"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Press and Climate: An Anti-Testimonial

Press experts continue to shrug off their responsibility for public indifference to climate change and confusion about it. Keith Kloor has an article in that vein, which I hastened to contest. I continue to be baffled as to what exactly he is trying to say. I can't say this is malicious. Even Fleck talks like this. It's just part of the journalistic subculture to believe something about journalism that the rest of us can't even understand. Admittedly, it's another tiresome merry-go-round of contradictory and mutually uncomprehending positions. If you've heard it before there is little new in the thread so far. But I thought one comment (from LCarey) was sufficiently fresh in perspective that it deserved more attention, so I am repeating it here. Emphasis added by me.

As a reasonably well-educated and literate lay person (corporate lawyer specializing in large real estate projects) I feel compelled to observe that I, on a regular basis, depend on the news media for information as to what matters I should be concerned with (economic trends, new technologies, health risks such as seasonal flu outbreaks, new medical treatments, new scientific developments, etc.).

This information heavily influences my opinions, decision-making and voting preferences. In all of these areas, I depend very heavily on reporters to evaluate, summarize and communicate accurate information — and not to simply serve as stenographers for nitwits. Thus, while I can’t look to financial reporters to provide investment advice, I do expect them to be familiar enough with their area of supposed expertise to call out or cull out information (propaganda?) that is obviously false, misleading or incomplete in light of objective evidence.

I am dumbfounded that climate science is somehow seen as some special sort of bizzaro world where what I see as the normal expectation of news consumers (factual vetting, providing context and assessing implications based on discussions with real authorities) is thrown out the window in favor of he-said/she-said. In what universe do we expect particle physicists to be personally responsible for communicating the scientific implications of their research directly to the public, and then blame the physicists if the public doesn’t “get it”? Ditto for genetic researchers, astronomers, biologists, etc.

I came late to the party regarding AGW – until 2008, the issue was on my radar as a “century away” theoretical problem — it seemed like for every “this will be a big problem” article there was a “no problemo” article. I was accordingly floored in 2008 when I had to do due diligence research for a proposed investment in renewable energy to start reading primary materials and discovering that my media derived “understanding” was grossly in error. (And yes, in an effort to evaluate “the other side of the argument”, I did wind up visiting most of the prominent internet skeptic sites and looked at materials from Singer, Lindzen, Spencer, etc. – I concluded they were virtually useless in providing accurate information.)

I conclude that the views expressed by the moderators, Dr. Curry and others as to the lack of responsibility of journalists in this arena is directly contrary to the (apparently misplaced) assumptions and expectations that lay folk such as I bring to the table – that journalists will provide factual vetting, context and implications based on information in their respective field viewed as most authoritative. If this is the case, and if the former view is correct, media are just “filling space” with random noise and are effectively useless (or worse) in helping ordinary people assess risks, make decisions and make sense of the world.


manuel moe g said...

I am reading the Kloor thread, and I pick out several voices I respect: yours, John Mashey, Jonathan Gilligan, and James Annan.

I have been avoiding Kloor's place for months - I couldn't be more surprised if I went to the local zoo and saw the four of you locked in the monkey cage.

I will chalk up my surprise to myself having an impossibly small amount of patience. Kudos to you all for fighting the good fight.

Michael Tobis said...

It's a shame about the monkey cage but I would at least be in good company.

adelady said...

I also have avoided Kloor's place for quite a while.
But unlike 'moe' I won't bother to go over there to check - I did that a couple of times and found myself predictably annoyed and frustrated.

This eloquent comment is a wonderful addition to the general argument about journalistic practice and ethics. Sad to say, experience tells me it will have absolutely no impact on the way Kloor's blog is run, nor, I fear, on what he conveys to his students.

King of the Road said...

There have been maybe 10 times in my life where the media reported extensively on a topic where I had either reasonably deep specialist knowledge or personal knowledge of events. In each case, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, there were major errors of substantial facts. Examples include aircraft and traffic control situations, landslides in the Southern California area, matters related to building codes and structural performance following earthquakes (these last two are among the things we study for a living at my firm), etc.

I've known people interviewed and was shocked at what the media implied they'd contended. Upon asking them, they would state "no, that's not what I was attempting to say, I know better than that but I was not given a chance to offer a clear explanation" or similar.

This has led me to assume that any item I read about in the media has major, significant errors. I believe this to be a safe assumption but it leaves a serious gap in my confidence in my ability to gather facts in areas where I have no specialist or personal knowledge.

LC said...

