Climate change news researcher and academic Max Boykoff writes in a recent Nature Reports Climate ChangeCommentary” that despite recent evidence that coverage of climate change is improving, “all too often, media reports conflate the vast and varied terrain of climate science and policy as a unified image.”

Finding that situation annoying, Boykoff writes that grouping of all climate-related issues “into a gestalt as ‘the climate change debate’” leaves the public poorly served. “It contributes to continued illusory and counterproductive debates within the public and policy communities,” wrote Boykoff, a Research Fellow with the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, in the February 21 online commentary.

He said the combining of climate science and policy issues “extends to deliberate manipulation, thus breeding confusion.” He points to the 2007 British documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” as an example in that category, saying “the seeds of public misunderstanding of the role of human activity in climate change had been sown through the inexact and hence misleading program.”

Boykoff, for years a student of U.S. media coverage of climate change, said that “legitimate disagreement and dissent” are important in improving understanding, but he argued that “All aspects of climate change should not be treated equally by the media; there are facets of climate change where agreement is strong, whereas for others contentious disagreement garners worthwhile debate and discussion.” For Boykoff, scientists have established that humans contribute to climate change and warming, but the merits of the Kyoto Protocol, for instance, remain “worthy of ongoing discussion” in science, policy, and public arenas.

Boykoff writes in his Nature commentary that climate change is “a continually vexing problem for reporting, especially for a generalist audience,” and he urges that journalists and scientists “need to be intensely scrupulous.”

The media, Boykoff writes, “should portray the contours of the varied aspects of climate change – from humans’ role in it to whether it is ‘serious’ – because better reporting has crucial implications” for public understanding and engagement and that reporting can help determine public engagement on the issue.

“To this end, reporting must be more exacting …. Journalists can begin with three concrete improvements:

  • First, they can coordinate with editors to make headlines more consistent with the stories;
  • Second, they can more effectively label sources by their affiliation; and
  • Third, they can more frequently and consistently fact-check their reporting by consulting appropriate experts.”

As for scientists, Boykoff writes that they need to better recognize “the increasing expectation that they interact with policymakers, media and the public.” He writes that scientists need to work to enhance their interactions with those segments of society.

“More media coverage of climate change – even if fair and accurate – is not a panacea,” Boykoff writes. But improved reporting resulting from the combined efforts of media and scientists “would help to more effectively engage the public, and would widen the spectrum of possibility for appropriate action.”