Written by Imelda V. Abaño
30 March 2009
WHILE scientists all over the world spend hundreds of hours grappling with facts and evidence to establish patterns of climate change, their painstaking effort has been rendered almost useless by what they described as the media’s failure to get their message across through inaccurate and, oftentimes, sensationalized reportage.
To some of the world’s top scientists, the important task of informing the public about changes in the world’s climate should not be left in the hands of untrained journalists. There was a palpable sense of frustration among the scientific community with the quality of media reports about issues involving climate change throughout the recently conducted International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, in early March.
Media reporting, they said, often does not reflect the issues that most scientists agree upon. They acknowledged that this problem contributes to the lack of public understanding and inaction from policymakers.
‘If you don’t understand, please ask’
“As climate scientists, our relationship with the media is not uncomplicated,” Katherine Richardson, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen and congress chairman, said. “We want you [media] to understand what we really know about climate change and its potential consequences and what we can do about it so that you can make this available to the society at large. We’re not always good in talking to you and explaining ourselves in a nontechnical language but we want to talk to you. So if you don’t understand, please ask.”
Richardson particularly pointed out an example wherein a photo of melting ice caps presented in the media were accompanied by captions and headlines announcing a new and economically rewarding shipping route to China or a whole new frontier to open up for oil exploration.
“We recognize the requirements of journalism to tell both sides of the story, but many of us felt deep frustration without explaining what this ice melt means in terms of change in the planet-system function and the profound repercussions these changes can have for future generations of our species,” she said. “Ironically, such experiences just make us want to get to know you much better.”
With this frustration from the science community, Richardson told the BusinessMirror that scientists need to rethink their strategy on communicating climate change to get their message across.
“One of the major problems is, maybe, we are using the wrong media. Maybe journalists aren’t the ones who should be communicating science to the general public. We may need [people] within [the scientific community] itself, we may need some communicators [to bring the message across],” she said.
Richardson lamented that many media organizations, being business enterprises, are concerned about their bottom line, and do not really care about relaying accurate and useful information to the public.
“There is no newspaper or TV [network] that has the actual job or goal of enlightening the population about how the earth system works. They have the goal of making money as the bottom line and selling their newspapers. So expecting journalists to do this job for us when they are being paid to earn money for a newspaper isn’t correct, it isn’t going to happen,” she said.
Richardson said scientists have to think about “who we want to communicate to, and what the best way to reach them is.”
She added, “I think traditional journalism and newspapers isn’t the right way to do it. I think we have to think about it. We need to think in terms of educating people more about nature, about science what we understand,” she added.
Martin Parry, cochairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a professor at the Imperial College in London, said trained journalists are expected to be good in performing the “filtering” process of the studies conducted by scientists.
“Scientists want to get on with their work. We generally don’t want to spend time simplifying things. So we rely upon good journalists to do that,” Parry lamented.
“In the timing of things, we need always to allow enough time for the scientific work to be read by journalists, and the important parts to be extracted from them and made available to politicians. If you have scientific research going on at the same time as political decision-making, it doesn’t leave enough time for good journalism to perform its filtering process,” Parry explained.
He, however, acknowledged that the media are important and they should be both better communicators.
“The media is still the main source of information and the main factor shaping people’s awareness and concern in relation to climate change. So I am now happy talking to the media,” Parry admitted.
Journalists in good defense
Olive Heffernan, editor of Nature Reports Climate Change, disagreed with the criticisms made by some scientists. She told the BusinessMirror that scientists need to “try to have a proactive and engaging relationship with the media.”
“I have to disagree that the media did a failed job in communicating this issue,” Heffernan said. “There is a responsibility on both parts. I don’t think that the media deliberately misinterpret science because their credibility relies on us. I think that if they find that journalists misreport them, the proper response to that is to go back to the journalists and to clarify and make sure that this will not happen again.”
“The media are not going away anytime soon, they’re here to stay and we do have this very important role in breaking and unpacking complex topics and making them relevant to the people,” Heffernan added.
