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How to report climate change after Climategate?

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.

Audience Qs:

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.


Other info:

-          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.


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Reader Comments (68)

I work in the newspaper industry (regionals). I'm the web guy and cover 30 odd sites. I'll say this one thing about the mindset of most of the journalists I deal with on a daily basis and you can all take from it what you will.

We were doing a major redev of the site templates and were planning the advertising slots. The web editor girned and moaned about the high visibility we were building into the pages as it made her 'feel dirty'.

I reckon that the journalists in my company are about 80/20 left / right and I am certain that this is indicative of journalists in general. I've yet to meet a lefty who thinks that climate change is their baby. These quotes seem to confirm that to me. I'm pretty sure the Guardian guy is the one who phoned me about the emails and he seemed quite interested in getting me to give him a 'mad' quote.

Feb 28, 2010 at 1:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterAn Elegant Chaos

I was also at the debate and would be happy to send Andrew a scan of my handwritten notes which agree closely with Simon's report. Feel free to email me, Andrew, if that would be useful.

Feb 28, 2010 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterDR

@Simon Anthony

FH's point about the cleverness of sceptics in choosing their name did, I believe, refer to the "sceptic" label rather than "denier".

My apologies then both for the sarcastic hyperbole and for putting words in her mouth. I find it doubtful she requires any help in that department.

Feb 28, 2010 at 3:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

David Bailey wrote:

"The strange thing is that it is the less intellectual papers in the UK - such as the Daily Mail - that have given decent coverage to climategate."

Actually I think that makes sense. I'd expect the journalists working for those papers to be of a more "traditional" sort, that is, they are (I would think) less well-paid, and more flexible in having to actually dig up stories in a variety of topics themselves. That makes them both less intellectually pretentious and less prone to be committed to any particular view on "climate science". Perhaps most importantly, maybe they're also more exposed to nonsense given to them by supposed expert or trusted sources and so less inclined to throw their lot with them.

By contrast, people like Fiona Harvey, David Adam and the rest - precisely because they are not "mere journalists" anymore and do have a claim to a formal scientitic education - are more likely to over-estimate their own competence in matters they don't truly understand.

Actually they *have* to be in denial. The moment that the whole CAGW thing collapses like the house of cards it is, those journalists who identified their own views and careers with it face professional oblivion and ridicule - perhaps not quite as bad as what faced the journalists who believed the "Hitler Diaries" hoax, but close.

Feb 28, 2010 at 4:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter B

Thinking more about the attitudes displayed in this session, I come to the following conclusions:

1) These people think of themselves as the liberal, thinking elite, with their role to be the education of the less fortunate masses. Unfortunately, some members of the moronic mass have gained access to the tools traditionally reserved for the elite and are disturbing the carefully crafted message.

2) These people, being of the thinking class, get access to the Great Thinkers of the day. People who are not available to the seething masses. They have misunderstood their role, and see themselves as the conduit of wisdom handed down by the Great Thinkers, to use their talents to transform the message into something the masses can wrap their minuscule minds around. Or perhaps, quite simply, to put it in old empire terms, they have gone native and can no longer be trusted to carry out their jobs.

Feb 28, 2010 at 5:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterPJP

One thing to remember about the media is that journalists are a self-selected group.

Journalists are people who are intrinsically attracted to the notion of telling others what they think, feel, or believe. This does not bode well for notions of objectivity, but unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a suitable alternative for how societies select journalists.

Another thing to remember about the media is the modern scourge of 'postmodernism.' A main tenet of postmodernism is that anything spoken or written is prima facie true, so long as it is quoted accurately. With one stroke, this completely excuses journalists from their own biases, and from sloppy journalism as well.

Both of these factors explain well why MSM do not follow the interests of their audience. This can easily be seen when comparing the preferences of web surfers with the preferences of MSM journalists. The former seek what they want, while the latter decide what "the audience" should be told.

Feb 28, 2010 at 6:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchiller Thurkettle

Dave Salt: I agree entirely with what you say. It would be counterproductive, indeed self-contradictory, to use spin, misrepresentation or lies to argue for the integrity of the scientific method. It's very frustrating that CAGW proponents often have no such scruples.

That said, I've been rather taken aback by some of the reactions to my report. Please be clear that I understand and sympathise with the anger that some people have expressed but, again, it's counterproductive. The journalists who attended the discussion aren't mad, bad or stupid. They're fairly normal people who, much like almost all of us, are ultimately concerned about themselves, their families, their way of life and their careers.

Most people, most of the time, go along with the consensus if they have something to lose by standing against it. Some miscellaneous examples: before PCs, there was an adage that "no one ever got fired for buying IBM"... in the late 1990's some people tried to stand against the nonsense valuations of dotcom stocks; they lost their jobs...until a couple of years ago, if you bet against house prices rising, you were a pitiful fool and lost a good deal of money. The journalists at Friday's discussion are not in any way extraordinary - in good or bad ways - and it would take an extraordinary figure, someone with skills, dedication, time and personal courage far greater than most people have, to have risked their career, with the repercussions for themselves, their family and their way of life, to have stood against the tide of CAGW in the past few years.

