An AAAS panel delves into the proper role of media in ‘convincing’ the public about climate change and explores differing views on what precisely makes news, helping illustrate scientists’ and media’s sometimes vast cultural differences.

“We all know what happened in Tucson and in Egypt … but the public square is narrowing. There are fewer things that we all know.”

The speaker was Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He was addressing an overflow meeting at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, in Washington, D.C. His messages were quick and to the point, his explanations easily understood by those well beyond the media world.

Summing up the challenges facing traditional news organizations, Rosenstiel said the online world is increasing the supply and quantity of discussion and comment even while the “reportorial component” is shrinking across a wide segment of mainstay media and audiences.

The problem “is more a revenue crisis than an audience crisis,” particularly for print news outlets, he said. Rosenstiel pointed to a nationwide newsroom employment decline of roughly 30 percent over the past decade, with at least one major daily — the Los Angeles Times, where he once was media critic — down 50 percent over that period. Classified advertising revenues had comprised 40 percent of newspaper revenues in 2000, but 75 percent of those revenues “are now gone,” he said, primarily to places like

Reporter Elizabeth Shogren of NPR in Washington, D.C., said she finds it frustrating that coverage of climate change now may be going back several years to again addressing fundamental questions such as whether Earth is warming and whether human activities are contributing to that warming. She said she had thought scientific understanding and informed coverage of the climate issue had gotten beyond those points, basically to explore what steps might be taken to confront challenges of climate change.

But with many of the new congressional members expressing strong reservations, and growing confusion among much of the public at large, she said she feels it necessary to repeatedly address those questions of whether Earth’s atmosphere is warming and whether human activities play a role in that warming. “Back to Square One,” as she put it.

“You haven’t made your case yet” to policymakers and the public generally, she said, directing her comment at the climate science community, represented at this particular AAAS panel by MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel. “What do you want me to do about it?”

That rhetorical remark prompted a challenge from Emanuel. “No. You haven’t,” Emanuel said, prompting a rapid-fire exchange with Shogren, Rosenstiel, and panelist Seth Borenstein, Associated Press science reporter, over the proper roles of the media — and also of climate scientists themselves — in science education.

“If you’re waiting for the press to persuade the public for you, you’re going to lose,” Rosenstiel argued, “because the press doesn’t see that as their role.”

Making the Important Interesting … and Add Some Spinach

Reporters do have a responsibility to “make the significant interesting,” Rosenstiel continued, prompting Borenstein to use a food metaphor: He said that in making science news digestible and tantalizing, reporters at the same time can “include the spinach” that over time will help the public learn while they are becoming better informed.

Rosenstiel agreed that the media have an obligation to provide the public with “sense-making stories” that can help them better understand complex but vital issues such as climate change. “The public needs enough facts to push them past beliefs,” he said, laying out the case for providing science coverage based on strong science.

Speaking from the audience, former New York Times science reporter Andy Revkin, Dotearth blogger now working with Pace University, urged the panelists to look at “next steps” that can help the public better understand issues related to sustainability and climate change. He suggested, for instance, that the scientific community could better reward, rather than seemingly punish, scientists who do effective outreach with the media and the public.

“You touched on a raw nerve,” MIT’s Emanuel responded, pointing to what he said is a common concern among many of his scientist peers. He lamented “an attitude in our culture: if we’re doing outreach, we’re not in the lab.”

Emanuel also related experiences he said he and other scientists have had in dealing with press interviews. He agreed that some scientists and some journalists share a common goal of pursuing truth, and in those cases, he said his experiences with reporters generally have been quite satisfactory. On other occasions, however, Emanuel said he has been frustrated when journalists/interviewers seem more interested in pursuing a particular story line, perhaps out of interest in increasing sales or readership.

Scientists and Media and ‘Different Truths’

Referring to a 2010 story in the Boston Globe outlining the deteriorated personal relationship between Emanuel and fellow MIT faculty member Richard Lindzen, the latter a widely recognized “skeptic,” AP’s Borenstein replied that scientists and journalists sometimes can be legitimately pursuing “different truths.” In that story, about which Emanuel had major concerns, veteran Globe environmental reporter Beth Daley had addressed the “truth” of the dicey personal relationship between what earlier had been two colleagues, while Emanuel was more interested in reporting of the “truth” on climate science. The exchange helped illustrate some underlying differences distinguishing the science and journalism communities.

Addressing Emanuel’s comment about reporters’ wanting to fan readership or sales, Rosenstiel replied that in traditional newsrooms, reporters seldom have had any real awareness about how many readers or viewers their work actually attracts. He said that situation is changing somewhat now with “new media” managers increasingly tracking online “hits” and “eye balls” and search engine results.

Most Planes Daily Landing Safely … It’s Not News

Another exchange involving an audience member — in this case Peter Gleick, the head of the Pacific Institute — also helped illustrate fundamentally different approaches distinguishing the media and the science community.

Borenstein had noted in his prepared remarks that through December 2010, NOAA recordkeeping had indicated 311 consecutive months in which world mean temperature, land and ocean, had been warmer than normal.

That has been the case for each month since February 1985, Borenstein said — the month that actor Mel Gibson was named People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” and Minolta had introduced the world’s first auto-focus single lens reflex camera.

Borenstein said he had been eager to see if a cool January 2011 might end that 311-month streak, which he said would provide a strong “record-broken” peg for a story.

Gleick, a respected water resources expert, wasn’t buying it. “Why isn’t 312 straight months a story?” Gleick asked. His question prompted comments of approval from a number of climate scientists in the audience.

Borenstein’s response: “It is the equivalent of planes landing safely every day.” He schooled the audience that more of the same isn’t news for most editors and reporters. What makes news is breaking that mold, not simply sustaining it yet again, he explained. Again, it was an exchange that helped illuminate some of the differing thought patterns that distinguish scientists and journalists.

Editor’s Note: The editor of The Yale Forum was the organizer and moderator of the AAAS panel reported on in this story.

Topics: Climate Science