A new funding partnership between NSF and an NBC affiliate promises more informed coverage of climate science. But questions arise about implications for journalistic independence and integrity.

The segments generally are brief, about four to six minutes in length, but collectively they cover the familiar threats that climate change poses to the planet:

Rising seas. Thawing permafrost. Ocean acidification. And so on.

In all, there are 14 educational video segments posted as of September 25 at the website of NBCLearn, an educational arm of NBC News. NBCLearn has been around since 2006 (it was known as “ICue” when it debuted). Launched at that time to capitalize on the network’s vast video archive of nightly broadcasts, news shows, and documentaries, the for-profit venture markets educational videos to schools around the country.

But Changing Planet, NBCLearn’s feature that focuses on climate change, is offered to classrooms and the greater public for free. That’s because Changing Planet, like video packages on the science of the Olympic winter games, chemistry, and the science of NFL football, is a product of a two-year-old partnership between NBCLearn and the National Science Foundation.

The partnership offers mutual benefits, representatives from both parties say. NBCLearn gives NSF a new platform to communicate science, access to news professionals and their expertise in broadcast reporting and production, and the credibility of one of the biggest news networks in the U.S. NSF says it helps journalists think through the complex scientific topics they’re covering, connects NBCLearn with respected scientists, and helps ensure scientific accuracy at a time when seasoned science reporters are scarce and science reporting has been cut from many news budgets.

The Changing Planet project, which broadcast its first segment this past January on the potential consequences of fresher Arctic waters as glaciers melt, also includes contributions from Discover magazine. Discover printed a transcript in June from a town hall meeting at Yale University on solutions to climate change that NBCLearn and NSF had produced in January. Two video-taped town hall meetings, along with the 14 produced climate change science segments, are part of the ongoing Changing Planet series. A third town hall was held August 25 at Arizona State University on climate change and water issues. As of September 25, the taping of that town hall had not yet been posted to the NBCLearn website.

Susan Mason, head of external affairs at NSF in Arlington, VA, described the partnership between NBCLearn, NSF, and Discover as a “wonderful kind of brain trust … all together kind of figuring out what the public needs to know.”

These are undoubtedly tough times for science reporting. Many newsrooms, trimmed to the bone, lack the expertise and experience to competently cover a topic as complex as climate change. But should news organizations be partnering with a federal agency to shape news coverage, even if the primary audience is students? Some journalism ethicists are wary.

Interviews with Mason and Soraya Gage, executive producer of NBCLearn, offered several details about how the NBCLearn/NSF partnership originated and how it works.

Details of the Partnership

NBCLearn already was a formal entity more than two years ago when the two partners reached out to one another. NBCLearn was producing educational programming on a variety of topics and soon recognized that it had great material to promote the STEM subjects in classrooms — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Profiling the science of the Olympics was a natural first feature that would appeal broadly to young people, Gage said. NBCLearn also could benefit from the huge promotional machine that NBC gives to the Olympic games, and the video segments on the science of the Olympics, featuring NSF-funded scientists, were produced quickly to coincide with the 2010 winter games.

Launching Changing Planet required a bit more planning, Gage said. NBCLearn producers decided they did not want to step into covering the political controversies surrounding climate change. Instead, the goal was to focus squarely on the science.

Gage said that ideas for video segments are generated by NBCLearn journalists, and then those ideas are reviewed by NSF staff to make sure their premise is scientifically sound. Mason said video segments usually focus on a “mutually-agreed-upon subject area.”

NBCLearn journalists ask NSF staff for suggestions about particular scientists to interview, and then they choose who makes it on the air, based on who is best suited for the subject and who is most compelling in front of the camera, Gage said.

Once NBCLearn writes a script for a segment, NSF staff reviews it for scientific accuracy.

“We look at what the scientists are going to say,” Mason said. “We look at the science, so we’re very involved in the process. It’s a back-and-forth and give-and-take.”

Both Gage and Mason said NBCLearn ultimately has editorial control over everything it produces. “We have to be very careful to protect the reputation of NBC News, and really have editorial control over everything — and have the appearance of editorial control,” Gage said.

“It was a big deal,” Gage said of forming the partnership with the NSF. “We went to our ombudsman (at NBC News), and then we went through our compliance people.”

