Journalists and Climate Science

By Jack Williams ©2015
A fjord cuts into the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Arctic's only ice sheet. Photo by Jack Williams from an LC-130 transport.

A fjord cuts into the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Arctic's only ice sheet. Photo by Jack Williams from an LC-130 transport.

The political, diplomatic, and military consequences of climate change can be a minefield for journalists.

Lately most such coverage has been about the cap and trade legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress. More complex topics are on the horizon, however, and intelligent reporting of these will require deeper scientific knowledge than needed for the cap and trade bill.

We can expect to see more factual errors or misguided conclusions as journalists who have never had to worry about science delve into political, diplomatic, and military concerns arising from climate change.

The Sunday, July 5, Washington Post column Preparing for a Sea Change by Jim Hoagland illustrates the pitfalls of an experienced foreign affairs reporter writing about the unfamiliar topic of  climate science. Hoagland is an associate editor and chief foreign correspondent for the Post. He’s been a foreign correspondent for the Post since 1969 and has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

In his July 5 column Hoagland says that “The rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet at the North Pole” led Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, to predict, “revolutionary new transport possibilities between the Atlantic and the Pacific.”

Obviously Hoagland, and those who edited the column did not know there is no “Arctic ice sheet.” The earth has only two ice sheets, the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is a relatively small part of the Arctic’s ice cover,  and the Antarctic Ice Sheet at globe’s other end.

In the past,  Hoagland and his editors had no particular reason for knowing that an ice sheet is a mass of glacier ice on land that covers the surrounding terrain and is greater than approximately 19,000 square miles in area.

This is the kind of information that makes The AMS Weather Book a must-have reference for any journalist who discovers he or she is expected to write about weather or climate with authority. The book’s glossary has definitions of terms such as “ice sheet” and parts of chapters 4 and 12 describe what ice sheets are and why they’re important.

The ice that’s decreasing in the Arctic is floating sea ice, which unlike an ice sheet, does not increase sea level when it melts. While Hoagland did not make the error of saying that the melting “Arctic ice sheet” will raise sea levels, it’s easy to image a politician or a reporter saying this.

“Who cares? This is just nitpicking,”  you might say.

As it happens, Andrew Alexander,  the Post’s Ombudsman, addressed comments like this in his July 5 column: “A groundbreaking newspaper industry study on credibility a decade ago warned that ‘each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper’s ability to get anything right.'”

Mistakes about basic physical facts erode confidence even more for those who know the facts, who in this case include many ninth graders who stayed awake in earth science class.

Alexander’s column is about the Post’s reduction of copy editors leading to more errors.  We’ll never know, but maybe one of the Post copy editors who took a buyout would have caught the ice sheet error.

Another pitfall for reporters used to obtaining information from politicians and interest groups is assuming they are good sources of scientific information. While good reporters check out things people tell them, a political reporter might be inclined to check out scientific facts with an opposing interest group or politician.

With science, this is not a good idea. Scientific facts should be checked with scientists who are active in a field that includes the facts in question and whose work is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In the case of Arctic ice, you can find interest groups who will tell you that all Arctic ice will be gone in thirty years and others who’ll claim the decrease in Arctic ice has been reversed. The peer-reviewed scientific literature does not support either statement. When I was USA TODAY weather editor I told those who worked for me, “Treat all information from any  interest group or politician as you would an anonymous phone call: it might be true but check it out.”

As more reporters who’ve never been interested in science encounter the consequences of climate change, it would be nice if they would turn for guidance to the science reporters in their newsrooms. Unfortunately, like copy editors, science reporters are a threatened species; in some cases an endangered species in American newsrooms.

Speaking as a one-time newspaper copy editor, I suggest a copy of the The AMS Weather Book as a copy desk reference; only a little of the pay that would have gone to the editor who used to sit in the now-empty chair would buy it.

Future Climate Change Stories

To learn about some of the political, diplomatic, and military stories about climate change that a few reporters are just beginning to write about, go to the Web site of the 3rd Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations, which was  held June 9-11, 2009 at the U.S, Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

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