Covering climatology may not be the biggest challenge facing today’s mainstream news outlets and the journalists they employ, but it certainly has exposed a serious weakness in conventional news reporting. That weakness, as I implied in my previous post, is a pathological fear of taking sides, even then the “sides” in question are reality and fantasy.
Part of the problem is endemic to much of what passes for science journalism, which is too often practiced by journalists who know so little about the subject they’re covering that they can’t properly evaluate the reliability or trustworthiness of potential sources. The result is that sources with no credibility in the field routinely appear alongside genuine experts as part of an effort to provide balance.
There are plenty of good science journalists who, either through academic training or just plain hard work, are capable of telling the difference between an expert and a kook. (See Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs to name two.), but after years of slashed science-section budgets, when even the likes of the New York Times see fit to seek out the thoughts of Christopher Monckton on matters climatological, something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.
More and more, the failings of the media to offer responsible coverage of climate change are attracting attention. Some of the observations carry a whiff of naivete — I have little doubt that some of my criticisms could fairly be so criticized — but they are worthy of exploring. Consider, for example, a recent Real Climate post on the latest bout of misreporting on the climate front, in which the group laments the “sizeable contingent of me-too journalism that is simply repeating the stories but not taking the time to form a well-founded view on the topics.” They ask:
But isn’t it the responsibility of the media to actually investigate whether allegations have any merit before they decide to repeat them?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? That, at least, used to be part of standard operating procedure for any reporter investigating something that involved “allegations.” And even if myriad non-journalist bloggers are tempted to pass on unchecked allegations as fact, surely any respectable news outlet’s staff should know better, no?
It has been argued by countless others that today’s continuous news cycle leaves no time to verify allegations. But that doesn’t make it ethical. And that doesn’t explain failing to vet your sources before you give them your stamp of approval. Treating a propagandist with no credibility as a full-blown expert is incompatible with a respect for the facts. To repeat, we’re not just talking about third-rate British tabloids like the Daily Mail. The New York Times‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal’s decision to treat Monckton and Roger Pielke Jr. as climate scientists is bizarre, to the say the least.
There’s very little readers and viewers can do about this unless they know more about a subject than the journalist who is misleading them. But there is something sources can do. At first, Joe Romm’s suggestion seems like a good starting point.
Scientists should refuse to grant interviews … without a third-party present or an agreement to allow a review of any quotes used.
I’d agree that refusing to grant interviews to reporters or an entire media outlet that has demonstrated it doesn’t understand the need to get it right is a viable option. Scientists who do so will be accused of harboring an ideological bias, but chances are their peers will know enough to dismiss such allegations (before passing them on as fact).
But many a responsible journalist will have trouble agreeing to the presence of third parties or an obligation to supply quotes (or more) to a source prior to publication. Editors, publishers and news directors tend to fire staffers who engage in such practices, and the reasons are valid. News organizations have a real interest in ensuring they can’t be scooped by the competition or, in some jurisdictions, find themselves on the receiving end of an judge’s injunction against publication.
More fortunate science journalists didn’t used to have to worry about such things, and if there’s one section of a newspapers where the reporters used to be able to get away with letting sources or other outsiders read a story before publication, it was Science, where ensuring the story gets the facts and context right can be tricky. But as the past few months have shown, covering climate science can be just as political as, well, politics. Journalists and editors are going to have to think long and hard about what’s acceptable today.
At the end of the day, though, the obligation not to mislead an audience, either by generating coverage that you know is laden with falsehoods, or failing to be relatively confident it isn’t false, remains. And the best way for scientists to play a role in ensuring the media respects that obligation is to boycott any reporter or any organization that won’t accept that responsibility.