'Reporters don't find statistical climatology sexy'

Over the past 10 years, the issue of climate change has moved from the periphery of the media to the mainstream – with issues about global warming frequently covered in newspapers and news bulletins.

Scientists, who have been concerned about the impact of emissions on the environment for more than 10 years, believe there are a number of factors that led to the media’s slowness to come to the party. Dr Mike Bentley, from Durham University, who studies environmental change, believes journalists’ scepticism and the need to portray balance has hindered journalists in their coverage.

‘It’s difficult to reflect [balance] in the issue of climate change,’he says. ‘Radio and TV portray the majority view and then give equal time to sceptics, so it is difficult for the public to tease out the facts.”

The Daily Mail’s science editor, Mike Hanlon, believes this need for balance remains vital: ‘The role of any journalist is simply to report on what is interesting. In a news story, it is not their role to present one case or another.’

Dr Ben Goldacre, The Guardian’s Bad Science columnist, argues that the culture of newspaper reporting tends to drive the coverage away from more considered debate. ‘The problems are systemic – editors and commissioners make demands on their writers, and things go badly wrong because they like the appearance of balance and controversy, often letting through foolish stories,’he says.

Dr Max Boykoff from Oxford University has conducted a study of the US media and believes that in striving to be unbiased, journalists tend to amplify the opinions of a handful of climate change sceptics. Boykoff is to publish his analysis of the quality UK newspapers later this year and is currently looking at how the UK tabloids have represented the issue of climate change since 2003. He says the stories did not significantly deviate from the scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change. UK journalism, he says, is ‘generally very good and journalists are less concerned with neutrality, taking more of a watchdog role.’

Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, believes that in the past year there has been less emphasis on the need to reflect the opinion of the relatively small number of detractors, and this has allowed the debate to move on.

‘Some years ago, Radio 4’s Today programme would cover every new piece of climate science that was published in Nature or Science and feel compelled to ‘balance’it with an interview with a climate change sceptic – so the public would hear a row rather than the new evidence. The public was treated to a debate about whether climate change is happening at all – rather than the much more nuanced discussion within mainstream science, which is focused on the extent of warming and the effects. But this has changed.”

Despite widespread acknowledgement that the media has moved on from the days when it felt the need to balance the pro and sceptic voices, Mark Anslow, reporter for Ecologist magazine, claims the nature of journalism doesn’t lend itself to the subtleties and complexities of the debate.

‘Statistical climatology isn’t sexy, so reporters tend to look for peripheral stories of government intrigue, human interest or scientific uncertainty,’he says. ‘Unfortunately, this gives rise to either conspiracy theories, scare stories or just simply false information.”

In an article last year, Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for climate research expressed concern about the language journalists used in writing about climate change.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has dubbed as ‘climate porn’attention-grabbing phrases such as ‘reached tipping point’and ‘point of no-return”.

Fox suggests that journalists need to focus on scientific research into what can be done to meet the challenges of climate change.

‘Scientists and engineers have been studying these issues for years and have the answers and solutions. It’s no use just having politicians commenting on what to do, which is rather nicely proved by Cameron putting a wind turbine on his house in Chelsea. It may look good politically but the experts will tell you that it’s a complete waste of time – Scotland maybe, but not Chelsea.”

Steve Connor, the science editor for The Independent, says the role of the science journalist is ‘to explain the science and identify stories. It’s particularly important to get the stories that may not otherwise get the coverage they deserve. To recognise the integrity of those stories is down to judgement, intuition and experience.”

Guardian writer George Monbiot says the media hasn’t always got it right. ‘We’ve seen a smooth transition from denial to despair, and I think these are two versions of the same thing,’he says. ‘Neither tell the story of the action that we can take. The problem is that the issue is consistently condensed in the journalist’s mind.”

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