Michael, I'm pleased you thought my comment was pertinent enough to share. I too am frustrated whenever I go over too Kloor's site, but just had to say something about how I perceive "the person in the street" responds to the run of the mill media treatment of climate change reporting - and how it is somehow held to a different standard than other science or medical reporting. People actually depend on the press for useful information on what to pay attention to or inquire further on, and the journos (e.g., Kloor, Revkin, and even Fleck) just don't seem to get this - sure there's lots of info on climate change on the Web, but I didn't want to have to become an expert on climate change just to evaluate the reporting (any more than I want to become an expert on heart bypass surgery, monetary policy, vaccine risk or any one of a hundred other specialized fields).

Anonymous said...

@ adelady - re: what KK conveys to his classroom...

I have often wondered about that myself. As in, "thank god i'm not taking that class."... (admittedly forming an opinion strictly from occassionally reading the blog and not being a journalist...)

For what it's worth, University of Toronto is trying to launch a Master's in Expert Journalism program. I doubt (hope?) it's the the first such initiative, but the thrust is to address a recognized and/or perceived deficiency* in journalism grads/practioners dealing with complex issues. As I understand it, part of the program curriculum is to pair journalism students with specific science research teams for the duration of their course of studies... I'll leave it at that, because I'm not that close to the project...

* no disrespect - and a shout out - to those who "do it right"... hence "general"...

Stephen Leahy said...

L Carey. I'm with you and I'm a science journalist. I read the journals, interview the scientists, look up the technical terms and then try to find ways to explain what I've learned accurately and in an interesting and relevant way to the average person.

Anonymous said...

and - having just said that I wouldn't comment further on the program - I just want to clarify in case it's not obvious: I don't think the UofT inititiave is not trying so much to create "experts" in the subject matter so much as giving them deeper context and experience and education in "expert" journalism...

Stephen Leahy said...

rust. FYI I live outside of Toronto ;]

Hank Roberts said...

> any item I read about in the media
> has major, significant errors

Yep. I trust comp.risks, not much else.

William T said...

@KotR - your expertise is needed in New Zealand (would have been better before today...)

I would have to agree with your opinion - that has been my experience also. However, usually one expects such errors to be matters of "mere" incompetence or mistakes. There seems to be something more malign in the CC reporting, perhaps because the implications conflict with so many people's preconceptions and political/economic assumptions about how things "should be".

Pangolin said...

Observing that people in other countries are clearly able to understand the science of climate change despite a wide variety of political systems leads me to believe that people in the U.S. actually do understand what the science says. The science says that any real solution will involve a massive reduction in fossil fuel use. You're going to take away their cars.

So they try to put off the inevitable with dumb excuses. And, the media, dependent upon auto industry ad dollars, goes along.

Dol said...

Watching Glenn Beck over at crock reminded me: the idea that the media should "evaluate, summarize and communicate accurate information" is nice, but what actually does the media do? Perhaps it's just a feedback system that works like any other market. There's a tight link between headlines and what particular demographics will buy. The more they buy it, the more advertising revenue there is: it's just a market.

This is obviously not a new idea (cf. Chomsky) but perhaps we're forgetting it. I tend to go to the Guardian for what I consider 'accurate' information, but - at least in part - I'm just another demographic being fed the sort of headlines I want to read.

That's the only way I can manage to explain Glenn Beck: there's been a massive positive feedback between Fox and its consumers. Well: Fox, the consumers and presumably shareholders: Beck is surely Howard Beale after his Damascan conversion.

Martin Vermeer said...

There have been maybe 10 times in my life where the media reported extensively on a topic where I had either reasonably deep specialist knowledge or personal knowledge of events. In each case, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, there were major errors of substantial facts.

Yep, same experience here. I don't believe in media anymore. They serve for entertainment and nothing else. Yes, there is excellent journalism too... and I would happily trade all of it in for a guaranteed level of truthfulness. Like we have in... ehhh... the peer-reviewed literature. Imperfect as it may be, for journalism that's the standard to aspire to. Long, long way to go.

Andy F said...

I've consigned KK to the "read only if linked by somebody worthwhile" pile too, for much the same reasons. I also notice after a couple months that his posts scarcely get 10 comments unless you (mt), PDA, thingsbreak or other thoughtfuls care to respond.

KK's response to LCarey is a monument to his obtuseness. He waves off a detailed observation from an outside stakeholder, somebody in essence in the same boat as policymakers, with "But on the whole, your view from the bleachers does not comport with reality." So not only are the science people in no place to judge, but informed nonspecialists too! The whole world is just plain out of step with the man.

Adam said...

King of the Road:
...the media reported extensively on a topic where I had either reasonably deep specialist knowledge or personal knowledge of events. In each case, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, there were major errors of substantial facts.