NBCLearn and NSF are sharing the cost of their partnership. Gage said NBC News has invested more than $25 million to produce educational programming that culls material from NBC News’ video archive, which is updated daily. Part of that investment pays for Changing Planet‘s video segments and town hall meetings.

For its part, NSF has spent roughly $300,000 to help produce the video segments, and another $200,000 to help organize and conduct the three town hall meetings at Yale University, George Washington University, and Arizona State University, Mason said.

The partnership is, at its core, an educational venture, Mason said. Video segments are shown in classrooms around the country, although Changing Planet town hall meetings have been broadcast on The Weather Channel. Mason said video segments produced by the partnership also have been edited down to about 90 seconds and made available to NBC affiliate news stations around the country.

Gage said NBCLearn’s partnership with NSF makes sense because the goals of the two enterprises are the same. “The way we look at it is as long as the mission is aligned with ours, there is no problem,” Gage said. The mission of NSF is to further the understanding of science, she added. “We want to do that, right?”

NBCLearn’s thinking was the same in forming a partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to produce a series of educational segments on the civil rights movement, Gage said. “Finishing the Dream” was produced in 2010.

“We maintain editorial control,” Gage continued. “We choose the stories. They (the NSF) have meaningful input, but we would get meaningful input from scientists on any story that we did on science.”

NBCLearn doesn’t just take what NSF suggests “at face value,” Gage added. “We vet it out. If they have a suggestion, we go and try to confirm it and get a second or third source on it, because we never want to be seen as a mouthpiece for the NSF. That would be really dangerous for us. And I don’t think we have been.”

Mason said the partnership “is just another way for us to educate both youngsters and general public, with telling them that science is everywhere. We think of it not so much as news; we think of it as education.”

Mason distinguished the segments and town hall broadcasts produced by the partnership from traditional news broadcasts. “They (NBCLearn) have an educational mission and the NSF has an educational mission. Obviously they have to retain the news standards they abide by, but we both have a mind to educate — in the broadest sense of the word.”

Covering Climate Change Science

The video segments, which are posted to the NBCLearn website and geared toward students from about middle school into college, offer straightforward presentations of how scientists are studying the consequences of the globe’s warming climate.

In a segment on rising sea levels, Benjamin Horton of the University of Pennsylvania discusses the potential for coastal flooding as seas rise, while David Holland of New York University discusses the three main drivers of sea level rise: thermal expansion of sea water, melting land-based ice sheets, and melting glaciers.

Another segment on infectious diseases offers a frightening assessment of how a warming climate is expected to lead to the proliferation of mosquitos, fleas, ticks, rats, and other disease vectors.

A taped town hall meeting at George Washington University, first broadcast on The Weather Channel in late July and posted now at the NBCLearn website, offers a strikingly bullish view of the potential for alternative energy development and green jobs. The panelists, most of them from advocacy groups, covered a fair amount of ground but neglected to discuss in any detail the real — though not intractable — challenges to developing alternative energy. These challenges include how to scale up wind and solar power generation to the degree that it makes a difference in terms of lowering the nation’s carbon emissions; the technical challenges associated with storing electrical energy; modernizing and expanding the electric grid to accommodate new, clean sources of electricity; and the significant environmental opposition to many alternative energy projects.

This comment from Ken Zweibel, director of the Solar Institute at George Washington University, represented the optimistic tone of the meeting: “It’s clear that solar energy and wind energy are capable of meeting all the energy needs that we have. Sunshine in one hour is equal to all the electricity and energy that we use in the world in one year.”

Back in January, Changing Planet‘s first town hall meeting, held at Yale University, covered the climate change topic more broadly, but the panelists did not really discuss the myriad challenges of weaning the nation off carbon. However, panelist Billy Parish, who dropped out of Yale University to found a youth climate advocacy organization, Energy Action Coalition, did say that “almost every aspect of our economy is going to need to be re-thought, re-designed, and re-built.”

Gage said subsequent town hall meetings and other events associated with the Changing Planet project may dive more deeply into re-tooling the economy toward a low-carbon future.

