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The science of reporting climate change

By Brian McNair - posted Friday, 8 April 2011


In his recent statements on the poor state of the Australian debate on global warming (meaning discussion of its causes, and how to deal with it in policy terms) Professor Ross Garnaut drew attention to the role of the media.

He argued that “debate about scientific matters that occurs in the public domain (such as in newspapers and blog sites) can come to be divorced from scientific quality, rigour and authority”. As a result, people are confused, and losing faith in the science of climate change.

Not that the media are the only source of growing scepticism as to the seriousness of global warming. Garnaut acknowledges that the leak of emails from a British university which appeared to show scientists manipulating data – Climategate – was damaging to public belief in the reality of human-generated, or anthropogenic climate change.

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Then came the damp squib of the Copenhagen climate summit, when the politicians signally failed to agree on meaningful action. And in Australia, after a decade of drought rashly attributed by some environmental zealots to global warming, came the great floods. No wonder, as Garnaut noted, more than half of Australians are “confused as to what to believe”.

So the politicians and the scientists are far from innocent on this question, and let’s not let them off the hook. But there IS, as Garnaut suggests, a problem with the media’s coverage of climate change.

Indeed, there’s a problem with media coverage of science in general, which arises from the very nature of news, and the heightened obligation on all public actors, including scientists, to manage news.

First, the media.

Journalists in the main know little more about science than their readers. Very few of them have science degrees, and very few journalism degrees give students a grounding in even the most basic scientific principles.

In my capacity as a journalism educator, I have tried to introduce this knowledge to journalism students on occasion, and been criticised for giving them ‘irrelevant’ information.

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Why do we need to know about MMR, autism and Andrew Wakefield, they asked? Because media coverage of this issue was an ill-informed, panic-mongering scandal, I replied, which scared hundreds of thousands of parents away from a vaccine protecting their children from mumps, measles and rubella. The UK, where Wakefield did his greatest damage, now grapples with a very real measles epidemic.

As for the editors and proprietors, they have little interest in the complexity and open-endedness of scientific work. News media in the competitive cultural marketplace of our times need stories that can be told in eye-catching headlines, captured in a few hundred words at most.

They like dramatic pictures and lurid speculation, and the more that a science story can be told in those terms the better. ‘Millions at risk of swine flu’ (or SAARs, or avian bird flu, or ‘mad cow’ disease – there’s a new threat every year, it seems) makes a better, because more sellable news story than – ‘Some risk of catching this new strain of flu, but more people will die in swimming pool accidents in Australia this year, and every year, than will be killed by this latest in a long line of exotic sounding but ultimately low risk threats to your health’.

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This article was first published on The Conversation on March 30, 2011



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About the Author

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology, and the author of Cultural Chaos: journalism, news and power in a globalised world (Routledge, 2006). Read his blog - Kelvin Grove - at www.brianmcnair.com

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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