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This item was posted on March 9, 2011, and it was categorized as blogging, climate change coverage.
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The unmasking of our little secret — the Environmental Journalism Coven — began with Randy Olson’s comments at DotEarth:

The media were irrelevant and largely blameless in Climategate. The whole incident was a case study in the absence of effective leadership in both the science and environmental communities.

Next, Michael Tobis sprang into action:

Like it or not, honest scientists are constrained to tell the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The truth is plenty scary enough. Not only that, but most of the uncertainties just add to the ominousness of the present landscape.

(Constrained? Never mind…)

With artful misdirection, Keith Kloor asked:

So Randy, for the benefit of the activists and bloggers who want to communicate a clear and consise climate change message with just enough wiggle room to remain true to the various uncertainties of climate change, how about some examples of how it’s done?

(I know the chronology is confused here, but witches are comfortable in a universe of fragmented time)

Never missing an opportunity to rise to a challenge, Randy came back with:

I don’t think you quite get my comment about scientists being “mumblers.”  That’s what they are, in essence, when it comes to broad communication.  They are the guy at the party over in the corner mumbling the truth as the loudmouthed fools in the middle blabber on and on about topics they know nothing about but have read of on blogs.

The self-styled Bunny then used the F-word in a post:

It’s not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It’s their fucking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well. It ain’t just climate either. What journalists produce often makes the average cut and paste student paper blush with modesty.

What ensued was mostly a terrific discussion about the culpability (or lack thereof) of scientists and journalists in the failure of the public to fully appreciate the risks of climate change and therefore demand a carbon tax, including this incisive comment:

I think there are a lot of faulty assumptions that underlie this whole debate.  Communication isn’t simply transmitting information – the information must be received, processed and filtered through the mindset and cognitive biases of each individual.  The common assumption in this debate seems to be that improving the message automatically results in better “communication.”  Further, some suggest that if only the appropriate “facts” were transmitted then people would be convinced to support their particular policy preferences.  The fact that people don’t support those policies is used as evidence that the message is inadequate, resulting in another round of blame the messenger.

The problem, of course, is that the sender of information is only half of the equation. Further, in my opinion the sending side is less important than the receiving side when it comes to effective communication and I think the cognitive science literature supports that opinion. Journalists and scientists can always improve their messaging and narratives, but they should be cognizant that there are real limitations to what the “message” can do.  The assumption that people will be convinced if they are only shown the “facts” is naive.  Anyone who has tried to convince their best friend that the person they are in love with is a philandering scoundrel understands this.

The commenter (he’s named Andy; check out his blog!) goes on to quote a Brink Lindsey commentary on partisanship:

It’s not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.

(As someone who has been reporting and writing on climate change for more than 30 years, I find this perspective particularly compelling.)

And what about that coven? John Fleck blew our cover with this response to the Bunny:

So this then is satire? You were pointing out what you view as the flaws in the Kloor/Olson argument by doing the same thing yourself? And you’ll stop the “all the journalists are lousy communicators” schtick as soon as Keith and Randy stop the “all the scientists are lousy communicators” schtick? Clever rabbit, thanks for clarifying, I’ll bring the issue up at our next weekly coven.

Damn it John. Now angry bunnies and dour scientists are going to crash our blissful sylvan gatherings.

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This thing has 39 Comments

  1. Posted March 9, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    You know, when you start kicking dirt down the Rabett hole, you get a ticked off bunny. While mt and andy are right, that there is enough blame to go around and a lot of it is structural, there has been a concerted effort to blame the science side for not doing what it is not talented to do, and a look over there, which goes WAY BACK when talking about the PR muscle on the anti-science side. That PR can only reach the public through the journalists which makes their behavior particularly crucial and churnalism.com points to widespread and serious problems in copy copying. It ain’t just climate, and all three cultures need to change, science, journalism and the public (pay attention, it’s your kid’s future and your old age)

  2. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Once again, all of this discussion entirely misses the point that improving the quality of coverage will achieve absolutely nothing given that the playing field of quantity/placement of coverage is so heavily tilted against the science. The medium really is the message.

