How journalism and science clash over climate change

Contrary to what many believe, news stories seldom have two sides.

“Journalists are trained to search out the what, why, when, where and how,” said John Morales, chief meteorologist at WTVJ NBC6. “They’re always trained to find both sides of a story. You present one side then you have to present the other.

“To them, everything, including science, needs to have two sides to a story. But science doesn’t have two stories; once there is a consensus view, once there is a hypothesis proven by science, there is no other view,” Morales said.

Jim Naureckas, a media critic for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, has similar beliefs.

“There’s almost a quest for controversy in the media,” Naureckas said. “Journalists are beginning to feel that getting both sides is the way you get out the truth, so when they’re told that humans are warming the climate, they’re told to find people that say humans are not warming the climate.”

The Media's Coverage of Climate Change from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

A 2015 poll conducted by Communication Research shows that the general public distrusts the media. It states “just 37 percent of Americans report that they somewhat or strongly trust the mainstream media.”

Georgetown University associate professor Jonathan M. Ladd says the media have two relationships to uphold: one with scientists and one with the public. In his book, “Why Americans Distrust the News Media and How it Matters,” he explained that trying to maintain both of these relationships ultimately leaves journalists in disfavor.

Jenny Staletovich, an environmental reporter at the Miami Herald, said climate change is a difficult topic because its projections are distributed unevenly. In her articles, Staletovich said she always clarifies what the scientific consensus is.

“Scientists love to argue,” Staletovich said, noting that scientists are always skeptical of each other’s work.

Morales said that when those arguments reach a news platform, the result is confusion and complexity. “Because journalists are inadvertently complicit to keep people confused about something like climate change and other controversial topics, the way it happens is that journalists will search high and low to find the other side of the coin,” he said.

Morales explained that while false equivalency – the concept of treating a truthful statement the same as an untruthful one – is a problem among scientists and journalists, the reason behind this is simple: They are two completely different fields of expertise.

Another factor that contributes to the tension between scientists and journalists is the style of writing in the articles.

Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, which incorporates scientific research into journalism, said the media should focus on stating the facts in articles concerning climate change. This way the public can be aware and help, instead of reading news only so that they can be entertained.

“From a scientist’s perspective, they’d like all of the facts very explicitly stated, and all of the caveats explicitly stated, since that’s how they work,” Menezes said.

“Journalists have to synthesize information that they’ve gathered and report it back in a way where the consumer would want to continue reading or watching it.”

Naureckas and Staletovich agree that writing for consumers can bring sensationalism into the news story.

An April CNN column by John D. Sutter reported that if the world gets warmer by 2 degrees, super droughts, rising seas, mass extinctions and acidifying oceans will plague the planet. One source reportedly told him: “If we start warming the planet way beyond what humans have ever experienced, God knows what will wait for us.”

Staletovich also explained another reason scientists get upset with journalists.

“People think that science should be very black and white, so I understand their expectations, but it’s not,” Staletovich said.

“Scientists wrestle with issues for some time before they can reach a consensus.”

When Sean Hannity, a Fox News commentator and syndicated radio talk show host, was presented a report saying only one out of 9,136 scientists rejected man-made global warming, he immediately dismissed both the report and the idea of global warming.

“I don’t care what your liberal friends say,” Hannity said. “It means nothing to me. I think global warming is a hoax; there’s nothing you’re going to say here today that’s going to convince me otherwise.”

“I think that the goal of journalism should be to say what is happening, to get at reality,” Naureckas said. “And I think that this is not always what journalists have as their approach.”