Suppose you'd been an environmental correspondent in the past few years and you'd understood Steve McIntyre's work and realised that it fatally broke the hockey stick. You'd also have seen what's happened to SM: the obstruction, exclusion, ridicule, and provocation he's had to endure at the hands of consensus climate scientists. Now you have to decide what to do. You could write a series of columns explaining why the hockey stick is, in a familiar phrase hereabouts, an illusion. You can be fairly sure that you'll never again get to talk to a mainstream "consensus" climate scientist. As you can't do your job as environmental correspondent without being able to talk to such people, your career is over.

Now there might be some of us who'd be brave enough at the age of, say, 40, well-established in your career, respected by your colleagues and peers, with young children, to give up your well-paid job, comfortable life and prospects for a principle. There are such people - Ghandi and Mandela spring to mind - but the odds unfortunately are against them turning up on demand and the principle involved - the integrity of the scientific method - doesn't grab many people in the way that the prospect of freedom for a nation or a people does.

Even to face such a choice you'd have needed the ability to understand Mann's and SM's work and the confidence to think it worth spending a lot of time working on it while (almost) every mainstream academic and other environmental correspondent was telling you that you're wasting your time and destroying your prospects. The obstacles to being a good journalist in this climate (ahem) are huge and unfortunately no one has volunteered. If someone had take the risk, they might have won a Pulitzer and become the Woodward and Bernstein of our time. But no one did and the chance of a lifetime has gone.

It's relatively easy from a position in which one has nothing particularly to lose to criticise others for not (almost certainly) destroying their careers so I don't think we should be too hard on the journalists. In any case, I'm not nearly as pessimistic as other commenters. Fiona Harvey's comment that people feel they've been given permission to be sceptical is correct. Now isn't the time for getting angry with journalists for their past sins. Rather, they need help towards understanding that the hitherto all-conquering CAGW theory has feet-of-clay. I hope they'll read Anthony's book. While it will be some time before every environment correspondent understands why Mann's hockey stick is rotten, "The Hockey Stick Illusion" is accessible and its publication is very timely. It may actually be read and understood by the likes of Fiona Harvey, Ben Jackson, Richard Black, Fiona Fox and, when he recovers his good humour after no doubt being exhausted by his new baby, David Adam. It may make a difference.

Feb 28, 2010 at 8:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Anthony

@Simon Anthony

I am willing to make any bet to the effect that none of those journalists is ever going to read - much less understand - "The Hockey Stick Illusion". I am an admirer of the book, but the essential information had always been available on Climate Audit and elsewhere. One might expect that those supposedly clever, scientifically-literate, environment and science correspondents - If only to be able to comment on that intelligently, and from a sense of fairness - would have spent some time trying to understand what is it that Steve McIntyre was doing. Yet there is no evidence that they did - they preferred to rely on "scientists with the right credentials" as they put it. That is, rather than try to understand the issues for themselves, preferred to just swallow the version that people like SM were either "bad or mad". Or "climate creationists".

So, at least in my book, yes, I would regard them as stupid and bad. Stupid for not being able to understand something obvious, and bad for finding it easier to demonize others. As the saying goes: you live by the sword, you die by the sword. So if their CAGW-sponsored careers take a hit because of this, I for one will not feel their pain one bit.

Feb 28, 2010 at 9:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter B

Peter B

One side of a debate calls the other mad, pathological creationists. Other side retorts that the first lot are bad and stupid. Both sides retire, muttering, to their respective trenches...

For me, and I suspect many others, this debate isn't ultimately about whether CAGW is right or wrong. That just happens to be the currently most obvious battle in a long, possibly never-ending defence of rational argument based on evidence against any number of irrational, emotional, political, ideological and religious alternatives. One shouldn't expect to be taken seriously when arguing for rationality if one then resorts to ad hominem attacks or downright insults when people refuse to conform to one's ideals.

The journalists who so offend CAGW sceptics are no better or worse than almost everyone else on both sides of the debate. In their position almost all of us would behave likewise; to think otherwise is to ignore the empirical evidence on how people actually behave: faced with a difficult decision with a potentially big short-term penalty for doing the "right" thing and a pay-off for doing the "wrong" thing, we seldom do the right thing (although we can be very good at presenting our decision as the right thing under the circumstances). The journalists' attitude to CAGW is a very public example of a typical human behaviour.

Please be clear that I share your anger at what's been done by climate scientists and the journalists, activists and politicians who've uncritically repeated, oversimplified or exaggerated their claims. But I don't think it's helpful to give in to the anger. I'm fairly sure that Steve McIntyre (may your deity of choice preserve him) would deprecate the praise, but whenever one feels particularly aggravated or frustrated by a particularly egregious journalistic claim or insult, it's worth bearing in mind that one's suffering is usually vicarious. In contrast SM has faced a level of personal vituperation that would have led most people either to respond with a similarly vicious defence or else to retire to a quiet life. Either would have suited his detractors just fine. I'm very grateful he's done neither; instead he's patiently, doggedly and good-humouredly set about shoring up his arguments while undermining his opponents'. In so doing he's been the most effective advocate that rational sceptics could have hoped for. I've no doubt that any second-hand frustration I've felt on his behalf at the latest slight, rebuff, obstruction or defamation he's received is as nothing compared to what he's felt. If he can take it without rising to the bait, I think the rest of us should be able to manage it too.

