These are notes taken from a discussion meeting at Oxford University on 26th February 2010 and sent to me by reader, Simon Anthony. I think they are extremely interesting.
Question and answer format featuring environmental correspondents Richard Black (BBC), Fiona Harvey (FT), David Adam (Guardian) and Ben Jackson (Sun) and chaired by Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre.
(Abbreviations: CG = Climategate; CC = Climate change; CH = Copenhagen meeting)
FF: Has the press done a disservice to the public in reporting CG? Has media a responsibility to make the public “think the right way”?
DA: I don’t feel I have to tell the public “how to think”. We ask questions of experts, report their answers and the evidence. On balance MMGW is correct; the remaining issues concern which policies are right in response. People often confuse the reality of the science with policy choices.
RB: Most media have to follow their audience or go bust, the BBC less so, but still constrained. We present things as they are, with all their complexity and diversity. We don’t tell people how to think.
FH: I don’t feel responsible to public opinion but only to our readers. We present facts objectively to inform readers for eg investment decisions. We aim for rock solid accuracy and present all sides of the argument with no spin. People have taken advantage of CG to present a sceptical p-o-v. We have to record that sceptical p-o-v but be careful to stick to the mainstream.
BJ: Twenty years ago the Sun would have been sceptical because CC is hard to prove; nowadays we let people have the benefit of the doubt because we’re more interested in where it’s all going. The Sun will channel both sides of the argument. We have little expertise and we aren’t authoritative. It’s not only consensus scientists but sceptics who unhappy with media.
FF: So it wasn’t the media’s fault… Was the media slow to respond to the various …gates?
DA: We had a baby just after release of emails so I was on parental leave through December. I got a phone call about potential big story with sceptics claiming there was trick to hide the decline in temperature. We had to be careful before reporting; I knew about the on-going Climate Audit – UEA “spat”. The following week while the blogosphere was jumping and down we discussed what to do. It’s lonely waiting while the rest of media is doing a story and you’re not (only lonelier the other way round). We couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening but there was a danger in concentrating on only some of emails as this would create the illusion of controversy. I used to think sceptics were bad and mad but now the bad people (lobbyists for fossil fuel industries) had gone, leaving only the mad. We published a string of articles in late Jan, early Feb showing that people had misinterpreted the emails as casting doubt on CC. The collapse of CH was the perfect time for the emails to get coverage.
RH: We’d have needed a serious amount of time to properly analyse the emails. It happened at a busy time (CH). The people who responded quickly had only read three emails and decided to label the event CG. In retrospect we should have got stuck into the emails right away (in passing, we should also have checked the last IPCC report) but our editor wouldn’t have given staff the time needed. The BBC was attacked on CG coverage because it’s thought to have a political agenda. Nonetheless I had a Glaciergate article on 5th Dec.
FH: We had no time to authenticate the emails before our deadlines. We waited a few days, then the glacier stuff came along. Editors asked why there was no FT coverage. I wrote pieces but editors wouldn’t give space, or spiked articles. We were also busy with CH…it does sound like excuses for weak coverage but newspapers are dysfunctional.
BJ: The Sun covered CG on 21/11. Everyone was looking at CH but the story wouldn’t die and we were caught napping by the emails. Analysis needed a lot of time and the Sun wasn’t going to do it. We decided CH was more important. We were worried during the first days of CH that the emails would take over the conference. Pachauri was asked questions, there was a press conference with Stern in which journalists were told there were to be no CG questions, so of course all the questions were about the emails. The attempted blocking of awkward questions indicates the approach of the climate lobby to problems.
FF: John Beddington and Mike Hulme say the media has been too hard on sceptics. Has the media attitude contributed to the sceptical backlash? What should scientists do differently? I was shocked that scientists stuck to their previous stories despite the email evidence and then wouldn’t answer specific questions. And DA has said that scientists have to “go further than the science” to win people over.
BJ: Sceptics aren’t mad people, they’re people in general – taxi drivers, not Monckton or Booker. People are yet to be persuaded. They aren’t stupid and respond to evidence around them – they see a cold winter and ask where is AGW? People don’t talk to scientists – journalists have that privilege. But scientists do get things wrong and sometimes duck questions. We need to present the sceptical p-o-v. Last year we just printed press releases on AGW if they came from people with the right credentials; that won’t do any longer. People listen to Jeremy Clarkson who’s sceptical (although eventually Jeremy will come round).
FH: Scientists at first reacted disastrously to the emails, claiming the important thing was that they’d been stolen. They didn’t understand that no one cared whether they’d been stolen or not, just as with MPs’ expenses. I have sympathy for the scientists who couldn’t say that, say, Pachauri should resign or Phil Jones had acted badly. Now permission has been granted to be sceptical. People think it’s clever to be sceptical as the opposite is to be climate-gullible.
RB: I’m not surprised at the level of UK scepticism as the main impacts of CC are decades away and in other places. The problem is poor science awareness. We need to improve science education so people properly understand climate science. There was some comfort in the BBC poll showing that scepticism has increased – half the respondents were aware of CG and of those, most had become less critical of CC (although this does seem a little strange, it was a small sample and might not be right).
DA: The meaning of sceptic is very specific. It’s not taxi drivers or people who don’t want to pay higher electricity bills. It’s someone who knows better and takes a contrary view for pathological reasons. No journalists believe that climate science was undermined by the emails.
Q: I’m disturbed by the panel’s attitude. Scepticism is legitimate, denialism not. The events shouldn’t be called anything-Gate as that implied conspiracy and there was none. Why haven’t the media found out who stole the emails and wasn’t the timing of their release interesting?
DA: We can no longer call people deniers. We need a new term. Some people have suggested “climate creationists”.
FH: Sceptics were clever in choosing their name. We do need a new name, denier won’t work because of Holocaust associations.
Q: What was the influence of the blogosphere?
RB: probably bad.
FH: I’m astonished by the viciousness of anonymous people on the internet.
Q: Did anything good come from CG? How to move forward?
BJ: The other day a Sun driver talked to me about the Medieval Warm Period. That wouldn’t have happened 6 months ago. All climate science will now be tested and people will ask how strong the science really is. There’s been a perfect storm of things going wrong – CG, CH, Met Office predictions – it could only be worse if David Attenborough had been caught in bed with Lord Monckton.
Q: How to report uncertainty in, for example, Met Office forecasts? What will persuade sceptics and deniers?
BJ: It’s curious how Met Office and WMO predictions on AGW came out in the week of CH (some audience disagreement as to whether there had been a change from their normal timetable). It was at least bad timing for organisations that value integrity. They should distance themselves from advocacy. The Met Office is ahead of the science.
FH: FT readers are versed in risk and probability which are difficult to communicate in the rest of the media. Climate scientists aren’t generally newsworthy; sceptics, IPCC problems and emails are making the news. “Climate – guess what? Still changing” is an unlikely headline. A short-term disaster is needed to guarantee coverage as people aren’t good at processing information about there being no ice at the poles in 30 years. Or get David Attenborough as the front man because everyone trusts him.
RB: I agree that a short term disaster would be effective in persuading people.
DA: Essentially no one read the IPCC report. Climate scientists need to fight on territory the media are interested in. Get the Royal Society to speak out or 2000 scientists to sign a petition protesting at media coverage.
BJ: A disaster won’t do it. It needs businesses, eg Tesco, Nike, to make a big thing about going zero/low carbon.
- Workshop arranged by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), the School of Geography and Environment and the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University, and the British Council as one of a series workshops for journalists to discuss with scientists
- A video will be put on RI/ESI websites.