Covering climate: A hot story at AAAS

Climate change, one of the leading science and society stories of the past decade, remained a hot ticket for both scientists and journalists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Attendees packed a session titled "Hot and Hotter: Media Coverage of Climate-Change Impacts, Policies, and Politics" on 13 February.

Organized and moderated by former Washington Post science correspondent Cristine Russell, now of Harvard University, the session was intended to help both journalists and scientists assess and refine journalistic practice for a subject that remains one of the most far-reaching and socially relevant science stories of our time.

Her message: "The media coverage of climate change is at a crossroads as the focus shifts from 'Is it happening?' to 'What do we do about it?'" We know that climate change is real, but now the story has expanded and radiated out to a science of multiple perspectives, Russell explained. It has become an undeniable part of the history of the human species. How that story continues is partly up to the media. Russell said that science reporters "now need to broaden out and be more equipped to explain the economics and policy of climate change." She smiled and added: "I just hope that the science isn't lost."

Her message wasn't lost on this group. Change — the newest political buzzword — was evident at the symposium as well. The public's interest is growing; climate is changing and the media has a huge impact on the way the public perceives a changing world. How can journalists work to ensure trustworthy, reliable climate-change reporting that the public will respond to? As a start, Russell argued, journalists must continue to report and write genuine and contextual pieces that will inspire the public to act.

What's more, the public's shift from traditional print and broadcast sources of news to new media sources brings a learning curve for some journalists, adding a new dimension to the reporting of climate science and its social impacts. For those willing to adapt, there is potential to reach a broader, more informed audience.

Speaker Pallab Ghosh of BBC News suggested that science journalists must find a way to regain the trust of readers. For example, inflammatory and sensational titles about global warming tend to leave people feeling helpless about climate change rather than bringing them to action, Ghosh said. Good science writers should motivate the audience rather than discourage it, he argued.

Environmental writer Bud Ward noted that "technology is transforming citizens from passive consumers to active participants." Editor of the online journalism Web site The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, Ward is a prime example of a journalist who is embracing the changes in modern journalism. Increasingly, stay-at-home moms and Wall Street brokers publish their writing on the Internet, reaching mass audiences that were once exclusive to mainstream media.

Despite the fact that many journalists are embracing media change, there is an overwhelming air of concern about the future of print journalism as well as reporting on climate science and changes in the environment. The AAAS panel noted that newspaper companies are in decline. Seattle and Denver, for example, are already at risk of becoming one-newspaper or no-newspaper cities. In addition, subscribers are choosing free Internet news over purchasing newspapers, journals, and magazines — partly due to the current economic crisis.

The speakers made it clear that beyond the challenge of adapting to new media, there is a growing need for journalists to be more sensitive to how they cover climate. "Risk is scientific. . . what to do about it is based on value systems," said climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University. It is critical that science writers learn to integrate the context of facts into their work, he said.

John P. Holdren, the past president of AAAS, was scheduled to be co-leader of the "Hot and Hotter" symposium. However, he was called away to a more pressing engagement: his confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., as President Barack Obama's science advisor. With Holdren's stated emphasis on the need to accept "new technologies" in the battle against global warming, perhaps our nation's citizens will be more inspired to change through better science writing.

Christina Harview, a senior at Bryn Mawr College, will receive her B.A. in biology in May 2009. She is a features writer for the Bi-College News, the paper that services Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Reach her at charview@brynmawr.edu