“Climate change journalism has gotten worse,” says Dr. Ben Santer, researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and one of the world’s top scientists studying the attribution of climate change.
The decline in the quality and accuracy of climate change coverage over the years is quite a paradox. Surely, now that this issue has been in the public sphere for over twenty years, journalists and media outlets should be able to get it right. You would expect that their reporting would get better over time, not worse. That’s not so, says Dr. Santer.
“One would hope that in journalism it was similar [to science]”, he continues, “that in the midst of complex issues there would be some attempt to really get to the bottom of them. I’ve seen little of that search for understanding in the journalism on climate change.”
Coverage of ClimateGate, the scandal that wasn’t, gets Santer particularly riled up. He describes it as “reflexive, knee-jerk, reactive, not thoughtful, and rather asymmetric too: devoting a lot of publicity to the stolen emails without really trying to understand context or trying to understand issues.”
As if it wasn’t enough for the media to treat information vital to our future so lightly, they have also helped to spread unfounded accusations of fraud against climate researchers. Scientists are people just like anyone else, and should not be subject to such harassment. “These attacks on people like Phil Jones,” Dr. Santer agrees, “had tremendous personal cost. He was nearly driven to suicide by the hatred that he encountered.”
Indeed, Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU – the British research group that had their security system hacked and their private correspondence stolen – suffered from depression and suicidal idealation due to the barrage of hate mail and death threats he received following the media’s hostile coverage of the incident.
Who goes into scientific research expecting death threats? “[Jones] has done more than almost anyone in the world to improve our knowledge of observed changes in the temperature of planet Earth,” says Santer. “He was not deserving of this kind of treatment.
“So much attention was devoted to some incautious phrases in these emails, rather than to ask, “What kind of pressure has this guy been labouring under and operating under for years now? What sort of systematic attack by Freedom of Information Act has he been trying to deal with?
“Was Phil Jones angry and frustrated? You bet.”
Another long-standing aspect of climate change journalism that puzzles Dr. Santer is artificial balance – when neutrality is prized above all else, even above objectivity and truth. Sometimes the two sides of an issue, especially one of a scientific nature, aren’t equal, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Doing so, says Santer, “reinforces in [people’s] minds the opinion that the science is not settled, that experts are split 50-50 on human effects on climate, and that’s fundamentally wrong. That’s not the way things are. We have a few vocal individuals, who, for whatever reason, have very powerful voices in the media, and that have received attention out of all proportion to the scientific quality of their work.
“These fringe voices now have megaphones,” he continues, “and have means of amplifying their voices and trumpeting shoddy, incorrect science. We’ve seen the rise of the blogs, we’ve seen the rise of these “independent public auditors” who believe that they have carte blanche to investigate anyone who produces results they don’t agree with, and if that individual doesn’t comply with their every request, they indulge in this persecution campaign on their blogs and make your life very uncomfortable. I’ve had direct personal experience with that.
“The irony is that at a time when the public, more than ever, needs sound information on the science of climate change, needs plain English accounts of what we know and what we don’t know, there’s this cacophony, there’s this huge sea of noise – and, unfortunately, the people who shout loudest and contribute to this sea of noise are those who are often least informed.”
So where do we go from here? How do we repair public understanding of a scientific issue that many perceive as a purely political one? How will the media move past polarized reporting that misses the mark more often than not? Dr. Santer offers his two cents.
“I think that the media have to decide, ultimately, whether their goal is making money and satisfying their shareholders, or whether it’s reporting in the public interest, on issues that are of overwhelming importance to our generation and to future generations.
“I would argue that climate change is one of those issues, and the media have a civic responsibility to get it right, to get the reporting right, to get the science right, to devote resources to these issues… and they’re failing. They’re not living up to that responsibility.
“I don’t see an easy way of changing it; I do think that something has to change.”
One strategy could be to build the dwindling pool of science journalists back up. Santer stresses the importance of having such specialized reporters, rather than sending out general reporters to cover complex scientific issues. “Just like you can’t build a computer model of the climate system overnight from scratch, you can’t create a science reporter overnight from scratch either,” he says. “That familiarity with the issues and with the people, and with the right questions to ask. That takes time.”
Our future hangs on information and understanding, as it has ever since our species gained the ability to destroy what supports us. The only thing that can save us from ourselves is ourselves. “If people are to do the right thing about climate change,” says, Santer, “then they need good information, not wishful thinking, not disinformation.
“The sad thing is that many folks don’t want to know about the science at all. They just want to have business as usual and really not consider even the possibility that we might be changing the climate of planet Earth, that they might be culpable in that, and that they might need to think about the future.
“Lots of folks really don’t want to be confronted by the future,” he concludes. “It’s scary.”