[Coral-List] Public perceptions about climate change

David M. Lawrence dave at fuzzo.com
Wed Oct 28 15:11:28 EDT 2009

I wish John would name names at The New York Times.  The science writers 
I know there, especially Andrew Revkin, generally do a solid job 
reporting on science and environmental issues.

As for Fox News, no comment.  At least no printable comment.

While there are problems in American journalism today -- most of them 
stem from the economic collapse of the industry -- you should keep in 
mind that journalists answer to a different master.  Most of them are 
not scientific experts.  Generally, if 90 percent of scientists say "A" 
and 10 percent say "B," the journalist has to report both points of view 
and let the reader make up his or her mind.

This does unfortunately lead to dreadful "He said, she said," reporting 
in which 99.9999999999 percent say "A" and 0.0000000001 percent say "B" 
and the two positions are given equivalent weight in the story.  This 
doesn't help educate the public, but many of my journalist colleagues 
will say it is not their job to educate the public.  I've been involved 
in some rather vigorous arguments with them over that attitude.

The fact remains that journalists are generally not experts, thus they 
are bound by what their sources tell them and what they uncover in their 
reporting -- and divergent views generally should be accorded some level 
of balance in the resulting product.

The post-Watergate era has seen a decline in investigative reporting -- 
the kind that would expose scientific charlatans who mislead the masses. 
  The corporate masters, in the era of more than 20 percent profit 
targets, were unwilling to divert the cash toward investment in the 
newsroom.  Now that cash is short, we have seen enterprise 
(investigative) departments close down, and even specialty desks, such 
as CNN's science and environment unit, likewise get closed down.  As an 
example, several members of the board of directors of the Society of 
Environmental Journalists lost their jobs last year.

Given the decline in subscribers and viewers of news content, one might 
think that the masses don't want to be confused by the facts -- unless 
those facts involve some actresses b**b job or some president's b**w 
job.  (My apologies for the bluntness, it's the old sportswriter in me 
coming out.)

The challenge more than anything else is in building demand for good 
journalism -- especially science and environment journalism.  I don't 
have many answers myself, nor do a lot of other journalists at this 
point.  On the journalism side, we are working on it -- our jobs depend 
on it.  On the scientific side, we should be working on it.  (For the 
record, I wear both scientist and journalist hats.)

We all need to find a way to encourage an appetite for lifelong learning 
-- we need a much more compelling argument than "You need to know this." 
  And we need to find ways to make the message much more palatable. 
It's got to be entertaining, else the masses will switch to TMZ to find 
out who John and Kate Gosselin are now doing the nasty with given that 
they are in Splitsville.  Sexual fantasy trumps environmental disaster 
any day -- at least until the disaster lands in the living room.

Even when it does, many may TiVo it or change the channel.


John Bruno wrote:
> As Steve Mussman posted about a few days ago, nearly 20% fewer  
> Americans belive in AGW than just three years ago.  I think there are  
> complex social issues than underlie this trend, but I also think this  
> is happening because people are being misinformed by the media, even  
> by otherwise reliable outlets like the New York Times and the  
> Washington Post.
> Not to suggest that this will be the last word on this, but the AP  
> released an article today for which they hired four independent  
> statisticians to analyze (blindly) the 130 instrument temperature  
> record and the 30 year satellite record.  The statisticians were asked  
> to look for trends over time.  Did they find any recent cooling?  No.   
> They found, like NOAA, NASA and the MET, that the earth has continued  
> to warm over the last decade.  No cooling.  No plateau.
> You can read the AP story here:  http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=3350
> But there are already many recent newspaper stories, published peer- 
> review papers and easily accessible online articles debunking the  
> recent "global cooling" and "warming pause" myths, e.g.:
> http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=3261
> http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/a-warming-pause/#more-1265
> http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2009/08/warmest-by-fair-margin/
> So why are we loosing the public? They clearly are not being convinced  
> by evidence.  There isn't any in support of the cooling/pause  
> arguments.  I suspect that it is (in part) because the media is  
> saturated with skepticism about AGW. Fox News commentators and New  
> York Times science writers are spreading the myths there is a recent  
> cooling or a plateau in warming.  George Will, who is read by tens of  
> millions of Americans, wrote yet another op-ed in the Washington Post  
> a few weeks ago arguing the earth wasn't warming.  I responded with an  
> op-ed in the local Raleigh News and Observer (which you can read here: http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/columnists_blogs/story/134115.html 
> ) but I doubt I changed many minds.  And the editor cut the most  
> direct criticism of the complacency of the media in this in general  
> and of newspaper editors in particular:
> "Given the clarity and relative certainty of the science and the scale  
> of the potential social and economic impacts, why do newspapers  
> publish articles denying climate change is happening? Social  
> commentators like George Will certainly have freedom of speech and a  
> general license to express their opinions on the editorial page. But  
> would newspaper editors publish essays denying other major threats to  
> humanity? Imagine an editorial arguing that cancer, poverty, HIV-AIDS  
> or genocide don’t exist and are merely the product of a well- 
> orchestrated scientific hoax"
> I don't know what the solution is.  Grassroots education is important,  
> but I sense we are getting drowned out by skeptics and even  
> misinformed science writers with much large megaphones than any of  
> us.  I have written every journalist I have seen publish an inaccurate  
> piece about climate change and many of their editors and not one has  
> responded.  Perhaps we need to employ the weight of our major society,  
> the ISRS.  The word "climate"  does not even appear on the ISRS  
> website (http://research2.fit.edu/isrs/).  I know we have position  
> papers on various threats to reefs posted, but perhaps we could be  
> more proactive and begin writing journalists and  columnists (and  
> their editors) when they get it wrong.  The Ecological Society of  
> America has been very active in such correspondence (http://www.esa.org/pao/policy_positions.php#letters 
> ) as has the AGU and many other major environmental sciences  
> societies.  And back in February, when George Will wrote another silly  
> article about global cooling, a number of NGO heads co-wrote a letter  
> to the publisher and editor of the WaPost.   Note I don't in anyway  
> mean this as a criticism of ISRS or of any of its officers.  I am just  
> throwing out a few ideas.  I don't think we have done this sort of  
> thing with the society in the past and we likely lack the resources to  
> do it on a large scale.  BTW, is the ISRS sending representatives to  
> Copenhagen?
> JB
> John F. Bruno, Ph.D.
> Associate Professor
> Department of Marine Science
> The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
> Chapel Hill, NC 27599-330
> jbruno at unc.edu
> www.brunolab.net
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  David M. Lawrence        | Home:  (804) 559-9786
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