the events of the last year spooked editors and reporters, who are not unsure where to go with the climate story or what to make of the latest research. I’m sure that’s true to some extent, but other factors may have played a more important role. The global recession has, more than anything else, called attention away from global warming. In addition, political shortcomings such as the failure to produce an emissions-reduction treaty at COP15 in Copenhagen and the death of climate legislation in the U.S. Congress have both served to take the wind out of climate story’s sails.

Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
For science journalists — and that’s different from political and other journalists — the answer goes back to the old Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan made famous: Trust but verify. Starting with the hacked e-mails. Much of the initial coverage of the purloined e-mails was based on pre-digested e-mails leaked to the media and they looked sensational in and of themselves.

But context is key here. At the AP, we spent a week and five reporters pouring over one-million words to read them in context and found no grand conspiracy, but lots of cranky scientists (and ones who really could use a good editor themselves). On the flip side, we in the media have a tendency to read summaries and skim in a speedy manner through the main text. Some of the handful of errors in the IPCC reports, especially the Himalayan ones, on the face of them should have been noticed by reviewers and eagle-eyed science writers. In addition, reporters should have delved into the millions of details more and asked more questions. I fear the non-science journalists don’t look as much in the science details, don’t have the time or leadership that we have at AP, and thus didn’t learn the lessons that science journalists have.

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek
Climate journalists have spent too much time preaching to the choir while there’s a riot going on outside the church. It’s important to report on, and debate, policies for mitigation, adaptation, and clean-energy acceleration, but these conversations occupy a parallel universe to the one in which the 2010 elections [were] unfolding, the elections where 19 of the top 20 Republican candidates for U.S. Senate are either climate skeptics or proud, aggressive deniers. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina blames his loss in the Republican primary on his public assertions that climate change is real. Joe Manchin, a Senate candidate in West Virginia, has a TV spot in which he shoots a rifle bullet through a cap-and-trade bill — and he’s a Democrat. Can climate journalists do anything to counter this profoundly skeptical atmosphere?

We can try — and of course many of us have been trying. I saw some of my colleagues get a wake-up call last December in the big COP 15 media center in Copenhagen. I was talking with some climate journalists after Senator James Inhofe, the famously skeptical Oklahoman, came through the room. Some journalists began joking about Inhofe, so-called “climategate,” and the absurdity of those who claimed that the hacked e-mails were proof that climate scientists had cooked their data. The journalists were right — those claims were absurd — but they were also missing the point. Inhofe had just predicted that a U.S. climate bill was “not going to happen,” and he was right. While climate journalists in Copenhagen were studying the fine points of the latest REDD proposal, “climategate” was going viral on the internet and in the mainstream media. Soon CNN was hosting a debate on the validity of climate science, and I was pulling out my calendar to remind myself what year it was. Surely we couldn’t still be arguing the basic science in 2009 and 2010.

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth
I guess my first response is, what climate journalism community? There’s a variegated array of journalists and commentators who approached the developments of the past year or two with completely different responses and output. A batch of (mainly British) reporters and outlets did epic reportage on “climategate” that appeared to be stimulated in part out of a sense of betrayal, perhaps. Some of the overheated coverage got rolled back with corrections and apologies. American media covered the incident with far less intensity, perhaps better reflecting its marginal significance. Science blogs of all stripes dove deepest, but the incident, in the end, was notable mainly for reminding the public that science is — shocking news to some — an ugly process at times, particularly when its findings relate to very consequential issues facing society.

Media coverage of problems revealed in the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was similarly variegated, with some overheated accusations not holding up but a decent learning experience for everyone on the fallibility of such vast group exercises. My guess is there’ve been few lessons learned out of coverage of the international climate treaty negotiations and the domestic battle over climate legislation.

David Biello, Scientific American
I’m not sure the climate journalism community has learned any lessons. In my view, we all continually repeat the mistakes of the past, either because of turnover that is bringing many “new” to the beat into the coverage scheme who are trained in the classic he said/she said style. Or because us old-timers are set in our ways and continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. One example, from my own magazine, is a recent profile of Judith Curry.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
I’m not sure there is a climate journalism community, so it’s hard for me to answer this question. There are a bunch of people who write fairly regularly about climate science and climate policy in the mainstream media, but as you point out there are many more writing about it in the blogosphere. I expect that ratio is only going to grow more lopsided as time goes on.