Patrick Luganda, chairman of the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa in Uganda, said climate scientists also need to understand and appreciate how the media work, and journalists, on the other hand, need to be well-informed and prepared to cover the multifaceted climate debate.
“The scientists themselves are not sufficiently informed about how the media operate,” Luganda said. “For the scientists, irritation is something that you should bear. If they have to really think that how it should be reported. They wanted to make a positive case for themselves, but they don’t know how to give the information to the media.”
Luganda added that for the journalists, striking a balance is very important in climate-change reporting. He said journalists must also strengthen their relationship with the experts to understand better the significance of research findings in order to communicate relevant information to the public.
“First is getting the right information. And to strike a balance, commitment is a primary concern. We need to understand the science of climate change and communicate this important issue to the public because an informed public is an informed decision-making,” he adds.
But Luganda lamented that journalists in Africa and in other developing countries are facing the challenge of lack of capacity building in terms of reporting the issue. He said trainings, networking and mentoring are important in communicating science better.
Both Luganda and Heffernan, and three other journalists, including from the BusinessMirror, were also invited to the congress as panelists in the session tackling on the role of the media in dealing with climate change.
Both the media, scientists to blame
For Saleemul Huq, head of the Climate Change Group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the media and the scientists are to be blamed for lack of “sufficient” information in communicating climate-change issues to the public.
“I would say both sides are sometimes to blame. Many journalists tend to over simplify the scientific community’s finding, and they tend to look for controversies where there are no controversies, and in particular on the climate-change science,” Huq told the BusinessMirror.
On the other hand, Huq adds that “the trouble with scientists is that they don’t like talking to the media. Scientists, in general, deal in complexity. Their style of writing is complex. They hate to oversimplify. They don’t like simplified solutions that everything is complicated to them.”
He adds that there are many controversies about what to do without challenging the science. “There are many issues that have debated on how to solve the problem that you can report on in terms of debate, but to challenge the science just to create a contrasting view in the name of fair and balance is wrong, it is a disservice. Media to do that is doing the wrong thing,” he explained.
He advised the media not to “oversimplify” the complexity of climate change. “ If they don’t do their homework to understand it, then they are doing it very superficially. And they probably get things wrong than right. So there is a responsibility for the media people to build their own understanding of these issues and report on it accurately. You have to understand it enough so you can explain it to your readers.”
On the other hand, Huq said that while many scientists find it difficult to communicate their research in a simple manner, they have to find the language and the way to do it.
“Scientists need to be willing to talk to the media; many of them are not. They have to learn how to talk to the media, many of them don’t know, they talk in long sentences and complicate everything, they don’t give simple answers, they don’t try to explain things in a simple manner, they have to learn to do that. Scientists don’t have to oversimplify but they do have to simplify,” Huq explained.
Huq said media guidelines on how to cover climate change effectively will be very useful, particularly to those journalists who follow the issue long term.
A long-term story
“This is a long-term story, not today’s story that will go away tomorrow. This will stay for us for a lifetime. It will be very useful for journalists to get information and talk to scientists on what is happening,” he adds.
Huq adds that there should also be a communication guideline on climate-change reporting for scientists.
“Most scientists would do well with some training in communication, but they tend not to do it. It is very unusual for scientists who get some training in communication, it would be very good if there is,” he said. “It would be very good to do it, but scientists don’t tend to do it. Those who want to do it, they do interviews.”
Maxwell Boykoff, a research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, said climate change must be reported more carefully so as not to impair public understanding.
“There are certainly challenges on the part of the media. But the media should effectively place the issues in the context of understanding the issues carefully,” Boykoff told the BusinessMirror. “The media need to be scrupulous as effective reporting on this issue has crucial implications to the general public’s understanding.”
By engaging with the media, Boykoff said, scientists can assist them in understanding the complex issues of climate science and eventually help them in communicating climate change better.
“Collaboration between and among the media and the scientists greatly contributes to a well-informed society and decision-making in addressing climate-change issues,” he added.