    MT links to an illuminating video (warning: link to Breitbart) of some NPR muckety-mucks talking about coverage of birtherism vs. climate science. They agree that false balance in coverage of the latter is bad (although note that they still do it), but oddly seem to think that the politics of birtherism can be ignored while the politics of climate change needs to be covered. The reasoning seems opportunistic. On the other hand it’s good news that at least one potential funder sees the problem.

    I should add that a lot of what NPR does probably passes the Boykoff false balance smell test but resorts to a lot of weasel wording along the lines of “some scientists say,” which again sends a nessage. On another level, much of their climate science coverage is so narrowly focused on particular that semi- and uninformed listeners aren’t going to understand the connection to the existential threat posed by climate change. All of this is quite unfortunate since public media is the one place that could at least make a start at trying to solve the problem.

  3. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    That should have been “particular results” in the last paragraph.

  4. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Aha, I hadn’t seen the larger video and coverage. I have to say that NPR’s response to this seems a little craven, although I suppose they think it’s in the service of the larger goal of saving their small stations in the short term.

  5. Posted March 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Eli -

    The problem here is that, if you were trying to make some sort of serious and useful point, which you get closer to in your comments here, you launched it with such a load of insulting, dishonest crap that your communication efforts were a failure.

    As for example: accusing journalists of being “churnalists walking, nay sitting on their butts and printing everything that is spoon fed to them without working (shudder) to figure out whether there is any there there.” And then linking to a NASA watch blog post that, as its first entry, has a link Alan Boyle’s story on the bacteria from space. By the time you posted, Boyle had quoted *six* people debunking Hoover’s claims. No churnalism there, according to your own source material. A good journalist had deflated the claim.

    Or your link to the Livescience story about the arsenic bacteria debacle, which included this: “[J]ournalists had complained of the study authors being unresponsive to criticism from outside experts that they consulted for their stories.” No churnalism there, just good journalists doing that which you complain they do not do.

    And yet you describe “churnalism” as “a failing worn proudly by an entire profession.” That’s insulting. It’s also, by the evidence you yourself provided in the links accompanying your post, wrong.

    Now, to be fair, I can also find examples of overly credulous journalism in your links, of the type you’re complaining about. To ignore them would be cherry-picking on my part, which would be wrong, the sort of thing you pounce on when others do it. And yet you’ve done it yourself, which just makes you look opportunistically, sadly hypocritical.

  6. L. Carey
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The back and forth “youze guys got nothin’ on us – it’s all your fault” between journalists and scientists is both tiresome and pointless. From that perspective, would somebody care to comment on what I think is an excellent comment from MT at CaS:

    “Can we declare a truce for a minute and address the question underlying all the frustration? If we put too much weight on journalism and too much weight on science, if this is the best we can do, how are we, all of us, journalists, scientists, bloggers, day traders, divas and dogwashers, supposed to manage the complexity of the future? …. So the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?” ”

    Well, may I ask the journalists here, assuming that journalism has no fault whatsoever in what the public knows or doesn’t know or believes or doesn’t believe about climate disruption and its future implications — what’s YOUR great idea for “what now?” Has journalism been doing such a sterling job that it should simply “keep on keepin’ on”? Or do you see ways that the climate coverage could be improved? Or does partisan pre-commitment per Lindsey simply mean that no one’s mind will ever be changed about anything and we’re just screwed?

  7. Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey -

    It’s a tiresome question from MT in part because that’s precisely the conversation lots of us have tried to have with him for years – trying to bring into the discussion data about what the news media actually does and social science research about how audiences receive it. I have a long history of getting, in response, accusations of “false balance!” and media cowardice which continue up to the present day. So I have little hope that conversation will change. See the thread over at Eli’s for what happened when I tried to engage in a thoughtful discussion of the scientist-journalist communication issue he seemed to be raising, especially the part where he told me to piss off because he was really really mad at Randy or Keith or something. I wonder what the point is.