What lessons should it learn?

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth”
If science media tried to sustain coverage of science (including climate science) as a process, including the ugly parts, the public might be less apt to be surprised by occasional revelations of conflict like those illuminated through the batch of hacked/liberated (pick your adjective depending on your worldview) e-mails and files.

Beware the lure of the front-page thought in gauging developments in complicated science pointing to a rising human influence on climate, lest you end up giving readers whiplash. Try rigorously to include context on the overall state of knowledge when framing stories on science around conflict, given that conflict is a constant in science.

Develop patience. The story of humanity’s entwined climate and energy challenges will outlive you. No single treaty, meeting, e-mail hack, IPCC report, or climate bill is a keystone.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review
First and foremost, reporters should have learned that they need to do a better job of delineating the various questions that climate science seeks to answer. There is a tendency to treat climate science as one monolithic question — are humans heating up the world or not — rather than as a series of questions, each with its own level certainty/uncertainty. When that happens, uncertainty related to the timing, scale, and geographic distribution of impacts (advanced science) tends to be reflected as uncertainty about whether or not the world is warming and whether or not human industry is driving that warming (basic science). Or, as we saw with “climategate” and the IPCC errors, minor flaws in the research and/or minor behavioral flaws in individual scientists cast aspersions on every other area of climate science. So, following these events, reporters should have learned that they must be very careful, in each and every story, to specify what which parts of the science they are addressing and which parts they aren’t addressing.

Along these lines, the other lesson is that reporters do, in fact, need to be more aggressive and skeptical. As the various reviews and investigations of “climategate” and the IPCC have shown, the fundamental conclusions of climate science remain untarnished. However, the IPCC did make a couple legitimate errors, and these reports also found that the IPCC and some individual climate scientists need to be more transparent and open to alternative viewpoints. Reporters need to actively ferret out these problems on a weekly basis rather than waiting until climate skeptics and blogs discover them and blow their significance out of proportion. If journalists wrote more stories about where uncertainty exists in the science, and if they were more aggressive about challenging scientists on transparency issues, we wouldn’t have these pseudo-scandals erupt every time a climate scientist missteps.

The corollary to this is that, at the same time, reporters must defend those scientists that need defending because many, such as Ben Santer, have had to endure unreasonable challenges to their credibility in addition to overt threats of violence.

Delineating the various questions of climate science and being more aggressive and skeptical will help with the third lesson: the need to separate climate science from climate politics. The narrative of climate change tends to get boiled down into one of two false generalizations: it is totally certain (we have five years to save the planet!) or totally uncertain (it’s all a hoax!). When that happens, it becomes very easy for political partisans to invoke scientific disagreements in support of their own policy objectives, just as they did in media coverage following the “climategate” and the IPCC-errors controversies. In reality, however, those events had no bearing whatsoever on political debate, and therein lies the lesson for journalists. Science cannot settle all arguments about how the world should respond to global warming, because the answer to that question involves values, varying perceptions of risk, and political ideology, in addition to what we know (and don’t know) about the climate system. So, if a reporter is simply trying to cover what scientists know, or don’t know, about the climate system, politicians should be excluded. Conversely, if a reporter is trying to cover climate politics, he or she must not let sources stake their claims on oversimplified reductions of climate science.

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek
Now climate journalists are getting back to basics — connecting climate change to people’s lives and showing how it is already affecting our weather and our economy. Instead of getting hung up on whether a particular extreme weather event was ’caused’ by climate change — an unanswerable question — we’re explaining that extreme weather events are already happening more frequently, and that the scientists say we’ll be suffering through more of these events in a warmer world. We’re connecting the dots in a careful, responsible way. Some local coverage of the Nashville flood did this, for example. The magazine and website where I work, Bloomberg Businessweek, is doing this as well, through regular reporting on how business copes with climate risk (here’s one example). A website sponsored by Environment Canada connects the dots in a different but also effective way. There are many other angles on this story, and I hope news organizations will explore all of them.