Yes, that is my experience as well. What disturbs me now is the trend in the media to ever-poorer representation of the facts in technical issues. They have been pretty bad for as long as I can remember, but they are surely getting worse. Hell, nowadays they are losing their grip on grammar and spelling, let alone the basic principles of science.

manuel moe g said...

Quoting "Adam": "What disturbs me now is the trend in the media to ever-poorer representation of the facts in technical issues."

Adam, I don't think it really was much better in the past. The only thing that has changed is that the competent can congregate outside of the "sanctioned" media, compare notes, and come to an agreement that mainstream reporting is dizzy and ditsy.

Anna Haynes said...

A constructive suggestion -
Perhaps, rather than drive traffic to (and enhance google rank of) sites hosted by the clueless, have your comment there just provide a "we're discussing the issue over *here*" link to a corresponding post on a clueful blog?

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, I did say so. But I can't control what people do. And this isn't the site I want to drive traffic to anyway. (Stay tuned...)

Andy S said...

I've had some horribly bad and very good experiences with science/environmental journalists. Good journalism requires a lot of hard work and someone who isn't embarassed to ask uncomfortable questions. Not everyone does it well.

Whether reading the paper or listening to NPR, I find the best journalism seems to be in the business section/news. Why? I guess because it is viewed as apolitical and therefore it's journalists are free to do their job, i.e. I think editors and news outlet owners are crushing good work either by hiring "feel good" reporters who are clueless, or by steering reporters away from controversy. In this case the controversy is the truth about global warming.

adelady said...

@Pangolin "You're going to take away their cars."

And that, surely, is just another failure (or bias) to be laid at the feet of poor journalism. If journalists can stir up excitement at any number unlikely expectations, they could surely say something positive, encouraging or even enthusiastic about electric cars.

We don't have to "give up" cars if we organise ourselves properly. Personal transport has many options. High value liquid fuels should be reserved for applications where there seems to be no alternative - flying being the obvious one.

This is not rocket science. And I see no good reason why ordinary reporters can't handle this effectively.

guthrie said...

Perhaps part of the problem in the posible trend to poorer reporting of technical issues is simply that things are bigger and more complex, and get more so every few years. So technical subjects get broader and deeper, specialisation being required to cover each ever narrowing bit.
When you add this to the dumbing down of the media and drive for simple profit, there's no ability to employ the kind of expertise necessary to make sense of things.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

The thing of it is, though, is that effective communication would look something like this but on a large scale. Which is vanishingly unlikely to happen, since scientists as a class generally shy away from saying the F word from a podium...

Pangolin said...

adelady_Please provide me with a link to the miracle of mathematics that can project less than 3% of new car sales going to hybrids to a sustainable automobile fleet.

You might also want to look at the IEA 2010 World Energy Outlook and tell me where all that gasoline is coming from.

Shining Raven said...

As Andy F points out, Keith says "But on the whole, your view from the bleachers does not comport with reality."

This struck me as being the main problem in how he sees the communication between journalists and their readers, and it seems completely wrong to me.

The model I see behind this is that journalists play some kind of game according to the rules they learned in journalism school, that's the playing field where the real action seems to be and where points are scored. (The view from the bleachers does not comport with reality, so I take this to mean that "reality" is what the players experience).

Hence we get all the distinctions between opinion pieces, straight news pieces and magazine pieces which apparently have different standards of accuracy of the information conveyed.

I submit that this is really all quite beside the point. The readers are not looking on as spectators at a game, the point of the game is to communicate with the onlookers.

It is completely unreasonable to require the readers to be conversant with arcane rules governing the journalists behavior before they can understand the communication - which after all should be directed at them.

It is fine for universities and colleges to now offer courses for critical evaluation of media content. It is not fine to expect people to first take such a course in order to be able to evaluate their newspaper.

It seems obvious that the rules according to which journalists operate have become so complex that many people do not understand them any longer or are not even aware of their existence.

This seems to lead to a breakdown in the communication. But apparently journalists think it is the fault of the public for being not well enough educated to know this?

I think if things go wrong in the communication (as they obviously do) it would be incumbent on journalists to review the assumptions under which they operate, instead of blaming their readers.

Marion Delgado said...

I've been part of the MSM in a small way much of my life - it's just not a courageous industry, on balance. Michael's question is good.

LC said...

