In The Field

AAAS: Risk assessment for climate reporters

Global warming stories are a mainstream media mainstay now, and the Obama-for-Bush swap in Washington means the climate change beat is heating up. But the media world is going through radical changes of its own. With science and environment reporters often the first cut from dying news organizations, what’s in store for climate change coverage?


Among other things, more room for “the dark side”—dishonest climate change deniers—to dupe the general assignment reporters now replacing specialists, according to a panel discussion on climate change in the media. “Specialists are a dying breed,” Pallab Ghosh of BBC News and the World Federation of Science Journalists told a conference room packed, largely, with exactly those specialists. “Science and environment reporters are seen as a luxury.”

Scientists are already feeling the consequences. Journalists often ask whether “global warming science [is] settled,” Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider told the group, suggesting with a look that there are indeed plenty of stupid questions, and he’s been asked most of them. Science is an ongoing enterprise of course, not an endpoint, and with climate change risk assessments the focus has to be on the preponderance of evidence, not uncertainties and apparent exceptions. “The denialists take the valid scientific disagreement and say, ‘we found an exception!’ as if it nullifies the mainstream consensus,” Schneider said, comparing this method of falsification to “19th century chemistry.” (That’s not a compliment.)

So how to keep journos new to the science and environment beat from falling for the denialists’ tricks? For the panelists, it comes down to mentoring. “This field does not do well if it stays ghettoized as the science and environment beat,” said Peter Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor. With more science stories going to general assignment reporters, “We need to act as mentors on these issues for our colleagues.” One example: Spotts suggests a handy pre-interview checklist to help climate cubs do a little risk assessment of their own:

__Is the source a scientist?

__Is the scientist active in the field in question?

__In the particular subdiscipline under dispute?

__If it’s a skeptic, is he or she proposing testable alternative hypotheses, as opposed to just throwing brickbats from the sideline?

Answer all four of those in the affirmative and you’ve probably got a decent source, Spotts says. The more “nos” you get, the more likely it is you’re being taken for a ride.

Posted on behalf of Thomas Hayden, lecturer in environmental sustainability at Stanford University and coauthor of “Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World.”

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