Mar 1, 2010 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Anthony

The tiny skeptics' fire that Climategate fuelled has been growing. "Information is being set free, just like when Tyndale published his English Bible" PeterK

First, only lone individuals understood that Scientific Method itself had been serially compromised, and understood that this mattered. None of the true believers could imagine that scientific disciplines outside their own might be wrong, and if they could see cracks in their own discipline's evidence, they said "all the others cannot be wrong". So the science organizations reported AGW as "fact". This was the scenario the MSM came into. The media's role is to report, and at most, reflect. It is not their job to think original thoughts. However, the line between reporting and "I was only obeying orders" runs fine.

Now the science organizations are beginning to speak up. The Institute of Physics' Parliamentary submission was "not the end, not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning". This fire of righteousness has to spread. Other scientific organizations will have to reconsider their positions. Skeptics' blogs are now well able to pick up and decode the fragments of information, and relay them for all to hear - like Boulton's unnecessary denials, "the lady doth protest too much". Now Keenan and Peiser can testify to Parliament regarding Wang. Jones is linked to Wang and Mann. EPA now faces court cases. The US will slowly get dragged in willy-nilly.

These journos are failing ridiculously to pay attention to their own readers' comments, as I've seen for a year now. Yet they claim here to be answerable to their readership. The man in the street seems to know more than Phil Jones does about real Climate Science. Yet on the positive side, Roger Harrabin clearly feels trapped between a rock and a hard place, and has moved significantly in his stance, and with far less arrogance and willingness to listen than that shown here. Also on the positive side, I reported my Skeptics Climate Science Primer (click my name) on a Times Higher Educational Supplement philosophical blog, and I got back some incredibly warm support, including from the author; several readers clearly studied my piece and could grasp a lot more than they had been able to understand previously.

The whole transcript here made me feel physically sick and I had to stop reading. But then I thought "this is important data" and I'll get a handle through the comments. Here we have a classic embattled AGW MSM statement, ripe for deconstruction.

Mar 1, 2010 at 8:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterLucy Skywalker

Dear Fiona, she is quite obviously needs to enter re-hab or start taking more water with it and leave off the halucinogens.
What type of disaster does she have in mind?
Lets us fervently hope, that whatever disaster she has alludes to, that she is able to experience it at first hand and with luck be an addition to the casuality figures.
Where do these idiots crawl out from? - for she inhabits a planet that I for one do not recognise.

Mar 2, 2010 at 12:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterunreadyAthelstan

James Delingpole links to this story from his Telegraph blog
What the liberal elite feel you should know about climate change

Mar 2, 2010 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterDR

Yes indeed. this is post normal science, and these people are lying. What we are seeing is a toxic mix of environmental extremism and massive corporate sponsorship of carbon trading propaganda.

This is what Monbiot said in 2007, before his mortgage was sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell.

There are still two years to go, but so far the new agreement is even worse than the Kyoto Protocol. It contains no targets and no dates. A new set of guidelines also agreed at Bali extend and strengthen the worst of Al Gore’s trading scams, the clean development mechanism(6). Benn and the other dupes are cheering and waving their hats as the train leaves the station at last, having failed to notice that it is travelling in the wrong direction.

Mar 2, 2010 at 1:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterE Smith

A quote from BJ

People don’t talk to scientists – journalists have that privilege.

Reading the skeptical blogs and non-skeptical, I see a great deal of interaction with scientists. For example, I read the Emails that they exchange with Steve McIntyre and I read the responses to comments on RealClimate. I get a feeling of the style of individual scientists, an idea of the various groups/cliques/factions that exist and an overall view of what is considered normal in their field. BJ seems to not appreciate that things have changed in an era of massive connectivity and instant communication.

Many theorists have termed this “disintrmediation.” Previously the journalist acted as an intermediary between the scientist and the public. Now this is no longer needed. The public is interacting with scientists and interacting in the performance of scientific research. Climategate is a good example of this. Journalists did not covert the story. This had little effect on it. The public did not to see it being reported the public was taking part in it. It was the journalists who were left behind not the public. The public and not the journalists “spoke truth to power.” Or more accurately showed the scientists and politicians where power really lies.

Mar 2, 2010 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterTAG

Sounds like a loose cartel trying to get its story straight again.

Mar 3, 2010 at 1:28 AM | Unregistered Commentermick

Unbelievable. Please tell me that the Bishop made it all up and they aren't really delusional.

Mar 23, 2010 at 9:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

audio: How to Report Climate Change after Climategate

linked from 2 March 2010, blog

Sep 14, 2010 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Your blog is interesting ,beautiful and full of information .I will learn from you if I want to make my blog popular,I think .

Jul 8, 2011 at 5:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterwholesale jewelry

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