Mooney and Nisbet on reporters, hurricanes, and climate change
Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet have a long, careful piece in Skeptical Inquirer about journalistic coverage of the global warming/hurricane link. It’s the best overview of that subject I’ve seen, and if you’re interested in the intricacies I highly recommend you give it a read.
For the lazy among you, here’s the nut:
In the future, however, [the "just the facts" scientific backgrounder] just isn’t going to be good enough. Over the next decade or more, explaining the possible strategies for coping with intense hurricanes even in the face of uncertainty about the ways and extent to which hurricanes might be changing will pose a major challenge for news organizations. Reporters must strive to show the public not only the science in all of its complexity, but also to open a window on why addressing the problem matters and the choices the nation faces over how to do that. This will require balancing the desire to appear objective against the need for precautionary and forward-looking coverage — coverage that helps set the agenda for how we think about the possible effects of global warming. It will also require getting beyond the tyranny of relying on major new studies, personality conflicts, or overt political conflict as the primary means of defining what counts as newsworthy.
Of course this is a laudable notion, and the Platonic form of Journalist would no doubt take it to heart. But it seems to me Mooney and Nisbet fail to discuss a central feature of the media’s dilemma: not the reporters, or the editors, or the advocates on both sides, but the lay audience. A precise accounting of uncertain, probabilistic science, followed by careful discussion of the policy spaces opened up by the science … this does not sell papers. Much less improve TV ratings.
For better or worse, journalism is a for-profit enterprise these days, and the reason journalists rely on conflict and sensationalism is that’s what sells. The kind of story Mooney and Nisbet are recommending is one drained of all viscera, rendered purely cerebral. Certain intellectual and policy elites might read that stuff, but most journalists aren’t writing for those folks. No discussion of media reform is complete without a consideration of the marketplace demands faced by reporters.
Another thing they fail to mention — and I hesitate to bring this up, because I’m about the least "blog triumphalist" person you’ll ever meet — is that blogs can fill this role quite well. They can take the science and discuss the policy implications. The assumption among media types (even media types with blogs) is that bloggers are advocates and thus cannot educate the public adequately about policy options. I think that’s BS, but I won’t get into the whole argument here.