Why is journalism ignoring a warming Earth?

Lacklustre reporting does not meet the rigours of scientific evaluation

by Jeremy Glass-Pilon & Solène Jonveaux

The scientific evidence is irrefutable: 97 per cent of climate researchers agree that climate change is real and due to human activities. Yet an Ipsos poll done at the end of 2015 shows that just 13 per cent of Canadians and 12 per cent of Americans identified climate change as a priority when asked about important policy issues.

What part does journalism play in all this? Most scientists agree that even though the volume of reporting has increased over the last few years, conventional journalism has missed the mark when it comes to reporting on climate science. The content and scientific validity of these reports has been, for the most part, sorely inadequate.

This negligence has given fuel to climate deniers, like American president-elect Donald Trump, who stoke the fires of dissent by claiming human-induced climate change is a hoax. Although these very public denials have no bearing in scientific truth, people are not equipped with adequate information to refute these claims.

Even though the Liberal government has ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, along with 113 other countries, this country is not adequately prepared for the effects of climate change, according to a new report published in late October by the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation. Made public just weeks before the start of the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference (more commonly known as COP22), the report suggests that more focus on climate change is needed in order to bring public policy and perception on par with scientific expertise.

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The problem is so worrying for environmental scientists that Climate Feedback, self described as “a scientific reference to reliable information on climate change” is now offering reviews and ranking of the accuracy of mainstream media articles published about climate change.

Since early 2015, this platform has allowed scientists to rank pieces of journalism according to their scientific accuracy, relevance and use of evidence-based research. Stories from influential publishers such as The Guardian, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have all been subjected to the rigors of scientific evaluation.

The trend suggests that journalism, as an institution, barely receives a passing grade.

The lowest grade went to a 2015 article in Forbes, the business magazine, titled “Top 10 Climate Change Lies That May Shock You.” In addition to its click-bait headline, the story was full of factual mistakes that have been proven wrong by the scientific community. William Anderegg, associate professor at the University of Utah, said in his review of this article that it “wins the Olympic gold for cherry-picking data, misleading claims, and a long list of scientifically unsupported assertions.”

This shoddy climate change reporting has consequences. The piece, according to Forbes.com, has read more than 110,000 times, influencing the way people understand such a complex field and how they behave in response to it.

In the article, “The Phony war against CO2,” published in the Wall Street Journal at the end of October, the authors argue that CO2 emissions benefit agriculture and help reduce poverty. The climate scientist reviewers made it clear that the authors failed to provide facts based on true evidence and also omitted to mention some crucial information that did not fit with their conclusion.

Lauren Simkins, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Rice University said in her review that “the authors state that readers should ‘check the facts’ regarding climate change, but have presented us with little scientific support for their own claims.”

These are but two of the almost 50 articles that have been reviewed by scientists in the last two years. Although some have been reviewed exceptionally well — The Guardian, the New York Times and The Washington Post among them — the majority are judged to be poor interpretations of facts, or blatantly disregarding the science.

These examples of bad climate science journalism point out the biggest failures of journalists reporting on climate change: a lack of research, the misunderstanding of scientific concepts, and opinion-based pieces.

Even though The Wall Street Journal and Forbes Magazines are considered conservative publications, these practices are not consistent with an important journalistic value: striving for truth and accuracy.

Science reporter and Chair of the Journalism department at Concordia University, David Secko, thinks that even if a climate change denier’s view can be published, “the journalist should be able to decide, and report the known scientific evidence,” even if it contradicts the denier’s statements.

“There is a responsibility to make sure your level of knowledge is up and […] to hold groups to public account,” Secko said. “If you’re not dealing with the evidence and just dealing with false balances you’ll have a problem.

Still, hesitation to report actively on climate change remains, in part because the subject is inherently very complex. The field is filled with technical and abstract information and combines sectors such as science, policy, economics and health.

“Climate change is one of these classic examples of the everlasting challenge of a science journalist to figure out how they are going to talk about the uncertainty that exists in every scientific issue,” Secko said.

In addition, the classical paradigm through which journalists approach storytelling may not be working for such a niche and complex subject. When so many experts agree that the system is not working, sometimes it’s better to think outside the box.

Traditional journalism models need to adapt when it comes to reporting on climate change, argues Elyse Amend, a PhD candidate in McGill University’s Communication Studies department who specializes in science communication. She believes that journalists have to leave the traditional confines of conventional journalism in order to best approach the complexities of reporting on climate change.

Science communications scholar, Elyse Amend believes that science reporting needs to differentiate itself from traditional journalism to effectively report on climate reporting
Science communications scholar, Elyse Amend believes that science reporting needs to differentiate itself from traditional journalism to effectively report on climate reporting. Photo courtesy of McGill University

“A good practice, I think, is to report on the complexity of the climate change story in creative ways,” said Amend. “How else are people really supposed to understand it?”

Like Secko, she sees climate as a much more complex story than is typically reported in conventional journalism. As a result, some journalists have a tendency to avoid the complexities and intricacies of climate science, if only not to confuse their readers. She believes that journalists should give their readers more credit and attempt to break down the complexity.

“Journalists definitely have (the) responsibility to report on the known facts about climate change issues as best as they can,” Amend said. “But also they have the ethical and social responsibility to call on their audiences to actually do something about it.”

She admits that many traditional journalists may not agree with this position, however the complexities of the story require a new approach — one that would motivate the reader into not only caring but getting actively involved, if only to move the story forward.

“Some people might argue that inspiring people to action isn’t journalism, but is advocacy or activism,” said Amend. “But climate change isn’t a story that fits neatly into some of journalism’s more traditional models. So, maybe we should start thinking about journalism differently — and I think some people already have.”

While Amend believes that climate reporting does need to break from the proverbial mold, she also insists that some aspects of conventional journalism — for example making the stories about people as opposed to just the science — have been ignored and should definitely be considered when reporting on climate science.

“Journalists should put more emphasis on the people, and the very human aspects, that drive climate change stories,” she said.

Amend suggests that, as journalism continues to redefine itself, so must climate reporting. Although resources are slowly being funnelled away from the niche field, environment journalism must remain valuable.

Finally, “if we want good climate change journalism (or just good journalism),” she said, “we need to actually value journalism more.”