Concerns Focus on Journalistic Independence

Robert Steele, a journalism ethics professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said the partnership between NSF, a federal agency, and NBCLearn, a project of NBC News, poses several challenges to journalistic independence.

“The folks at NBCLearn can say that they retain complete editorial independence, and I hope they do, but it sounds like there are several pressure points in this agreement and process between NBCLearn and the NSF that create tension on the principle of journalistic independence,” Steele said.

Because NSF participates in initial editorial meetings at which story ideas are developed and planned, “that creates a tilted table-top,” Steele said. “The NSF has a stronger and more accessible voice, based on that seat at the table, which in some ways they have purchased through their financial support.”

Of course, news reporters frequently consult with scientists funded by or otherwise affiliated with, NSF to help guide their thinking in covering complex topics, but “that’s very different from literally having NSF individuals in the discussion about what is covered and how,” Steele said.

“I both understand and in some ways can support the National Science Foundation’s desire to have high-quality science reporting about the important issues in our society, and it is correct that news organizations struggle to cover science with the levels of expertise and skill and commitment that they need to,” Steele continued. “(But) that’s not a justification for creating financial partnerships that have collaboration between the funder and a news organization in ways that journalistic independence is eroded or corroded.”

Steele, long the journalism ethics expert for the Poynter Institute, said he is particularly concerned that NSF, which contributes funding to its partnership with NBCLearn, recommends specific individuals that NBCLearn reporters should interview.

“Now NBCLearn can argue until hell freezes over that they aren’t influenced by that process, that they make their own decisions about who is interviewed and what NSF does in recommending individuals doesn’t influence them,” Steele said. “But that’s a very difficult proposition to prove because you don’t know who NBCLearn considered and ruled out for interviews, (and) you don’t know why they chose certain individuals.”

While aspects of the partnership are problematic, Steele emphasized that partnerships between news organizations and government agencies or foundations can work — if strict ground rules designed to preserve journalistic independence are set early.

Full Disclosure Seen Critical

Philip Meyer, professor emeritus at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said a full disclosure of such partnerships is critical.

Media organizations, from newspapers to radio to TV to the Internet, are all looking for new revenue models, new ways of doing business, and new ways of doing journalism. What’s clear, Meyer said, is that the old business model — with its assumptions about advertising revenues and a dedicated audience — is clearly a thing of the past.

“We don’t know what’s going to replace it and we won’t know until we try lots of different things, so a time of confusion is going to be inevitable and we’re going through it right now,” Meyer said. “That’s another reason that we should not be inhibited about trying different things.”

Meyer offered a somewhat more accepting view of the NBCLearn/NSF partnership, which, after all, is primarily an educational enterprise — although with the reputation of NBC News behind it. If it ever leads to some kind of distorted or incomplete coverage of climate change or any other subject, Meyer said, “surely people will know about it and will sound the alarm. Our eventual security will come in good old American pluralism, where lots of different viewpoints have a voice and we can eventually sort it out.

“But if we make rules saying, ‘No, you can’t do this, you can’t get the information out this way because of the potential conflict,’ then I think you are suppressing that pluralism. So, I think it’s good to err on the side of going ahead and getting the information out instead of waiting for an ideal situation where the news media pay all costs.”

While the programs produced by the NBCLearn/NSF partnership are geared for the classroom, traditional news organizations sometimes turn to scientists to essentially write stories for them. The New York Times, despite its long-time commitment to science reporting, occasionally runs dispatches from the field directly from working scientists. And of course, Scientific American magazine has a long tradition of publishing pieces by working scientists.

Meyer did express one particular concern about partnerships akin to the NBCLearn/NSF alliance.

“It might lead news organizations to care less about the technical qualifications of their journalists, and might make them too reliant on sources,” Meyer said. “They will still have to have journalists who are smart enough to be able to communicate with a scientist, and to know when they are being manipulated.”

Of course, many news organizations have been moving in the other direction for years, laying off science reporters, shutting down science pages, and throwing general assignment reporters into complex science stories that deserve journalists with the sources, expertise, and experience to cover them.

The NBCLearn/NSF partnership is an innovative idea, but it’s unlikely to be a replacement for in-house journalists who can independently cover complex stories — whether on climate change or any other subject.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...