Richard Harris, NPR
I think we still need to do our best to dig into the science — as well as into allegations of misconduct. It’s still important for us to present what we find to our audiences, even knowing that there are many competing voices. The “climategate” e-mails, for example, did not undercut the science of climate change, but it did lay bare some less than noble behavior on the part of certain scientists. It’s important to air that out. Likewise it’s important to set the record straight on broadly repeated misconceptions, such as the rate of demise of the Himalayan glaciers.

David Biello, Scientific American
The lesson that should be learned is two-fold: one, we must always retain our skepticism. Don’t trust anyone. Verify everything. In cases where you can’t verify, triangulate (i.e., use multiple sources to get closer to the truth). Two, sometimes smoke doesn’t mean fire. There is a lot of politicking going on in this area, both in the academic sense and in the broader social sense. That makes for a lot of smoke, which would seem to suggest a major conflagration. Such a fire does not exist, unless it’s the one embedded in the hundreds of coal plants around the world.

And is it moving effectively to put those lessons-learned into practice?

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek
When the next climate scandalette comes along, some news organizations will surely play to hype and get carried away with their coverage — in effect, becoming a handy transmission belt for the professional deniers. That’s why serious climate journalists need to investigate charges rapidly and communicate their findings widely — explaining what’s real and what’s not, clarifying what the scandal does and doesn’t say about climate science, and fact-checking any false claims that may be in the air. Inevitably, the multiple investigations exonerating the climategate scientists got far less attention than the wild initial allegations against them. If more experienced climate journalists jump into the fray early, they could help tip the balance toward honest reporting and away from hype.

Richard Harris, NPR
Journalism still takes its role very seriously, but of course there are fewer of us out there every day. Those of us with big platforms and credibility with our audience are putting the lessons leaned into practice — that is, we are still reporting the stories carefully and thoroughly as they emerge. But it is naïve to think that crisis management, through even the best journalism, will overwhelm deliberate efforts to color the facts in order to achieve philosophical or economic objectives.

David Biello, Scientific American
… Old-timers seem to make the same mistakes over and over (including me, darnit). Newcomers fall into the same trap of “he said, she said” that they then must laboriously climb out of over years of on-the-job training.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review
No, I don’t see journalists putting the lessons learned into practice because I’m not sure if they really learned them in the first place. There are a few reassuring signs, however.

The Sunday Times retracted its fallacious “Amazongate” article. Another positive development was the American Geophysical Union’s decision to award its Excellence in Science Journalism award to Pallava Bagla, an Indian journalist who broke and unraveled the story about how the IPCC overestimated the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers. So, to some extent, the bad journalism is being condemned and the good journalism is being recognized.

There have also been a couple other good articles recently. Shortly before the midterm election, The New York Times had a great front-page story about climate denial being an “article of faith” for the Tea Party, which made it clear that the group’s climate politics are not synonymous with climate science.

There was also a long feature in Scientific American about Judith Curry, who studies hurricanes at Georgia Tech and has ruffled the feathers of her fellow climate scientists by engaging with skeptics. A lot of climate scientists were really unhappy with the piece, arguing that Curry is wrong and that the media attention should have gone to somebody who is making real progress with their research. Personally, though, I thought it was an excellent attempt to be more aggressive and skeptical with scientists and show that climate science is (as Andrew Revkin once put it) a very “herky-jerky” process. I get the feeling that if more people were exposed to that type of journalism they would begin to understand the scientists and science are not infallible.

For the most part, though, I don’t think climate coverage, on the whole, has gotten any better or any worse in the last year. In fact, I think the “climategate” and IPCC-errors controversies has had far less of an impact on public opinion and on journalism than a lot of people have assumed. What’s really plaguing coverage are the same things that have been plaguing it for years: a declining number of specialized reporters in newsrooms, less time and fewer resources for reporting, and all the “noise” created by blogs and the 24/7 cable news.

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth”
Too soon to tell.

Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
Any signs that they are moving to put those lessons-learned into practice? This is much like natural disasters. People who have lived through a major hurricane tend to prepare better for the next one and take it more seriously. Those who haven’t, don’t. Science journalists and others who well reported the issue this past year will do a better job, those who didn’t or just skimmed the surface or parroted ideologues won’t. The trouble is — much like in disasters — the people who really need to learn are usually the ones who don’t. And those who work hard to be even better prepared next time were not the problem cases to begin with.
Topics: Climate Science, Policy & Politics