    But in brief: “may I ask the journalists here, assuming that journalism has no fault whatsoever in what the public knows or doesn’t know or believes or doesn’t believe about climate disruption and its future implications” is misguided (that’s certainly not what I’ve ever said or believe). The impediments imposed by the way audiences filter what we say based on political belief systems means that our work can only effect things at the margins. But there are places at the margins where our work can be important, for good or ill, and that’s where I focus my journalistic energies – on problems that aren’t directly tied up in the culture wars tribal alliances that have come to define this issue, and in areas that might resonate beyond those self-identity problems. Eli noted in his post my current focus on water. That’s not an accident.

    I have a suggestion: Do you (L. Carey, MT) know the staff people of your congressional and senate representatives who work these issues? Stop wasting your time in conversation with us and get to know them. That, frankly, is who I’m writing for.

  8. Posted March 9, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey: At least in part of what you said, you’ve held up a straw man: “…assuming that journalism has no fault whatsoever in what the public knows or doesn’t know or believes or doesn’t believe about climate disruption . . . ” No journalist worth his salt that I know has such an arrogant attitude. Of course journalism shares in some of the blame for public lack of understanding of this and a host of other issues.

    But it’s also true that almost every journalist I’ve known over the course of my three decades in this business has been reflective about journalism’s role in society, critical of their own work, and eager to do better. And what John said I think is pretty instructive: He has clearly thought very carefully about how he can have the biggest impact, and his excellent, influential work on water issues is the result. Many of us in environmental journalism are asking ourselves the same question.

    I also have to say that the only place where my relationship as a journalist with scientists seems to be strained is in the blogosphere, where, of course, bloviation is valued over cooperation and respect. In the real world where I spend most of my days, I spend hours every week in discussion with physical and social scientists, sometimes for stories that I’m writing, and other times to find ways within the context of academia (where I work), to answer MT’s question: “What now?” I look forward to all of those interactions in a way that I can’t exactly say I do in the blogosphere.

    My academic colleagues in environmental science, policy and communication are mostly humble enough to know that we don’t have a complete answer to MT’s question, and we also respect each other enough to know that each of us has some contribution to make as we stumble forward.

    Lastly, hurling insults clearly isn’t the answer. And neither is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s why I’m an enthusiastic participant in efforts here in Boulder to bring scientists, communicators, artists, musicians and a host of others together to try to figure out how we can connect to our fellow human beings in more effective ways around sustainability issues. And something tells me that my artist and musician friends will do better than I have.

  9. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    In my life, the people who have open minds are not scientists or journalists, but the guy on the street. He/she can see all kinds of things happening or changing and is scared but not really wanting to look because it’s so bad.

    This whole conversation seems to leave out the heavy industry in promoting falsehood that is domination this conversation in all venues. (Note today’s kerfuffle and news lies about Mann. He’s the messenger and they’re determined to kill the message.)

    Until you can get through to those mentioned above in par 1, past those in par 2, we’re screwed. Things are getting worse rapidly, and we’re not dealing with it.

    What next?

  10. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Just to note that bunnies have no choice but to be self-styled, as they can’t afford the professional help with their personal appearance that those nice young journalists in the picture have obviously benefited from.

  11. Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    If you combine what John Fleck and Andy said, then the real issue is not so much how to improve the journalists’ or scientists’ communication, but rather how to depoliticize the topics of climate change (along with various other issues).

    John Fleck: “The impediments imposed by the way audiences filter what we say based on political belief systems means that our [journalists] work can only effect things at the margins.” (the same can of course be said for scientists)

    Andy: People’s “beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity.”

  12. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Bart, I think you want “render nonpartisan” rather than “depoliticize.” The latter seems like an impossibility.

  13. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Last time I checked it took skill, dedication, time and hard work to qualify with a top degree and continue to pursue the truth via the avenues available in science, and being a top journo in a reputable venue also requires ability and hard work. While you guys are shooting at each other, the denialist machine is laughing all the way to the bank.

