Scientists Need to Step Up Public Communication on Climate, Journalists Aren't Doing It

scientists photo

photo: San Jose Library via flickr.

It should be no great secret to TreeHugger readers that scientists don't always make the greatest public communicators of their own work. In the world of research there is always more work that can be done on an issue and everyone speaks in tempered terms allowing room for further developments. But as a new Washington Post piece amply puts in, on issues such as global warming scientists need to learn how to speak up for themselves. What's missing though is that some of the failings of scientists are equally those of journalists:Scientists Could Use a Public Speaking Refresher
Consider this paragraph:

Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming. And many of them don't trust the public or the press: According to a recent Pew study, 85 percent of U.S. scientists say it's a "major problem" that the public doesn't know much about science, and 76 percent say the same about what they see as the media's inability to distinguish between well-supported science and less-than-scientific claims. Rather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television.

All of that's very much true of scientists, and academia more broadly as well to some degree. But you know what, traditional media and journalism as currently practiced is also to blame here. I'll rewrite the blockquote a bit:

Journalist Training Can Also Mean Poor Communication
Journalistic training continues to turn out reporters who speak with many caveats, giving equal weight to opinions on both sides of issue in the name of 'objectivity'. Apart from occasional contextualizing and correcting errors of fact made by those being covered, journalists are taught to refrain passing value judgements on an issue, leaving it to readers to sort out facts, opinions and the best course of action, often on issues which readers find themselves removed from. When it comes to communicating the nuance of scientists and academics, messages are continually framed for maximum headline impact, even when doing so blurs the complexity of a situation. This leads to mistrust and resignation on the part of media consumers who begin assuming that everything is either exaggeration or just fluff.

OK, there's some liberty taken on my part, but combined with the fact that science and environmental reporting is becoming a thing of the past at major outlets -- heck, as former New York Times staffer now just Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin points out environmental coverage was just 1.5% of all stories in 2009 -- and you have a recipe for public confusion, aversion and shoulder shrugging 'why should I care?'

Focus on Internal Political Issues Obscures Bigger Picture
The Washington Post piece also correctly brings in another piece of the puzzle of bad reporting on climate and the environment: Focusing so closely on the internal politics rather than the issue.

Author Chris Mooney uses the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma as the example: In their wake science reporters focused on the debate about how much (or not at all) was climate change to blame for them, refused to throw the proverbial red flag on who was right and who was wrong, and scientists themselves refused to step into the public communications brink. The same thing has plagued climate change and COP15 coverage to a large degree. Political back and forth obscures the bigger picture.

Let's All Make a 2010 Communication Resolution
So what's the point in this admittedly slightly rambling analysis? In 2010 let's all make a resolution, journalists, bloggers/columnists, and scientists alike, and meet in the middle somewhere. Journalists, objectivity doesn't absolve you from ignoring the right and wrong of a story. Bloggers and columnists already expressing the right and wrong, let's not loose sight of the nuance of situations. Scientists, for crying out loud enter in the public communications and political debate more outspokenly.

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