From a leading climate-science journal, calls to communicate better with the public

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific reviews land every six years or so, like the anvil that falls on Wile E. Coyote’s head from time to time. … Do we really need these massive reports, with little new transformative information, that very few people read?

— Eric Roston, “Everything we know about climate change. In one unreadable pile. Every six years,” in Canada’s National Post, Oct. 31, 2014.

I have kept this quotation hanging above my keyboard, like a Tibetan prayer flag, since my own last struggle to distill something readable from an IPCC reporting cycle, wishing some form of Roston’s sentiment might make its way to the upper reaches of the climate-science pantheon with more authority behind it.

And Wednesday it happened.

The journal Nature Climate Change devotes a fair portion of its new issue to a package of articles about the need for clearer synthesis and public communication of the IPCC’s work going forward, in hopes of improving an information flow it describes editorially (and generously) as “at times tense and problematic.”

It is provocative and plain-spoken stuff, and only intermittently unreadable, perhaps because much of the analysis was prepared by folks who have some journalism work in their backgrounds.

There is welcome acknowledgement, in the same editorial, that it’s “important to better target initiatives to increase public engagement with climate change.”

And though the focus is nominally about the IPCC’s famous process of producing negotiated consensus summaries of syntheses of other syntheses, the insights could be useful across a much wider spectrum of science communication.

Writing for wonks

Richard Black, who works for a British nonprofit that educates journalists about climate science, and also trains scientists in talking to journalists, takes deadly aim at the IPCC’s supposedly accessible “summaries for policymakers,” aka SPMs.

The abbreviation SPM has always reminded me of SPAM in the old, Hormel sense of a whole hog processed (minus the squeal!) into a ground-meat paté whose provenance, once on the plate, can be queasily unclear. Black says the SPMs are in fact SFWs – Summaries for Wonks – “that defy comprehension by the non-specialist, despite the undoubted quality of the underlying assessments.”

The solution, he thinks, is for IPCC communicators to adopt the norms and practices of newswriting, flatteringly described as “a mature discipline” with a clear set of rules that “can be found distilled into curricula by journalism trainers” but are more typically learned “by the simple method of being shouted at by dyspeptic editors.”

I felt a flutter of nostalgia at that phrase, having had some experience on both ends of such shouting. But I wonder whether IPCC personnel (and climate scientists generally) will really take to heart his urging that the IPCC prepare summaries sufficiently simple, clear and punchy as to be broadcast-ready, lest some media scribbler do it for them.

Nor am I sure that eliminating all need for journalistic intermediation is necessarily a good thing, considering that part of IPCC’s function is to broker a vast array of political pressures on its messaging – which last time around broke down in critical places.

But anything that de-wonkifies the IPCC’s public pronouncements is a step forward, for sure.

Twitter and risk assessments

Because Black is a former BBC correspondent, his model for clear communication is radio newswriting; his piece is followed by suggestions from UK Guardian alum Leo Hickman’s view that the IPCC should ramp up its social-media channels, which already include Facebook and Twitter accounts, into something resembling an online newspaper’s, with all readers empowered to register instant comments – and receive instant replies! – as the panel rolls out finding after finding.

That notion had me reaching reflexively for my flame-resistant pith helmet, but also sped me on my way to perhaps the strongest article of the set: James Painter’s call for climate communicators to focus new energies on conveying the concept of risk in explaining the implications of climate science.

Painter discusses climate journalism in terms of competing “frames” for stories – what the “settled science” says, where the “uncertainty” lies, forecasts of various “disaster” scenarios – that tend to engage people in arguments from such different perspectives that they just talk past each other, with common ground quite hard to find.

A better approach, he feels, is to frame scientific findings and their implications in terms of relative risk – with some scenarios of change considered much more likely, though less problematic,  than others; others considered less probable but more catastrophic. (This interesting notion is at the heart of the Risky Business project’s assessments.)

Assessing media influence

Running through all of these thoughtful pieces is a far-from-settled question of whether media coverage of the IPCC reports, and of climate science generally, is having much impact on public attitudes and hoped-for engagement anyway.

Julia Corbett, a communications prof at the University of Utah, takes the topic up directly if somewhat inconclusively in “Media Power and Climate Change,” observing that research generally demonstrates “that media content can influence audiences, but the effects are generally weak.” (Damn.)

Other key points and bad news:

  • Media effects are tempered by active audiences who generally seek media viewpoints consistent with their existing beliefs. Effects tend to be more powerful for unobtrusive issues where people have less direct experience (such as climate change).
  • Severe economic and organizational pressures within today’s newsrooms have significantly changed the balance of power in the relationship between news-shapers and journalists. This has greatly increased public relations efforts and ‘spin’, and participation by climate change deniers and think-tanks. In shrinking newsrooms, journalists are evermore desk-bound and forced to rely on ready-packaged information subsidies.
  • One study of UK broadcast media found that the business world was nearly four times as likely as non-governmental organizations or pressure groups to place its press releases and other materials into news stories.
  • Researchers have found that half or more of news content is instigated by non-journalists, meaning that news content is often less the product of a journalist (watchdog or otherwise) than it is the agenda of an interested party.

 Corbett discusses at some length the idea of a “watchdog” or “guard dog” role for journalists reporting on climate issues. While scientists and citizens may hope mainstream media are performing that function, she says, journalists nowadays “most often describe their role as dissemminators and interpreters of news and information, not as watchdogs.” And anyway:

A guard dog’s job is to protect its owners and their interests. Thus, guard dog media are highly attentive to the dominant power structure on which they are dependent for news; they do not offer equal support to all institutions or authorities and may switch allegiances when power shifts.

In reporting climate change, guard dog media report selected climate science findings and international meetings but overall defer to the mainstream values of a dominant fossil-fuel culture and the status quo.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/27/2015 - 09:24 am.

    Science communication

    Unfortunately, many scientists aren’t the type of people comfortable talking to strangers. Worse, they’re not the type of people who understand that not everyone’s lives revolve around their important research. Finally, and the last nail in the coffin, scientists are not trained to communicate outside of their peer group when they are being trained to be scientists. This has to change. And maybe it will as it becomes harder and harder to find a job in the scientific trenches.

    I was asked to give feedback as an alumnus to my PhD program about what they could improve for students to be successful in their careers. I told them that they have to make them learn to communicate. While the program required regular presentations to their peers, and most students’ PhD advisers required publications prior to graduating, no one was expected to be able to talk to anyone who was not already intimately familiar with their work. We were required to present our work in front of the students in the program on an annual basis, but there were times when I had no idea what the student was talking about–and I had a strong background knowledge in their field of work! What hope was there of ever explaining it to your average Joe?

    I hope that the need to communicate important science results in better communication. In the meanwhile, groups like the IPCC need to pay people who can both understand the science and communicate it to the public. People like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Science journalists are mostly not educated enough to understand deep science. I see glossy news “science” all the time that is more sensation than accurate. It’s a wonder I don’t have a dent in my forehead from the many times I smack it in utter disbelief over what’s put into the news on the science front. Inaccurate, misleading, and mostly overhyped, and it’s due to a gap in understanding between the researchers and the communicators.

    I guess I should be grateful that some eggheads are just now realizing that they don’t know how to talk to non-eggheads, and they want to do something about it. It’s a step, I suppose.

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