    There are some difficulties due to the intensity and continuity of the campaign to obscure the facts. It’s relentless.

    Since “climategate” (where as far as I can see the scandal is the exact opposite of what they would have you believe – no dog in the night-time) there has been a full court press to keep things out of proportion. With Fox and friends, Watts, Morano et al., and now Judith Curry and her worshipful knights, this is not difficult. Even little me, who is a tiny bit player with a temper she tries to keep in check in the service of reason, has been subjected to continuous distortion of what I say when I venture out. No amount of truth will make a dent.

    John Mashey said this, which I think is valuable, at RealClimate over the latest Wahl puffery. “Look: the climate anti-science machine wants scientists to waste their time so they do less science. It’s asymmetric warfare, and any researcher could spend 100% of their time doing this, not a good idea.”

    Personally, I find Eli Rabett’s style refreshing. It is relaxing to read stuff that doesn’t pull punches and addresses the hard science. I don’t get that someone is required to be a top diplomat in their own blog.

    I can sympathize with reporters who get tired of the circular firing squad, but clubbing with sympathetic colleagues who are all too willing to let the distractionalists dominate the conversation is not helping.

  14. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    In short, please don’t blame the victims.

  15. L. Carey
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    John and Tom, thanks for your replies. Unfortunately, blog comments have little room for nuance and the phrase I used in my post (“…assuming that journalism has no fault whatsoever in what the public knows or doesn’t know or believes or doesn’t believe about climate disruption..”) was not sarcasm, but was intended to avoid the issue of blame or lack thereof entirely and focus on the “what now” question – sorry it appears to have had the opposite effect.

    Regarding John’s advice to go talk to the staffers instead of you guys, I am talking to you because you’re presumably experts in the field of journalism, and I’m trying to figure out how the process of communicating science to the public works and how it might work better. (And yes, I know some of the congressional staff folks, but I was a legislative staffer in my youth and it’s my experience that the political calculus trumps staff input, in most cases by a long shot – if they aren’t getting tons of calls from lots of constituents and from key contributors even “very important” long term issues fall way down the list.)

    However, regarding the original “what now?” question, your responses are rather brief. I gather that John’s response is along the lines of “focus on marginal related issues where lack of partisan bickering might allow some progress”. And Tom’s response seems to be that some hopeful interdiscplinary stuff is going on in Boulder. Since I see the “what now?” as the crux of the problem, could either or both of you be kind enough to expand on your thoughts? Best regards.

  16. L. Carey
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Okay, I now accept John Fleck’s suggestion that I would be better off going and talking to the staffers for my global warming denying elected officials (or maybe I should assume that the suggestion was just “talk to the hand”). John Broder at the NYT has convinced me that this is a truly pointless discussion.
    “At House E.P.A. Hearing, Both Sides Claim Science”

  17. Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey: I haven’t forsaken this conversation. I’m just working on a story. So I will do my best to expand on the “what now” question once I can carve out the time. I need some time because it is a serious question and I want to give it the attention it deserves. I may actually make it the subject of a blog post. So stay tuned.

    As for the Broder story, are you critical of the piece itself or the ridiculous political theater that he detailed (and which I described in a previous post as the equivalent of “masturbation”)?

  18. Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey -

    Sorry for taking my frustration on Tobis out on you. I accept your questions as serious, and apologize for not giving them a better hearing.

    My suggestion to talk to staffers was serious.

    One of my best friends and intellectual comrades is an activist who knows all the congressional staffers working on the issue he deals with. He has far more agency – the ability to influence outcomes in these processes – than anyone else I know in the activist community. He doesn’t win all his fights, but he has a better chance at moving the discussion forward than anyone I know in the citizen sphere.

    By “marginal” (sorry, I was far too terse and didn’t make my point well at all) I meant two things. OK, maybe three things. (I do not mean “marginal” here in the sense of “unimportant” that is sometimes attached to the word.)

