Journalists criticised over climate change reporting

Journalists and scientists: a tense relationship? Copyright: David Dickson

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[COPENHAGEN] The task of informing the public about climate change should not be left to journalists, according to the chair of the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change which took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week (10–12 March).

Katherine Richardson, marine biologist and conference convener, said journalists worked for organisations more interested in making money than presenting a clear interpretation of climate change to the public.

She told SciDev.Net that scientists need to rethink their communication strategy.

"Maybe journalists aren’t the ones who should be communicating science to the general public," she said, adding that communicators from within the the scientific community should be getting the message across.

Richardson said media organisations need to sell their newspapers, "so expecting journalists to do this job for us when they are being paid to earn money for a newspaper isn’t correct — it isn’t going to happen."

Addressing journalists during the debate she cited an example where a photo of a melting ice cap was published with captions announcing a new and profitable shipping route to China or a new frontier for oil exploration.

Scientists were frustrated that these articles had not explained how the ice melt would affect Earth’s systems and, consequently, future generations of humans.

"We want you [the media] to understand what we really know about climate change and its potential consequences and what we can do about it so that you can make this available to society at large. We’re not always good at talking to you and explaining ourselves in non-technical language but we want to talk to you. So if you don’t understand please ask," said Richardson.

The comments coincided with the launch by SciDev.Net of a Practical Guide to climate change reporting.

Martin Parry of Imperial College London and a working group co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said climate change research was unusual because it is often conducted in parallel with political decision-making, leaving little time for journalism to perform an adequate filtering process.

Patrick Luganda, chair of the Network of Climate Journalists of the Greater Horn of Africa, urged climate scientists to appreciate how the media works.

For example, he said, striking a balance is important in reporting.

Luganda said journalists must strengthen their relationships with the experts to better understand the significance of research findings. Journalists in developing countries need more training, networking and mentoring in order to communicate science better.

Saleemul Huq, head of the Climate Change Group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development said both sides were to blame. "The trouble with scientists is that they don’t like talking to media. Scientists in general deal in complexity. They have to simplify."

He said that climate change reporting required a different type of journalism from typical science reporting: challenging climate research just to create a contrasting view in the name of balance was a "disservice".