Deadline reporting on new climate research is fraught with institutional challenges.
During the extended Thanksgiving break in the United States in late November, a headline-grabbing study on climate change was published in the journal Science. Michael Marshall in New Scientist summarized what he saw as the take-home message this way:
The climate may be less sensitive to carbon dioxide than we thought — and temperature rises this century could be smaller than expected.
Overall, media coverage of the new climate sensitivity paper was probably less than it would have been if not for its publication during an American holiday. Still, the study packed plenty of punch and got enough play in mainstream outlets and science blogs to warrant a nice round-up by Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker website.
The impression one could easily draw from many of the stories is that new research suggests climate change may not be as potentially devastating as might be commonly believed. But there are important caveats and limitations to the Science study that likely got lost in the soundbite produced collectively by the media.
In the comments thread of Petit’s post at the Tracker, veteran science writer Michael Lemonick referenced a critical assessment of the Science paper at RealClimate, which he said “puts the study in good context.” That kind of deeper perspective just cannot be captured on a tight deadline and under the constraints of traditional news journalism, Lemonick wrote. He added:
This is one of the reasons the news model isn’t ideally set up to explain science to the public (as John Rennie noted in his excellent opinion piece a while ago).
In that column, published earlier this year, Rennie, a former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, wrote that scientific publication is “like a debutante’s ball: it formally presents a discovery to society but makes no guarantees about its eventual prospects.” Yet journalism, as Rennie notes, “typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event. The journals themselves encourage that practice by distributing embargoed press releases about the contents of upcoming issues. They oh-so-helpfully identify scientific papers that might be important advances and explain their significance to harried reporters on deadline (in return for a promise not to publish until a set date and time).”
Many science journalists, alas, have become accustomed to such spoon-feeding. Rennie goes on to explain why nobody is being served well by this process:
The somewhat preposterous consequence of this arrangement is that the news media rely heavily if not exclusively on the embargoed press releases in choosing stories to cover: perhaps because the embargo gives them time to prepare a good story but more compellingly because each news outlet realises [sic.] all its competitors will run one. Out of fear of being scooped, all media then publish stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few. Reporters seek informed, disinterested commentary on the findings from other scientists at other labs, but those scientists are at a disadvantage because the paper is new to them, too. And so they are usually quoted uttering cautious banalities about “results that are exciting if they hold up.”
Of course, those cautious bana lities never get reflected in the headlines.
Is there a better way? Rennie puts forward some interesting ideas on how to take the “newness” out of the whole process, which may simply be impossible in our 24/7 digital age. But the arrangement he identifies certainly could use some tinkering, if we want to deepen the stories reported on issues informed by a never-ending stream of newly published scientific research.