    The first is pretty much as you described – related issues that can be reframed outside the entrenched identity politics of climate change. Water and energy are two such issues that, properly framed, offer some room to move. Water is the most important one for me because, here in the Southwestern United States, we face enormous problems that are similar in structure and policy response with or without the climate change piece. So these are issues at the margins of the climate change debate.

    I also mean people at the margins of the audience – the small subset around the edges who is interested in learning and not entrenched in the identity politics that defines much thinking on these issues. A second marginal subset includes people with agency – the government officials and politicians who must as part of their societal roles read what I have to say about the topics in their field of view.

    I would caution you against investing too much in the hope that we can make the process of communicating science to the broad general public work better. I would agree that journalism has serious flaws as well as moments of excellence, and that society benefits from as much excellence in this area as my industry can muster. But the research suggests most members of the public do not understand science very well and likely never well. That’s a third sense of “marginal” that I have in mind – no matter how good a job I do, I can only affect that deficit at the margins. The most mind-blowingly awesomely readable wonderful science journalism I can produce will only be read by a fraction of the 2 million people in New Mexico. No matter how good I am, most members of the general public won’t be reading what I have to say.

    This is crucially important, because it suggests that we we need solutions to these problems that are robust to the fact that the general public will never, as a whole, understand them. To assume that we can solve these projects by educating the public via the media is a doomed strategy. That’s why talking to staffers is so important. My friend that I mentioned in the beginning who is so skilled at knowing staffers? He’s always trying to get me to write about his issues – not because he wants me to convince the general public, but because he know the staffers read me. :-)

    I’d encourage Tom to share his thoughts on my approach. My sense from a long dinner we had in a fading summer evening in Copenhagen last summer (there was a haunch of venison involved, if I recall correctly, and it was *so* pretty there) that he may have some different views. And he’s a fancy college perfesser. I’m just some schlub at a mid-sized newspaper.

  19. spyder
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Well here is a lovely screwing with science story, that examples most of the above commentary:

  20. Posted March 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    spyder – Except that it’s a Chris Horner piece (CEI attorney, not a journalist) posted at the Daily Caller. Which is pseudo-journalism, not bound by the norms we’re talking about here.

  21. Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    John Fleck points out an important distinction in his comment to spyder that unfortunately seems lost on the scientists at Real Climate and Joe Romm.

    So what happens is that everything gets lumped together–a biased Daily Caller story, a George Will op-ed, a spot news story on a congressional hearing, a NYT magazine profile, etc, etc.

    LCarey, I too would be interested to hear your response to Tom’s question, about what you found objectionable to Broder’s NYT piece. Here’s is my take on the responses to it from Joe Romm, Robert Brulle and David Roberts:


  22. L. Carey
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Tom and John, thanks for your replies. I will look forward to Tom’s considered post / response. I agree with John that it makes a lot of sense for an individual reporter (if they have an opportunity to do so) to develop a focus and reputation for good reporting in an area that can have impact on our future public policy trajectory – in your case for water issues in the Southwest, you’re obviously the go to guy and widely read by those with an interest in that area. If you would concur, can you think of other exemplars of this approach? And is there a way to create the space and conditions for more such reporting?

    Regarding John Broder’s piece, my real complaint is his closing:
    “Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.
    “What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.” The scientists promised to provide written answers.”

    As far as I’m concerned this is simply a gratuitous steaming pile of crap. Griffith’s questions and “ruminations” are simply idiotic denier B.S. that have been thoroughly refuted, skewered, debunked and re-skewered, and Broder simply plays it straight as a pure stenographer for a guy talking obvious nonsense, whose “money quote” has no real significance in the story. AND he concludes with “The scientists promised to provide written answers” – the clear implication of which to a casual reader is that they were dumbfounded and at a loss to answer Griffith’s arguments, and had never considered these points before. While Broder MAY have been laughing up his sleeve at Griffiths, I can tell you for a fact that many of my friends (the Fox News watchers) are NOT IN ON THE JOKE and would happily take this at straight face value — “fancy schmancy scientists flummoxed by simple questions they never even thought of!!!! I knew it was a conspiracy!!!!” Accordingly, in my view, Broder did NOT do a straight news piece – he chose to quote rather than simply summarize the Republican position, he chose a particularly uninformed guy to quote, he provided no context showing the stupidity of the comments, and to top it off, he then added a closing line that made it appear that the scientists were complete idiots at a loss to answer his questions. Other questions?