I just wanted to say that Shining Raven really nailed (much better than I) one of the key points I was trying to make. Lots of folks are looking to the MSM for accurate information to figure out what's really worth worrying about - assuming that even if folks like Will and Tierney (whom Kloor insists are journalists) express strong opinions, they aren't allowed to lie and just make stuff up. After all, who wants to do independent research on every issue that might be important, just to see whether the journos are lying, fabricating or spinning. But it appears that this simplistic view is too mundane for the arcane rules that seem to govern the journos today, where caveat emptor appears to be the rule (i.e, if you accept apparent statements of fact that turn out to be lies or materially misleading, that's your tough luck for not being a better consumer). This is just one more piece in a massive failure of societal risk management.

byron smith said...

@L Carey - Thank you for your excellent comment.

@King of the Road - I have personally been interviewed for media pieces perhaps five or six times and close family members or friends have had dozens of interviews and I would estimate the total number of stories to be published as a result without basic and easily corrected errors of fact to be less than 20%. It is easy as a result to bash journalists (and they certainly deserve their fair share of blame), but the problems are systemic, relating to the contemporary practices of journalism, tight deadlines, undermining of specialisation (so that increasingly, all journos are expected to write on all fields), and the drive for profits placing sensationalism above sense.

Shining Raven said...

Thank you, L.Carey, you are very kind. And you did make your point very well.

There is one more thing that I see as a major deficiency of the news reporting: The lack of useful context to evaluate the information. I find that very often just the "facts" of the news item are given ("congress decided to spend so much on such-and-such" or "...passed this law"), without any context how this changes the existing situation, or if this is a substantial change in policy or not.

If you are a political junkie, you might already know what the background is, how the situation changed, and what the policy implications are. So this piece of information might be useful to you.

But if you do not have this background, you have to wait for a "news analysis" piece which then might put things in context for you.

In the absence of this, you forget a piece of information again right away, if you cannot integrate it into some context and have no preexisting frame to evaluate it against.

And too often, I find this lacking completely from the news reporting. TV is worst (I found American TV news generally pretty useless), but even newspapers with more space are pretty bad.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

the drive for profits placing sensationalism above sense

I thought it was interesting that Jules and Max Boykoff talked about this as something that's not novel or contemporary but rather baked in to the DNA of journalism: "the first-order journalistic norms of personalization, dramatization, and novelty." Their paper explored how these norms conflicted and colluded with "the second-order norms of authority-order and balance." Amusingly, getting it right does not appear to be a "journalistic norm."

I was going to note that the CaS thread had turned into a real train-wreck, but I see that term's already been applied - certainly with more justification - to another situation. Meanwhile, looks like Keith's place has more or less devolved into Tom Fuller's Tumblr.

Michael Tobis said...

Not engaging with Fuller's amazing obtuseness has been an exercise in restraint on that thread, for sure.

Andy F said...

Call him Tom Filler. Try just not even reading him. It gets easy with practice, especially when most everybody else is ignoring him, like in that thread.

It sounds like Keith's take is that it's not up to journalism to clarify to the public what to expect in norms (if any) in reporting/long pieces/opinion, that it's simply not journalism's responsibility. (I suppose he'd dance away from that characterization, without clarification. Must be taking lessons from Judy.) Compare that to the insistence that scientists' job to do the communicating, and that any problem in that is their fault for not being accessible enough. Neat, huh?

adelady said...

pangolin - I'm not thinking of where we find ourselves today. Electric and hybrid cars have been around -as an idea- for absolutely ages. I suppose the reason I thought of cars was a radio interview I heard a couple of weeks ago. The interviewee was talking about being 'stuck' in the backrooms at a major conference. One of the other 'stuck' people was a senior designer from a US car manufacturer.

All the bright-eyed youngsters wanted to know how the US was getting along with fuel efficient cars. The answer. We're not. Why not? We. don't. want. to. Further questions elicited no details, let alone explanations.

Better public discourse on these issues 10-15 or more years ago would have had a far more efficient fleet on US roads in step with European design. And focus on this aspect of car design would have promoted more radical designs a long, long time ago.

skanky said...

Don't know how useful this is outside the UK, not tried it out, but will be useful:


Michael Tobis said...

Skanky, my take on press releases is radical.

If they're worth reading, I pass them on verbatim and don't pretend to add any value.

The problem as far as I can see is not the press releases, it's with the press.

skanky said...

Sorry, I should have explained more - churnalism is so endemic that I forget that it's not always obvious that the problem is with the media.

It's a site aimed at the media, not the press releases directly.

The main point of that site is to see how much a story is lifted verbatim from a press release without any change, and without reference - thus giving the impression that it has been checked and some (extra) reporting done.

Another use it can be put to is how much a story has been lifted from another news outlet and repeated without any (extra) checking etc. being made.

A good example is here:

It doesn't help with the op-eds, but it could be useful in tracing the source of some stories.