Linking global climate science experts and media electronically.

Several months ago, Stacy Jackson, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, had one of those good ideas that most of us set aside and never act on because they require a bit too much work.

But Jackson decided to follow through. What emerged was a unique, successful experiment in connecting reporters with scientists to help them accurately cover science issues underlying negotiations at last December’s Conference of the Parties meeting in Copenhagen.

Hundreds of scientists would ultimately get involved, helping nearly 27 media outlets get their facts straight.

Jackson, inspired in part by seeing too many climate change media reports she felt were inaccurate, decided around October that there should be a system to more easily connect reporters with reputable climate change scientists, especially during the Copenhagen negotiations. “In some ways I think it’s underappreciated how complicated the topic is, and I really saw a need for journalists to have a resource they could go to,” she says.

Jackson approached the American Geophysical Union (AGU) with the concept of setting up an e-mail response system where groups of climate scientists would take shifts during the 12 days of the meeting and answer questions e-mailed by reporters. Those she explored it with liked the idea, and in short order she had approval to move forward with a new program under AGU auspices.

A Flood of 700-Plus Willing Helpers

More than 700 scientists deluged Jackson’s inbox once the e-mail announcement went out through AGU division heads and other routes, more than could ultimately participate in the program. “That was amazing,” she says.

Later, AGU sent out e-mails to reporter lists to let them know the service would be available.

Unsure how much demand to expect from reporters, Jackson, along with members of a support team, lined up scientists to be on call 24 hours per day – six Ph.D. climate scientists at a time doing two-hour shifts. As the Copenhagen meeting progressed, organizers realized they had more coverage than needed, so for the last seven days they put scientists on call for three two-hour shifts per day.

“The fact that there existed a corral full of people ready and willing to help reporters was just a huge help,” said Sharon Begley, Newsweek‘s veteran science editor, in a phone interview. Begley took advantage of the system to find a source for a Copenhagen analysis published online December 18.

All told, writers and editors from 27 media outlets fired 54 questions at the on-call teams, who received them in a shared e-mail account. The first scientist to get a question would either answer it, or pass it on to other scientists with more suitable expertise. The program website told journalists that only questions on climate change science would be handled, not policy questions, to allow AGU to reflect its nonpartisan, non-advocacy stance.

Participating journalists represented outlets ranging from small European blogs to Newsweek, the Associated Press, and National Public Radio. Besides being drawn to the service by the prospect of quick but authoritative answers to questions and the chance to expand beyond a reporter’s usual contacts, most of the journalists involved have indicated that one of the greatest attractions was simply trying something new.

Scientists were most motivated by a desire to help improve coverage of climate change, but many noted a similar attraction in surveys. “It seemed like an interesting way to use technology to interact with a lot of different reporters around the world,” says Eugénie Euskirchen, an Arctic ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, “I was curious to see how it would all work,” she said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum.

How It All Worked

Begley at Newsweek was looking for help calculating what pledges by countries such as China might mean over the long term. Shortly after she sent her query, Jeffrey Cunningham, an environmental engineer at the University of South Florida in Tampa, jumped in to help. He sent an initial message to let her know he was on it, and had an answer within a day, well within Begley’s deadline constraints.

“It made reporters’ jobs, or at least this reporter’s job, easier,” said Begley of the program, “I had full confidence in the answer I was getting.”

Cunningham was likewise pleased with the outcome. “I felt she quoted me accurately and didn’t misconstrue anything from our conversation,” he said in a phone interview. “So I was very happy with that.”

Besides helping experienced climate change reporters like Begley, Jackson was perhaps even more interested in aiding reporters who don’t normally cover climate change but were covering Copenhagen, which amounted to about a third of the surveyed reporters. “Basically, I wanted to create a service where members of the media who didn’t already have established relationships with climate scientists could get access to top-notch, accurate answers to their questions so that better information would be conveyed to the public.”

Among both reporters and journalists, the program was overwhelmingly deemed a success, according to AGU’s report on the project, and there now are calls for repeating the program for climate change meetings and even setting up a year-round query system.

“I think it was just a terrific public service,” said Begley of AGU’s Copenhagen experiment, “and if it were available all the time it would definitely be useful. ”

What’s Next

Jackson says AGU is exploring options but hasn’t set any definite plans for future on-call services. AGU has decided, however, to expand its existing referral service that connects reporters with scientist sources more directly. The organization’s public information group generally is well regarded among many journalists for its efficient and effective work with media, and staffers routinely have been available to help with such match work.

But one goal for the new effort will be to better publicize the availability of the service, and to make scientists more aware of the program to expand the number of willing participants.

As more and more science journalists lose their full-time reporting positions with newspapers and other publications, the need for innovative ways to distribute accurate information on climate change topics will only grow. And of course, as the climate change debate is further complicated by discussions and debates that do not display a broad grasp of the basic underlying science, the need for solid help for journalists grows too.

So any expansion of the AGU program, and similar efforts among other organizations, likely will be welcomed, and likely will be more widely used as awareness grows among journalists.

“I think it’s a great idea, ” Cunningham said. “I would be happy to volunteer a little of my time on a regular basis.” Euskirchen also is ready to join in future efforts. “Nobody likes to be misrepresented, and that’s a constant possibility with a lot of climate change issues,” she says. “When given the chance to set the record straight as much as they can, people really jump at the chance.”

Mark Schrope is a freelance science writer living in Melbourne, Fla.