  23. Posted March 11, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink


    I’ll agree with you there, that the ending (while written, I’m sure, tongue in cheek), is left open to interpretation. Broder may be assuming that his readers are in on the joke, which would be a mistake, as you point out.

    But I wouldn’t dismiss the piece out of hand just because of the ending. Or call it dreck or one of the worst pieces of climate science journalism (as Roberts and Romm, do respectively). That’s hyperbole.

  24. L. Carey
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    As a P.S., as I’m sure someone will point it out, my concern regarding Broder’s piece is NOT the die-hard Fox News watchers – many of them would not have their preexisting views affected in the least by anything Broder wrote (except to find the bits they liked). My real concern are those casual readers without strong feelings on the subject (like ME before 2008), who read the piece and are led to think (a) there’s a lot of scientific disagreement on AGW, and (b) wow, those “pro” scientists were really stumped and can’t even answer simple questions from a layman (“provide a written answer” being the more formal equivalent of “I’ll get back to you on that”). Logical conclusion of casual reader: “I’ll worry about this when the scientists know what they’re doing.” To me, Broder’s ending made the piece grossly misleading to such a casual reader. Granted this one story won’t affect the global debate or define lots of people’s views, but it just seems emblematic of a fairly steady stream of MSM stories which can easily mislead the casual reader into thinking the science is hotly disputed and minimizing the potential risks of our current “policy” (or really “non-policy”) trajectory. (I speak as a formerly casual reader in exactly that position, and recall reading stories and thinking basically the same things.)

  25. L. Carey
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    KK, I agree that it would be hyperbole to call this the worst climate science story ever written, or whatever. In fact it’s a piece of political reporting with science connections, and it’s not very significant in the scheme of things. The hearings were just the typical kabuki theater, and the story would hardly merit notice – EXCEPT FOR THE ENDING. However, I would strongly disagree with any suggestion to the effect that it was an okay story except the ending could have been better – a pedestrian news story with an ending that is grossly misleading to the casual reader is not “okay”. Broder essentially added no value to the story whatsoever – he just did he-said/she-said (usually appropriate for a political piece, so I’m not arguing that), but then he actively subtracted value by his framing of the conclusion. Again, this complaint isn’t really about this one articular rather inconsequential piece by Broder with a bad conclusion – it’s about what it seems to exemplify about a lot of the MSM coverage. And again, my problem is with the likely effect on casual readers. I’m not asking for propaganda, but it would be nice if more reporters saw fit to call B.S. on complete stupidity and outright lying when they see it.

  26. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, L. Carey, for all the thought you are putting into this. The general education problem is so difficult, in our media-obsessed world. Most people don’t have to face the kind of looming reality we have from day to day, and don’t want to, as they ratchet up the infotainment. They can see a whole lot of disasters, but don’t make the connection that the trends are what we can expect from what the scientists have been studying and trying to tell us. And we can’t expect the scientists to take the kind of die-hard position the professional advocates are, as they largely attempt to tell the truth. The advocates may think they are dealing with truth at some level, but they are willing to dismiss the entire sum of developed science in a way that sends us all to the trash heap. They wouldn’t do that with their fancy toys, but they don’t see that science gave us those too, and it’s all a continuum.

    The energy and intensity of the denial PR campaign and their perhaps innocent collaborators, people like Judith Curry who once did real science, but now is enmeshed in a flood of approval from people whose information is slanted in a way clear to outsiders but apparently not now for her, is ratcheting up. No google search or any other effort to find out the truth for oneself is going to turn up a clean picture of what is going on. Most people don’t have enough background in science to make a critical judgment, and many dislike their school experience with it. The level of ego in the high-level intellectual quality people makes most of them show their impatience with nonsense which tends to shut down the conversation.

