[Coral-List] The GBR is in trouble, but not dead

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Mon Mar 20 20:29:33 EDT 2017

   I think most people who have been interviewed by the press for a story
on a science subject are likely to have had an experience like this at
times.  A free press is absolutely vital to a democratic society.  But
accuracy is also vital for public understanding for science.  The press has
very short deadlines compared to scientific journals, and the press cannot
allow anyone to censor what they write, while scientists are used to
powerful peer reviewers.  So it is rare that they allow a scientist to have
any input after they write a story.  You almost never get a chance to help
them make sure they got it right.  Scientists have to parse their words
very carefully, not to say or imply things that aren't correct, and to
respect the limits of our knowledge and distinguish speculation and
prediction from the limits of the facts.  Journalists must sell copy, and
so they write their stories to engage their listeners.  They write their
stories in their own words, often not realizing that changing the words,
sometimes only slightly, changes the meaning enough so that the statement
becomes technically incorrect and no longer strictly true.  The public
craves stark, simple, black-and-white statements, and understandably has
limited time for nuances and details.  Journalists are pressured by the
competition with other media to attract the public with simplified and
catchy messages, and in the process end up spreading messages that aren't
accurate.  Like "the GBR is dead."  Quoting a source incorrectly, though,
is going too far in my opinion, not good journalism.  I'm reminded of the
phrase "sound bite" which means a very short, catchy phrase or statement
that the press picks up and spreads widely, though it may distort or
mislead.  Some think it is the bane of modern journalism.
    In a word, I have lots of sympathy for Terry's situation.  But I have
sympathy for the journalists too, and the public at large.  I don't have a
solution, I hope others can suggest things that could improve this.  Life
is a work in progress.  But I think we as scientists need to point out
statements in the media that are incorrect, and correct them.
    Cheers,  Doug

On Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 10:53 AM, Lescinsky, Halard <
hlescinsky at otterbein.edu> wrote:

> Terry and Coral-list:
> Its reassuring (and not at all surprising) to hear that "your" quote was
> erroneous and that there seems to be a consensus among reef workers that
> declaring a reef "dead" is both inaccurate and almost certainly
> counter-productive.
> It is interesting though the legs that a declaration of death has.  In the
> fall I was inundated with questions from friends and students and now again
> a real buzz has been generated.  Here is part of a message I got out of the
> blue from a former student after this story, "It’s been a while since I was
> in your class on coral reefs, but I just read a news story pronouncing the
> GBR “dead.” I thought of you immediately, as you were so passionate, I
> thought this must be a sad time, albeit a day you expected and taught of."
>   (For the record I taught the data and how reefs were on a downward slide,
> not heading to "death").  Likewise, the campus tour guide who stopped
> yesterday with a group in front of our coral tank announced it was a  sad
> day for reefs since the GBR had just died.  The US may be particularly
> extreme in this way, but only superlatives tend to register ....if only we
> could get the same level of discussion and concern for reefs without
> invoking hyperbole.  A tricky issue with no easy answer.
> Hal Lescinsky
> Otterbein University
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> On Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 9:35 AM, Hughes, Terry <terry.hughes at jcu.edu.au>
> wrote:
> > Dear Hal,
> >
> > I agree with you entirely about the inaccuracy of declaring reefs "dead".
> > Please allow me to set the record straight about the news coverage of our
> > recent paper in Nature, and the "obituary" of the Great Barrier Reef.....
> >
> > Firstly, our paper in Nature last week was highlighted by over 1,000
> media
> > stories. As far as I'm aware, only one - The New York Times - attributed
> a
> > quote to me, where I'm supposed to have said that “literally two-thirds
> of
> > the reefs were dying and are now dead”. I did not make this statement.
> >
> > The NYT found a map that I had published online, showing a north-south
> > gradient in post-bleaching mortality along the Great Barrier Reef, and
> they
> > asked me to explain it for them. What I actually said is contained in the
> > following two email, sent an hour apart, reproduced here in full:
> >
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> > From: Hughes, Terry
> > Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 5:50 AM
> > To: xxxxxx at nytimes.com>
> >
> > Hi xxxxx,
> >
> > I published that map here http://theconversation.com/
> > how-much-coral-has-died-in-the-great-barrier-reefs-worst-
> > bleaching-event-69494
> >
> > The Nature paper doesn't include this information.
> >
> > There's a serious mistake - the numbers are median % of corals, not
> reefs..
> > (reefs don't die, they show a reduction in coral cover). The range is one
> > quartile above and below the median. So 50% of reefs (2 quartile) in each
> > region lost the stated range of corals.
> >
> > This is the drop in coral cover measured underwater between March and
> > November 2016.
> >
> > Cheers, Terry
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> >
> >
> > From: Hughes, Terry
> > Sent: Wednesday, 15 March 2017 6:45 AM
> > To: xxxxxxx at nytimes.com>
> > Subject: Re: NYT - Graphic accuracy check
> >
> > Yes, it definitely should be "found that 67 percent of the coral colonies
> > had died in a long stretch north of Port Douglas". Not reefs.
> > ============================================================
> > ========================================================================
> >
> > So, Coral-Listers can come to their own conclusion as to whether I ever
> > stated that 67% of REEFS have died, or whether I said 67% of colonies.
> >
> > Secondly, Hal has raised the issue of the "obituary of the Great Barrier
> > Reef", which appeared in the media last October. Perhaps more than anyone
> > else, I protested at the time against the concept of writing off the GBR.
> > For example, the Huffington Post wrote the following (which I have
> > obviously abbreviated):
> >
> > "Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral, To The Horror Of Scientists"
> > (Chris D'Angelo, October 14)
> >
> > ..........Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for
> Coral
> > Reef Studies, said in an email to HuffPost that he was “not impressed by
> > the [article’s] message that we should give up on the [Great Barrier
> Reef],
> > or that it is already dead.”
> >
> > “We can and must save the Great Barrier Reef ― it supports 70,000 jobs in
> > reef tourism,” he said. “Large sections of it (the southern half) escaped
> > from the 2016 bleaching, and are in reasonable shape. The message should
> be
> > that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect
> > the GBR, not we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.”
> >
> > Finally Hal, I call your attention to a paper my colleagues and I wrote
> > recently in Nature Climate Change, entitled "Securing the future of the
> > Great Barrier Reef" http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n6/full/
> > nclimate2604.html and to my TED talk, "Yes, we can save the world's coral
> > reefs" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5LshSZn5RA
> >
> > So, in summary, I am not ready to write off coral reefs - far from it. I
> > have to say I find the "50 reef" concept morally repugnant - who among us
> > has the right to tell hundreds of millions of people that their
> particular
> > reefs aren’t important enough to be among the tiny minority of reefs that
> > will be "saved" by dubious promises of restoration? We should try to save
> > all reefs by dealing with climate change.
> >
> > Cheers, Terry
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces@
> > coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Lescinsky, Halard
> > Sent: Friday, 17 March 2017 12:46 AM
> > To: Coral -List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
> > Subject: [Coral-List] The GBR has died (again).
> >
> > The Great Barrier Reef died again.  It said so in the headline on Page 2
> > of my local paper in an article originating from the NY Times ("Large
> > sections of the Great Barrier Reef are now dead").  But unlike the GBR’s
> > previous death (the Outside/Facebook announcement) last fall, this time
> the
> > journalism was responsible.  It quotes Terry Hughes as saying “literally
> > two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead”.
> >
> > I have great respect for Terry as a scientist and as a leading
> > international point person for coral reefs, but as in the GBR’s previous
> > obituary, I question the wisdom of such a pronouncement, and indeed what
> it
> > even means.  Is there an agreed upon definition of what a “dead reef”
> > constitutes?  For example, is there a maximum live coral cover required
> > (ie:
> >  A reef is dead if its live coral cover is below x%) or is there some
> > other metric to consider?
> >
> > I see several main problems with defining a dead reef.  The first is that
> > reefs aren’t alive in the first place- they are an area or an ecosystem.
> > We are unlikely to say that a mountain or a canyon or a swamp is “dead”-
> > these are places with many physical and biological attributes.  Death is
> a
> > word most often associated with organisms, and dead organisms are dead
> > forever.  Reef “reincarnation” would not be expected by the public, even
> > though we all know that reefs are structured, even in the best of times,
> by
> > disturbance and resilience.
> >
> > The second is that there are lots of organisms that live on a reef and I
> > have had students enjoy the thriving life on a reef that has no live
> coral
> > cover- but lots of fish and urchins and the like.  Is the community dead
> > if the corals are dead?  Third, reefs have a variety of zones, and while
> > most monitoring is at shallow depths (10m) that may bleach intensely,
> > deeper zones (including the now well-known mesophotic areas) are little
> > impacted by bleaching.  If the top of a reef is “dead” is that enough to
> > pronounce the entire reef dead?
> > It could be that any announcement that puts reefs in the news is good
> > because it raises awareness, but there is a reason that most conservation
> > organizations choose positive rather than gloomy imagery and messages
> when
> > raising awareness (and $$).  Negative stories shut people down, and the
> > danger of crying wolf further threatens to deafen the public’s ears..
>  I’d
> > vote for not declaring reefs dead, but if we do, let’s at least agree on
> > an objective definition.
> >
> > Hal Lescinsky, Otterbein University
> > _______________________________________________
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> > Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> > http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> >
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Douglas Fenner
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