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AAAS: Lost in Translation [updated]

Correction Appended

AAAS, Boston-

One of the most interesting, and popular, sessions I’ve been to so far at AAAS was the panel discussion on how the media communicates climate change.

Though there wasn’t any news in the talks about news by various well known science communicators, the room was packed to the rafters and the lively discussion spilled over into the next session.

Andy Revkin of the New York Times , who recently started the excellent Dot Earth blog, spoke of the tyrannies of news and the difficulty of getting climate-related news on the front page without a peg like Hurricane Katrina. He also pointed out that the more complex a story is (as is so often the case in climate science), the less space it gets.

Matt Nisbet, who runs the Framing Science blog, talked about how sources of information frame people’s perceptions of the issue, with the example that Gore’s ‘climate crises’ gets referred to more frequently by the media than the IPCC, NOAA or NASA.

David Dickson, director of Scidev Net warned that journalism is at risk of losing its independence and becoming a voice for various NGOs, as they become increasingly strategic at media relations. Some NGOs apparently paid for a large contingent of journalists to attend the UN conference on climate change in Bali, with the explicit understanding that they would cover their stories*.

John Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Centre, aired his frustration at various aspects of how climate change is reported by the mainstream media, including references by journalists (other than Revkin) at the NYT to “global warming, [which] is caused by humanity, as many scientists believe”.

Holdren has been trying convince journalists to use ‘global climate disruption’ rather than the misrepresentative ‘global warming’. Good luck to him – it would up the word count, and, as we’ve heard, there just ain’t no space for that.

Yesterday morning, I took part, with a national environment reporter from a popular broadsheet, in an interview on how journalists communicate climate change. The interviewer was a grad student from MIT who is doing her PhD on the topic. She asked me a lot of questions about sources of information – the issue of NGOs came up again and also the question of where to draw the line with quoting scientists on policy recommendations. The differences between us and a national paper were very interesting – I get way less bumf from NGOs, for a start!

Olive Heffernan

*Dickson has since clarified that the agreement was that journalists would cover the conference rather than the activites of the NGO at the conference.


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    Ken Brazier said:

    I personally prefer Armory Lovins’ description, “global weirding”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mention climate, so it could be confusing for some.

    On the other hand, for nerds, it does evoke images of Dune.

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    Jim Angel said:

    Olive, the topic of how climate change is portrayed in the media is one that I deal with on an almost daily basis as a state climatologist. I would like to have heard more of what was said.

    On the bright side, because I’m on the campus of the U. of Illinois, I have worked closely with journalism students there and more recently with Northwestern IL students. They tend to ask more in-depth questions than most professional journalists and the resulting articles do a better job of conveying the complexities of the subject IMO.

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    danny bloom said:


    Did you see Dot Earth post the other day about ways to call Global Warming, other than that sometimes confusing and vague term? One poster suggested the German term of klimkatastrophe, what do you think of that one?


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    Mike Shanahan said:

    Hi Olive

    The Climate Change Media Partnership (the International Institute for Environment and Development, Panos and Internews) took 40 journalists from developing nations to the Bali climate-change conference, but there was no requirement for them to report on the partner organisations’ activities. The journalists were there to report on the negotiations, side events, etc. In many cases, there countries would have had zero media representation at the conference without the support of the Climate Change Media Partnership. You can learn more about this work here:

    All the best


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