    I still think the way to the American public is to get them to pay attention to world weather over time. They can’t go on forever not noticing that things are changing. I would have thought this would be more obvious now, but it can’t be much longer as things keep ratcheting up.

  27. Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey -

    FYI, I generally agree with you regarding Broder’s piece. He owed his readers better than that.

    On specialist regional/local reporters, my favorite is Ken Ward Jr., who lives in the heart of West Virginia and covers coal mining safety and climate change fearlessly. He puts the lie to the notion that journalists cave to powerful economic interests. His battles with Massey are legend.

    Down on the Gulf Coast, Mark Schleifstein warned New Orleans before Katrina. A lot of people didn’t listen, but enough did (in terms of preparations for hurricane evacuation) that there are probably a lot of people who are alive today who would not be were it not for Mark’s work.

    Tony Davis in Tucson. Mike Taugher out in the California Bay Area. Bettina Boxall and Emily Green in Los Angeles.

    Robert McClure was at the Seattle PI before it went down. (Sigh.) Great journalism, failed business model. McClure and some other folks ginned up a non-profit model called Investigate West that they’re trying to make a go of: http://invw.org/

    I could go on if you want more.

  28. Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    L. Carey – In your criticism of the Broder piece (a criticism, incidentally, that I share), you say this: “Again, this complaint isn’t really about this one particular rather inconsequential piece by Broder with a bad conclusion – it’s about what it seems to exemplify about a lot of the MSM coverage.”

    I’d like to suggest an exercise. Since we’re talking about the New York Times here, and because their search engine makes this relatively easy, search for the last week (or month if you’ve the time) for all the items that contain the phrase “climate change”. Define some categories and quality metrics for yourself that you think you could explain to the rest of us, and then quantify all their coverage and how it fits on the dimension you’re trying to describe here about what bothers you about this Broder piece – how much shares the problem, how much does not.

  29. Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Obviously Eli has torched a nerve. Equally obviously there are a lot of people telling John and Tom Y, that journalism has a problem, and equally obviously, they are in denial. You can’t define your way out of this problem by walling all the nonsense into the not journalism category. So, as some, not Eli have said, where does it go from here?

  30. Tony
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Research on how political identity informs people’s views on issues is well-taken. But in the US, not everyone is either Republican or Democratic. How do Independents process news stories on the climate? If false balance is thrown at them, how do they respond?

  31. Posted March 12, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Eli -

    It’s clear that you’ve torched something here, but it’s not clear how your contributions to the resulting fire have been terribly useful if your goal is to convince journalists that their work needs to improve.

    What you seem to be interpreting as denial on my part is me simply trying to get you to clarify the nature of the problem that seems so obvious to you, but that you’ve been unable to articulate to me. You think journalism sucks. I get that. But in what way?

    In your original post, you said the problem was churnalism, and you gave some examples. I agree that churnalism is a problem, as do most journalists. So I look at the examples you cite, and it looks to me like churnalism’s not going on there. Check. Looks like we’re all on the same page here. But it also leaves me, as a journalist who actually made an attempt to take you seriously, thinking that you don’t know what you’re talking about. The people you need to reach with this message – journalists – are going to ignore you as a result.

    Journalists talk seriously about these issues all the time, interacting with academics who study the communication problem, arguing with one another – the Society of Environmental Journalists (there are a bunch of academics and educators involved there), the National Association of Science Writers, Yulsman’s Transatlantic Media Network fellowships, the various Knight Foundation programs. These people, if they ever have occasion to drop by your blog and read your churnalism piece, are gonna say to themselves, as I did, “Wow, that guy doesn’t know WTF he’s talking about. Plus, he’s not only ignorant, but he’s being kind of a dick about it,” and move on to someplace where they can have a serious discussion.

