The Science of Sustainability

Extra! Extra! Keeping climate change in the headlines

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Global climate change is arguably the biggest news story of our times. But from a glance at the headlines, you might not know it.

Recently I attended the Society of Environmental Journalists conference at Stanford, an annual national gathering that brings together journalists, environmental scientists, policymakers, and activists to discuss environmental issues– and how the media covers them. One of many highlights was a panel on "Covering Climate Change," which yielded my favorite blog headline of the event:

"So, this editor walks into a bar with three climate scientists…"

Of course, as the discussion made clear, the culture gap between science and journalism is no joke. Climatologists Stephen Schneider and Heidi Cullen, social psychologist Jon Krosnick, and Sacramento Bee editor Rick Rodriguez explored how scientists and news media can better work together to educate the public about the global implications of climate change.

That pesky, ongoing language barrier between scientists and journalists was one crux of their conversation. Science deals in details and caveats; news likes bold, declarative headlines. Science is comfortable with postulation; news likes facts. Science has patience for lengthy processes of experimentation and peer review; news operates on tight deadlines and wants to know "the very latest."

In regards to climate change, scientists have criticized journalists for giving too much weight–in their efforts to be "fair and balanced"– to a small cadre of naysayers. From the journalists' perspective, it can seem like scientists are being evasive and contradictory about the exact when, where, and how of the impacts of climate change.

Then there is the question of what's new. Can the media–so used to fast-paced news cycles–adapt to a story unfolding over decades? "You have to move the story forward," editor Rodriguez told the scientists. Professor Krosnick put the challenge back to the journalists, urging them to find ways to stick with the story: "If you decide there is nothing new, I can guarantee you will take the public with you."

The good news is that everyone seemed on the same page when it came to two critical points: scientists and journalists share the burden of communicating climate change to the public, and a more climate literate public is critical as we confront this huge challenge. And concrete steps are being taken to get there. In a pre-conference event, 18 news execs met with top climate scientists for a full-day roundtable to discuss ways to provide more effective climate change coverage. The conference also saw the announcement of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

Top climate modeler Jerry Mahlman has said, "I'm beginning to suspect that global warming is dynamically much less sexy than people want it to be." Let's hope scientists and journalists find ways–sexy or not–to keep a public weaned on sound bites engaged for the long haul.

Ann Dickinson is Communications Manager for The Bay Institute (www.bay.org), a nonprofit research, education, and advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay and its watershed, "from the Sierra to the sea."

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Ann Dickinson

About the Author ()

Before moving to California almost five years ago, Ann served as Sally Brown Fellow in Environmental Literature at the University of Virginia, where she taught undergraduate seminars on literature and the environment and coordinated an ongoing reading series featuring nationally prominent nature writers. Prior to that, she spent a year as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, studying how young leaves defend themselves against herbivores.