  32. Posted March 12, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    John, you have continued to miss Eli’s points, and frankly, the bunny has held his tongue in responding to you. So, to be clear about this

    a. Perhaps we will now get off the kick that all scientists need to be sent to communications re-education camp?

    b. The fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population believes in utter fables is a pretty good indication that something is not working. Moreover, the fact that fantasy rules in just about every area of human endeavor is a pretty good indication that the fault is not with the science part. What we have here folks is a failure to communicate and the communication of news is the business of journalists.

  33. Posted March 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Let me add something, the fact that most people who talk with journalists think they have to tie their tongue up in knots to get their point (no multiple or complex ones allowed) is both maddening and indicative of a deep seeded problem.

  34. Posted March 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Tom has a post about a piece of churnalism from Christopher Mims at Grist. As Tom points out the damage is done when this crap leaks out of the box, and you can never shove it completely back in, so no John, the Rabett does not think your analysis is correct.

    Eli rests his case.

  35. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Here’s that NYT search. My impression is that it’s not so much churnalism (although typically we would expect the NYT to be a source for churnalism elsewhere rather than a direct practitioner) as really heavy on the meta and politics while being pretty thin on the science. IOW, it may not be the problem as Eli is describing it, but it’s nonethe less a problem. I think it would be useful to come up with a list of the science stories they failed to do during this period, so I’ll follow up with that. I might ry the same thing with e.g. the Des Moines Register and see what that looks like.

  36. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    After a look around for something that would lower the temperature of the discussion, I found this. It’s a terrific site, and gives these figures among a number of other recommended aids to communication in a field where complexity is used to obscure:

    I know it seems unfair to lump you all in together, as some like Tom Yulsman actual report the science. But this is the problem in a nutshell. What to do? I tend to side with the Bunny in being frustrated, but with TY and his colleagues who feel they are being asked to carry the sins of their colleagues rather than get on with it.

    rough quote from graphic:

    Are scientists convinced?

    Media reporting: does it reflect the consensus?
    28% yes
    72% no

    Public perception: Are the public convinced?
    26% yes
    74% no

    The close correspondence of the latter two sets of numbers shows an imbalance, don’t you think? I get that correlation is not causation, but something is wrong with this picture, and communication specialists are part of the problem, I think. The massive disingenuous comment campaign seems to be bearing fruit, dunnit?

    It is not OK to ignore the elephant in the room – the influence peddlers and their massive disinformation campaign. People are being taught to ignore the evidence of their own senses in favor of this influence.
    Are scientists convinced?

  37. Posted March 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Susan -

    Thanks for the comments.

    On the Boykoff data cited in the “media reporting” bit in that graph, the data in that paper is from TV reporting from 1995-2004. I agree. TV news has serious problems in a variety of dimensions. But it’s not “media reporting” as a whole. As I’ve noted before in various threads of this conversation, Boykoff’s data on newspaper reporting more recently has concluded that the coverage reflects the consensus in about the same 97:3 ratio as the scientist numbers. You can find all his papers here:


  38. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    John Fleck,

    Thanks for your response and particularly for the link.

    I continue to have a problem with the way this is framed. It leaves out the real problem, which is the successful and vocal cadre of phony skeptics. As I follow this interesting group of exchanges between scientists and journalists about the failure of the public to grasp the complexities of climate change and the cliff edge they are hanging on, I keep noticing that they refuse to face the elephant in the room – the huge wealthy doubt and ignorance promoting machine that resents any restraint on the acquisition of wealth beyond dreams of avarice and appears to be entirely amoral if not immoral.

    At this point in time, perhaps most important of all is to bring the pursuit of truth to the table. Scientists and journalists pointing the finger at each other is not helping, but what else can they do? The third party is not at the table, but waiting to pounce on anything and everything, with infotainment and virtual reality on their side.

  39. Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Indeed, as Ethon has pointed out, the refusal to face the elephant in the room is a huge issue, and one that tells you who is hiding the peanuts. Moreover, this is not restricted to climate issues but, to mix a metaphor, extends to all 29 flavors of denialism. Watching out for the sellers of that little trick is a pretty good tip off as to who is, and is not, a reliable source.

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